Most of the fifty-five delegates who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 had been given specific instructions by the legislatures of their states to do nothing more than amend the Articles of Confederation. One of the first things they decided to do was to ignore those instructions and draft an entirely new document. They also decided to do what to take a vow of secrecy. Not a word spoken in the room where they were meeting was to be shared with the public or the press. They even took the precaution of sending one or two delegates to dinner with Benjamin Franklin each evening. Dr. Franklin was known to speak freely once he had consumed a drink or two and the delegates accompanying him to dinner were charged with changing the subject if the topic shifted to matters that were under discussion in the convention.
But several of the delegates did take written notes during the convention, most notably James Madison, who took copious notes using a system of shorthand he devised himself. The others in attendance knew that he was taking notes - he sat directly in front of George Washington (who was presiding) facing the other delegates. He checked with those who had spoken each day to verify that he had captured their remarks accurately. They knew that they could trust him not to share those notes with the public. And their trust was well placed. The notes that Madison took were not published until after his death and as the youngest of the 55 men who worked through that long, hot summer to adopt the Constitution of the United States, he was also the last to pass away.
Madison’s Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 is considered to be the most complete and most accurate record of what was said and who said it. Speaking off the record and behind closed doors, the delegates were free to share their true feelings about democracy. Here are a few of their remarks (as reported by Madison):
Roger Sherman referred to “the inconveniencies of democracy” and “opposed the election by the people, insisting that it ought to be by the State Legislatures. The people, he said, immediately should have as little to do as may be about the Government. They want (lack) information and are constantly liable to be misled.”
John Dickenson: “A limited Monarchy he considered as one of the best Governments in the world. It was not certain that the same blessings were derivable from any other form. It was certain that equal blessings had never yet been derived from any of the republican form.”
Edmund Randolph observed that “the general object was to provide a cure for the evils under which the U. S. labored; that in tracing these evils to their origin every man had found it in the turbulence and follies of democracy.”
Elbridge Gerry: “The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy. The people do not want virtue but are the dupes of pretended patriots. In Massachusetts, it had been fully confirmed by experience that they are daily misled into the most baneful measures and opinions by the false reports circulated by designing men, and which no one on the spot can refute.” [Note: It was Elbridge Gerry who once drew an electoral map that contained district lines so convoluted some seeing them thought that one district resembled a salamander, hence, the term “gerrymander.”]
With regard to electing the president, George Mason, “conceived it would be as unnatural to refer the choice of a proper character for chief Magistrate to the people, as it would, to refer a trial of colors to a blind man.”
Charles Pinkney agreed, saying that “An election by the people being liable to the most obvious and striking objections. They will be led by a few active and designing men.”
It may come as a shock to most Americans to discover that our Founding Fathers had such a negative view of democracy, but given the feelings of the majority of the delegates regarding democracy, it should come as no surprise that the system that was put in place by the Constitution of the United States was designed to appear to be democratic, but there were three deliberate “filters” or “checks” on the will of the people – the senate, the president, and the Supreme Court.
The people were allowed to vote directly to elect members of the House of Representatives, but senators were elected by state legislatures, the president was elected by the members of the Electoral College, and Supreme Court justices were nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate.
The system of checks and balances put in place by our Constitution was primarily designed to give the wealthy the ability to "check" the will of the people.
It may come as a shock to many Americans to learn that the fifty-five men who drafted our Constitution, with few exceptions, were not fond of democracy. They did not trust we, the people, to vote wisely. (And this was at a time when only white males over the age of 21 were allowed to vote.). They knew, however, that they could not leave the people out of the government altogether. The Declaration of Independence had stirred the passions of Americans by stating that governments derive their "just powers from the consent of the governed." So they gave the "people" the power to elect one-half of the legislative branch (Congress) and then put three "checks" on the will of the people in place: the Senate, the presidential veto, and the Supreme Court. They also made it extremely difficult to amend the Constitution.
If we want the "consent of the governed" to determine what powers the federal government may exercise justly, we need to make the House of Representative truly representative of the will of the people and remove the "checks" on the "consent of the governed" that were put in place by the men who drafted our Constitution.
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