The democracy concept has become a part of American political life ever since the earliest days of the country’s history. One hundred and fifty years ago, Thomas Jefferson wrote that “The supreme office of the government of the United States is not in any way derived from, or substituted for, the constitution of the states.” This was in the era of the Alien and Seditionist Rights, and many American citizens were concerned that the executive power was growing unchecked. It was fear of the loss of freedoms that spawned the U.S. experiment in direct democracy.
When the framers of the U.S. constitution debated what kind of political system would constitute the new country, they explicitly rejected any involvement with ancient aristocratic societies. They were aware that a vibrant democracy would have far-reaching repercussions for the future of the world. They therefore drew up a system based on, and modeled after, the Athensian polis that was famous for its commitment to individual freedoms and an amassing of power decentralized to allow freedom to flourish.
The United States has had two revolutions, the one from the Articles of Union and the other from the Constitution of the United States; both of which brought about profound changes in political conditions throughout the country. The Constitutional Convention of 1787 was, perhaps, the most crucial step toward the eventual formation of a truly democratic state. With the Philadelphia Experiment, delegates from twelve states met in a Convention assembled by the Continental Congress and set forth the Articles of Union, which gave powers to the federal government to regulate state governments. The Articles of Union, together with the pronouncements and acts of the Constitutional Convention, established the basis of American democracy.
The Articles of Union did not however, establish democracy in America. For over a century, America was ruled by a small group of aristocratic families that believed they were entitled to rule through a hereditary aristocratic elite. The U.S. Declaration of Independence, adopted by all states shortly after the convention, gave great significance to representative government. It declared that “the Constitution of the United States is not written upon any text of law,” and that the federal government possesses “inalquisite power” over the regulation of individual rights protected in the Constitution and Bill of Rights. A democratic state, it maintained, can be just as constitutional as a autocratic state.
A century later, however, the tide had turned. A new generation of intellectuals, radicals and cultural pessimists had come of age in the United States. The baby boomers came of age and began to challenge the power of the democratic aristocrats. By the late twentieth century a majority of Americans, nearly half of the country, believed that “Big Brother” was on their doorstep. For a time, an intellectual movement called “FDR’s” rose to oppose the growing democratic majority within the United States. But, with the advent of World War II, democracy in America became synonymous with victory.
In The Best Book Ever Written, Dewey lectures us that “a people may enjoy liberty and equality, but they cannot enjoy happiness and prosperity.” For this reason, he teaches that “a nation that makes sure that all her people have access to the fruits of their own labors, and that all her citizens enjoy the full benefits of their civilization, will be prosperous and flourishing, enjoying peace and freedom.” For those who question whether democracy in America is best for the country, I would submit to you that only someone who believes in democracy in America could make such an argument. For those who support democracy in America and want its riches to trickle down to all Americans, I would submit to you that only someone who believes in democracy in America could make such an argument.