America Becomes What Its Founders Feared

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Henry de Groux.

We the people want comfort and easy wealth, but very little else. 

Alexander Hamilton once remarked, “The People, sir, are a great beast.” During American presidential campaigns, it is obligatory to celebrate "the American people." In all such conspicuous tributes, whether the candidate is a Democrat or Republican is largely irrelevant. What really matters here is that banality pays. To be sure, each visceral tribute can yield the contender a predictably useful electoral mantra.

Still, there exists a residual problem with these seemingly benign references. Most importantly, their ritualized appeal to an entirely mythical "American people" reflects an invented or contrived history of the United States. It may indeed offer presidential candidates an expedient and apparently risk-free premise for success at the polls, but it is also patently false.

Upon even the most cursory examination, our foundational political history will reveal an utterly stark contempt for popular rule.

It is correct, of course, that the white, propertied men (no women) who drew up the Constitution in Philadelphia, during the summer of 1787, created a document that was stirringly republican. Nonetheless, they did not believe in democracy, not for a moment. Rather, imbued with the cynical philosophy of Hobbes, and the relentlessly severe religion of Calvin, they had eagerly expressed very strongly anti-popular sentiments.

There is more. Such fully understandable attitudes reflected not only the founders' most basic political ethos, but also the corollary precepts of their subsequent public policies.

For Edmund Randolph, the evils from which the new country was suffering had originated in the "turbulence and follies of democracy." Regularly, Elbridge Gerry spoke of democracy as "the worst of all political evils," and Roger Sherman hoped that "the people . . . have as little to do as may be about the government." Hamilton, charging that the "turbulent and changing" masses "seldom judge or determine right," fervently sought a permanent authority to "check the imprudence of democracy." For Hamilton, the American People represented a "great beast."

George Washington (remember him?) soberly urged the delegates not to produce any document, merely “to please the people."

Today, as America prepares to vote again in November, we neglect that the country's creators had displayed an immutable distrust of democratic governance. With literally no more than a half-dozen exceptions, the men of the Philadelphia Convention were scions of wealth and privilege. For them, any expectations of serious thought by the general population would have been simply unfathomable.

Said the young Gouverneur Morris, in a candid quote that speaks volumes about the true origins of our current national democracy, "The mob begin to think and reason, poor reptiles. . . . They bask in the sun, and ere noon they will bite, depend on it."

"Poor reptiles." What a metaphor. There must, one will now likely inquire, still be some prominent exceptions? What about Benjamin Franklin, for example, a "man of the people" if ever there was one? Isn't that an unassailable description of Franklin, one we had all dutifully accepted, back in the fifth grade?

Well, consider this. In reality, Franklin remarked, on several occasions, that any conceivable public capacity for purposeful citizenship would have to remain hidden and improbable. President Washington, in his first annual message to the Congress, revealed similarly compelling apprehensions about meaningful public participation in government. The American people, he had then sternly warned, “must learn to distinguish between oppression, and the necessary exercise of lawful authority"

Much as we don't care to admit it, especially at election time, the founding fathers were largely correct in their plainly expressed reservations, but for all the wrong reasons. Contrary to early expectations, we the people have displayed a more-or-less consistent capacity for deference to “lawful authority.” Yet, we have also shown a persistent unwillingness to care for ourselves as individuals, as singular persons, and as correspondingly good citizens.

Now, a "mob" assuredly does define America—not the same mob feared by Hamilton, Sherman and Morris, to be certain—but a dangerous mob nonetheless.

Who are its members? Unmistakably, they are rich and poor, black and white, easterner and westerner, southerner and mid-westerner, educated and uneducated, young and old, male and female, Jew and Christian, Muslim and Hindu, Buddhist and atheist.

It is, in some respects, exactly as the founding fathers had feared, a democratic mob, but its most distinguishing and debilitating features are not poverty, or lack of formal schooling (a particular concern of Jefferson), or even a routinely shameless vulgarity. They are, instead, the flagrant absence of any decent self regard, courage or interest in serious thought. Although it is undeniable that millions of Americans dutifully do attend schools and universities, there is precious little in those institutions to offer anything more than a discernibly thin veneer of authentic learning.

As to the more general public, it averages reading less than one book per year, and that book is inevitably what is then being recommended by equally thoughtless arbiters of mass taste.

Sadly, we Americans inhabit the one society that could have been different. Once, in commendable defiance of the founding fathers, we had cautiously nurtured a potential to become more than a mob. Then, Ralph Waldo Emerson had described a much younger nation, one still motivated by industry, intellect and "self-reliance," not by conformance, consumption, fear and (long before Kierkegaard, and before any possible loss of Facebook "friends") "trembling."