Why was James Madison so critical of democracies? Moreover, why was he so concerned about them when, according to the definition he provided, “democracies” basically don’t exist anywhere, either in his time or in our own.
Today, many conservatives like to claim that “the Founding Fathers” opposed democracy and supported less majoritarian republics.
However, as is nearly always the case whenever “the Founding Fathers” are involved, a more accurate statement would be “some Founding Fathers” condemned democracy. Indeed, many of the Founding Fathers — especially among the Anti-Federalists, openly described themselves as being in favor of “democracy” and “the democratical spirit.”
This is no coincidence.
By attacking democracy, Madison was attempting to discredit the more decentralized and more democratic state governments that were preventing the sort of powerful and centralized government that Madison wanted.
Thus, Madison sought to condemn localized government that was close to the people, and substitute a vast, less-representative “republic” that was the be the playground of a small number of powerful men — all at taxpayer expense, of course.
Thanks to the political realities of the time, Madison couldn’t come right out and condemn the state governments, lest he look too radical. So, he employed subterfuge and a definition for democracy that could then be used to insinuate that the state government were too close to “mob rule” and must be reined in.
Specifically, Madison defined a democracy as “a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person.” These societies, Madison contended “have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention.”
Now, obviously, none of the US states at the time fit this description, strictly speaking. There was no “direct democracy,” and every state employed elected representatives.
This by itself, according to Madison’s definitions, made the states all republics. Madison writes:
The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended.
It is the latter part of this quotation, however, that illustrates what Madison was really driving at. Sure, the states had elected officials and were obviously not true democracies. But, to be a proper republic in Madison’s mind, a political jurisdiction must be imposed over “a greater sphere of country.”
In other words, Madison wanted a large government that could rule over a vast area. In Madison’s mind, those rubes in the state governments were too close to home, too parochial, and too unwilling to enter into a large coercive union that could control the people more properly and prevent the eruption of “too much” freedom.
By attacking democracy, Madison was creating a bogeyman to which he could point and say “the states are too much like this mob rule,” and therefore a much larger, more centralized, and more powerful government is necessary.
The Federal Scheme
What followed is fairly well known. Madison and the other pro-centralization nationalists claimed they were mere “Federalists” who wanted a well-balanced sharing of power between states and the central government. But, many of the true federalists, who history now knows as the misnamed “Anti-Federalists,” saw through the ruse and understood that the new constitution was a radical step in the direction of creating a very large consolidated government.
Among these Anti-Federalist critics were Patrick Henry and the Federal Farmer (Richard Henry Lee) who opposed the adoption of the new constitution supported by Madison.
Unlike Madison, Henry and Lee appreciated the value of more locally-controlled governments which afforded easy access to representatives, and more democratic forms of representation.
Indeed, both Lee and Henry speak well of “democracy” with Henry even going so far as to define a democratic system as a system “wherein the people retain all their rights securely.” In speaking critically of the new constitution, Henry feared that the nation would lose its “democratical spirit.”
For his part, Lee was critical of the new proposed House of Representatives as not nearly representative enough, and complained that the Congress “will have but very little democracy in it.” Observing that the new House of Representatives would consist of only 65 members, Lee noted “I have no idea that the interests, feelings, and opinions of three or four millions of people, especially touching internal taxation, can be collected in such a house.”1
Contrasting himself with the Madisonian position which was in favor of making legislatures less representative, Lee reminded his readers that “I am not among those men who think a democratic branch a nuisance.”
Madison’s Imagined “Emergency”
The new constitution of 1787 was largely the product of panic among certain members of the upper classes in the new American states in the 1780s. Shays rebellion had been a triggering event, but other grievances among certain elites had been simmering for years.
In April of 1787, Madison compiled a list of alleged violations and faults of the state governments in a document known as “Vices of the Political System of the United States.”
For Madison, these many problems included “Paper money, installments of debts, occlusion of Courts,” illegal treaties with Indian tribes, and barriers to trade between the states.
Naturally, Madison wanted a new central government that could regulate all of this, and more. He blamed American problems on a “want of uniformity in the laws concerning naturalization & literary property; of provision for national seminaries, for grants of incorporation for national purposes, for canals and other works of general utility, wch. may at present be defeated by the perverseness of particular States whose concurrence is necessary.”
In other words, Madison wanted a new national government that could spend freely on infrastructure projects and schools while controlling copyrights and citizenship at the expense of state-level power.
The Federalists made their big move when, after the convention of 1787, they demanded a simple up or down vote on the new constitution at state assemblies, without the option of further amendment.2
Lee questioned the rush to approve the radical new version of the Constitution:
It is natural for men, who wish to hasten the adoption of a measure, to tell us, now is the crisis—now is the critical moment which must be seized or all will be lost; and to shut the door against free inquiry, whenever conscious the thing presented has defects in it, which time and investigation will probably discover. This has been the custom of tyrants, and their dependents in all ages.3
Moreover, Lee noted that the panic of the new advocates for a much stronger centralized government — i.e., Madison — was largely manufactured:
If we remain cool and temperate, we are in no immediate danger of any commotions; we are in a state of perfect peace, and in no danger of invasions; the state governments are in the full exercise of their powers; and our governments answer all present exigencies, except the regulation of trade, securing credit, in some cases, and providing for the interest, in some instances, of the public debts; and whether we adopt a change three or nine months hence, can make but little odds with the private circumstances of individuals; their happiness and prosperity, after all, depend principally upon their own exertions.4
Lee also recognized, quite reasonably, that many of the problems now being experienced in the new nation were the result of it recently coming out of a long and highly destructive war. After all, the American Revolution had been the longest war in American history up until the Vietnam war, and it had produced even worse body counts and refugee situations (proportionally speaking) than the American Civil War.
Thus, it would be a bit silly to hit the panic button over a lack of “controul on the States,” as Madison so badly wanted, when the real business at hand was simply rebuilding after a disastrous war.
But, as Lee observed, the Federalists had taken to painting a questionable and biased view of the situation in the states in order to ram through their new reforms. For Lee, a more dispassionate view of the situation was warranted:
When we want a man to change his condition, we describe it as wretched, miserable, and despised; and draw a pleasing picture of that which we would have him assume. And when we wish the contrary, we reverse our descriptions. Whenever a clamor is raised, and idle men get to work, it is highly necessary to examine facts carefully, and without unreasonably suspecting men of falshood, to examine, and enquire attentively, under what impressions they act. It is too often the case in political concerns that men state facts not as they are, but as they wish them to be; and almost every man, by calling to mind past scenes, will find this to be true.
Madison’s War on the States
To win this battle of words, therefore, Madison sought to contrast his imagined “mob rule” — by which he meant the state legislatures — with his plan for “republicanism.”
This, however, is not nearly as harmless as it sounded, and Patrick Henry stood up for local and democratic control, noting that “democracy” was the force behind the Virginia Bill of Rights and other libertarian triumphs of the period.
Like Lee, Henry took exception to the new federal plan in which only a tiny number of representatives from each state would be allowed in Congress, allegedly as direct representatives of the people. Mockingly asking if such a plan was the “the spirit of republicanism,” Henry looked to another standard:
What, Sir, is the genius of democracy? Let me read that clause of the Bill of Rights of Virginia which relates to this: third clause. “That Government is or ought to be instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation, or community: Of all the various modes and forms of Government, that is best which is capable of producing the greatest degree of happiness and safety, and is most effectually secured against the danger of mal-administration, and that whenever any Government shall be found inadequate, or contrary to those purposes, a majority of the community hath, an indubitable, unalienable, and indefeasible right to reform, alter, or abolish it, in such manner as shall be judged most conducive to the public weal.” [Emphasis in the original.]
Not surprisingly, the language found here is remarkably similar to that found in the Declaration of Independence — a document that reflected the spirit of the American revolution.
Henry would go on to note grave threats to American liberty in the form of greater military centralization and “a standing army…to execute the execrable commands of tyranny.”
Ultimately, Henry was forced to question the entire enterprise, by noting an undue concern with “licentiousness” among the supporters of the new constitution:
We are cautioned…against faction and turbulence: I acknowledge that licentiousness is dangerous, and that it ought to be provided against: I acknowledge also the new form of Government may effectually prevent it: Yet, there is another thing it will as effectually do: it will oppress and ruin the people…I am not well versed in history, but I will submit to your recollection whether liberty has been destroyed most often by the licentiousness of the people or by the tyranny of rulers? I imagine, Sir, you will find the balance on the side of tyranny.”
Henry noted that the new constitution signified a “revolution” of its own, but it was not the good kind of revolution that had occurred during the secession from Britain. Instead, it was a revolution of a much older kind. The kind where a small cadre of powerful men destroy the allegedly excessive liberties of the people:
Revolutions like this have happened in almost every country in Europe: Similar examples are to be found in ancient Greece and ancient Rome: Instances of the people losing their liberty by their carelessness and the ambition of a few.
Unfortunately, the Federalists ultimately won out, and the winners wrote the history books that followed. Thus, those who were for decentralized government and local control were denounced as proponents of “mob rule” and Madison got what he wanted. The new constitution enshrined slavery in its text. It imposed immense new taxes. It created a huge standing army. The new national government claimed only it could judge whether or not it had abused its power. It turned what was once a voluntary compact of states into an involuntary union. It created a Congress composed primarily of millionaires, most of whom rarely ever set foot in the districts they’re supposed to represent.
What A Modern American “Democracy” Might Have Looked Like
Today’s American mega-state represents the triumph of “republicanism” that Madison and federalists so badly wanted.
The alternative, of course, might have been something more like the Swiss Confederation, with its extremely localized government, its regional differences, and its weak central government. In some areas, government is even administered by something resembling “direct democracy.” To this day, taxation powers in Switzerland are still heavily dependent on popular referendum and consensus among all member states. Taxes even have expiration dates and to continue they must be approved by a vote of the people.5 In other words, Switzerland might be looked upon as something close to the modern manifestation of what Madison so loathed in the state governments under the Articles of Confederation. Oh, what a hell we would live in had the Federalists failed! Thank goodness Madison saved us from something akin to the daily nightmare that is Swiss democracy.
- 1. See letter III of the Federal Farmer.
- 2. Lee notes: “A constitution is now presented, which we may reject, or which we may accept, with or without amendments.”
- 3. See Letter I of the Federal Farmer.
- 4. From Letter I.
- 5. See David Carey, Kathryn Gordon and Philippe Thalmann, et al: “An unusual feature of the Swiss Constitution is that the federal government’s power to raise income taxes and VAT is time-limited. These taxes will expire by the end of 2006 unless authority to raise them is renewed in a referendum held before then.” https://www.oecd.org/switzerland/1881005.pdf