Where does American democracy come from?
“Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried.”
So said Winston Churchill in 1947, and he should know; the form of government he led to triumph in World War II was also the one that turned him out on his ear a few months later.
Democracy. A word that terrified America’s founders, that from the 5th century BC until the 19th cetury was almost universally a political slur, and that today upwards of 190 countries — from Belgium to North Korea — claim as their bedrock principle.
Humanity’s best-worst political system, universally reviled until universally acclaimed. Proud ideal. Hypocritical window-dressing. Greeks, Romans, semantics, constitutions: it’s all a bit confusing.
In America, as Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out in our prologue, we care a little bit less about philosophy and a little more about results.
In that spirit, think of today’s book club session as a “Car Talk” for democratic constitutions. How does a democratic system fit together? How do you tune up a used one? And how do you tell an endearing quirk from a full-on engine meltdown?
Enter three of the shrewdest political mechanics who ever lived: Polybius, Machiavelli, and James Madison.
Born in Greece around 200 BC, Polybius was a bookish young aristocrat who, after being taken prisoner by the Roman army, rose to become tutor and confidante to Rome’s leading statesmen. Written in the 140s BC, his Histories sought to answer the question then on every Mediterranean’s lips: How the hell did a nowhere town like Rome take over the world?
Dogged toughness and dumb luck played a part, but Polybius argued that Rome’s real secret weapon was its unheard-of constitution. The idea of a “mixed” constitution — with elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and popular rule blended together — had first been cooked up by Aristotle in the late 4th-century. Unlike the Greeks, however, Rome had built its republic not on the laws of a single legislator but by the trial and error of generations, a constitution under perpetual renegotiation. Polybius’ genius was in taking Aristotle’s lofty theory and transforming it into a practical, first-hand account of how a well-balanced constitution turned a backwater village into an empire.
When we debate the good and bad in modern democracies, our gold standard is generally not an Athenian-style direct democracy (except, god help us, in California), but rather a tailored and evolving balance of institutions meant to work in concert for the public good. Polybius is where this conversation really begins.
But as it is I notice that while various historians deal with isolated wars and certain of the subjects connected with them, nobody, so far as I am aware, has made any effort to examine the general and comprehensive scheme of events, when it began, whence it originated, and how it produced the final result. I therefore thought it imperative not to overlook or allow to pass into oblivion this phenomenon — the achievement of Fortune which is the most excellent and profitable to contemplate. For although Fortune is forever producing something new and forever enacting a drama in the lives of men, yet she has never before in a single instance created such a composition or put on such a show-piece as that which we have witnessed in our own times. [Bk. 1.4]
We must conclude then that specialized studies or monographs contribute very little to our grasp of the whole and our conviction of its truth. On the contrary, it is only by combining and comparing the various parts of the whole with one another and noting their resemblances and their differences that we shall arrive at a comprehensive view, and thus encompass both the practical benefits and the pleasures that the reading of history affords. [Bk 1.4]
We cannot say that every example of one-man rule is necessarily a kingship, but only those which are voluntarily accepted by their subjects, and which are governed by an appeal to reason rather than by fear or by force. Nor again can we say that every oligarchy is an aristocracy, but only those in which the power is exercised by the justest and wisest men, who have been selected on their merits. In the same way a state in which the mass of citizens is free to do whatever it pleases or takes into its head is not a democracy. But where it is both traditional and customary to reverence the gods, to care for our parents, to respect our elders, to obey the laws, and in such a community to ensure that the will of the majority prevails — this situation is proper to describe as democracy…
But as soon as a new generation has succeeded and the democracy falls into the hands of the grandchildren of its founders, they have become by this time so accustomed to equality and freedom of speech that they cease to value them and seek to raise themselves above their fellow-citizens, and it is noticeable that the people most liable to this temptation are the rich. So when they begin to hanker after office, and find that they cannot achieve it through their own efforts or on their merits, they begin to seduce and corrupt the people in every possible way, and thus ruin their estates. The result is that through their senseless craving for prominence they stimulate among the masses both an appetite for bribes and the habit of receiving them, and then the rule of democracy is transformed into government by violence and strongarm methods…[they will] proceed to massacre, banish and despoil their opponents, and finally degenerate into a state of bestiality, after which they once more find a master and a despot. Such is the cycle of political revolution, the law of nature according to which constitutions change, are transformed, and finally revert to their original form…
The consequence is that this peculiar form of constitution possesses an irresistible power to achieve any goal it has set itself. The time then comes when the people are freed from these external threats and reap the good fortune and prosperity which their successes have earned them, and then as they enjoy this affluence they are corrupted by flattery and idleness and become insolent and overbearing. This happens often enough, and yet it is at such moments above all that the constitution reveals its power to correct such abuses.
Whenever one of the three elements swells in importance, becomes overambitious and tends to encroach upon the others, it becomes apparent for the reasons given above that none of the three is completely independent, but that the designs of anyone can be blocked or impeded by the rest, with the result that none will unduly dominate the others or treat them with contempt. Thus the whole situation remains in equilibrium since any aggressive impulse is checked, and each estate is apprehensive from the outset of censure from the others. [Bk. VI.18]
They all ride in chariots with the fasces, axes, and other insignia carried before them, according to the dignity of the offices of state which the dead man had held in his lifetime, and when they arrive at the Rostra they all seat themselves in a row upon chairs of ivory. It would be hard to imagine a more impressive scene for a young man who aspires to win fame and to practise virtue. For who could remain unmoved at the sight of the images of all these men who have won renown in their time, now gathered together as if alive and breathing? What spectacle could be more glorious than this?
…By this constant renewal of the good report of brave men, the fame of those who have performed any noble deed is made immortal, and the renown of those who have served their country well becomes a matter of common knowledge and a heritage for posterity. But the most important consequence of the ceremony is that it inspires young men to endure the extremes of suffering for the common good in the hope of winning the glory that waits upon the brave… [Bk VI.54]
However, the sphere in which the Roman commonwealth seems to me to show its superiority most decisively is in that of religious belief. Here we find that the very phenomenon which among other peoples is regarded as a subject for reproach, namely superstition, is actually the element which holds the Roman state together…Many people find this astonishing, but my own view is that the Romans have adopted these practices for the sake of the common people.
This approach might not have been necessary had it ever been possible to form a state composed entirely of wise men. But as the masses are always fickle, filled with lawless desires, unreasoning anger and violent passions, they can only be restrained by mysterious terrors or other dramatizations of the subject. For this reason I believe that the ancients were by no means acting foolishly or haphazardly when they introduced to the people various notions concerning the gods and belief in the punishments of Hades, but rather that the moderns are foolish and take great risks in rejecting them. [Bk VI.56]
Remembering Niccolo Macchiavelli for The Prince is like remembering Paul McCartney for Band on the Run. Take a look at the work Machiavelli considered his masterpiece, Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio (‘The Discourses’), and you’ll encounter a profound and humane work of Renaissance political thought, a million miles from the say-anything, crush-everyone caricature we commonly imagine him to be. The Discourses, like Polybius’ Histories, was a kind of love letter to the Roman Republic, still in Machiavelli’s day the only society in history to attempt a mixed constitution on something like a national scale. He agreed that it was Rome’s unprecedented ability to adjust and tinker with its constitution — adding new offices here, changing voting rights there — that made its people powerful, prosperous, and free all at the same time.
Where he surpassed Polybius was on the question of political conflict. The Greek had argued that a good constitution would minimize conflict between rich and poor. Machiavelli, like Gordon Gekko, said no: politically speaking, greed is good. Rome worked not because its constitution kept people in their place, but because it harnessed the energies of citizens who always wanted more. The ideal constitution, therefore, was not one which suppressed the universal human taste for conflict but one which sustained and employed it.
We remember him for his blood-chilling quips, but it was Machiavelli who carried classical genius to the doorstep of the modern democratic world.
After the expulsion of the Tarquins the greatest harmony seemed to prevail between the Senate and the people. The nobles seemed to have laid aside all their haughtiness and assumed popular manners, which made them supportable even to the lowest of the citizens. The nobility played this role so long as the Tarquins lived, without their motive being divined; for they feared the Tarquins, and also lest the ill-treated people might side with them. Their party therefore assumed all possible gentleness in their manners towards the people.
But so soon as the death of the Tarquins had relieved them of their apprehensions, they began to vent upon the people all the venom they had so long retained within their breasts, and lost no opportunity to outrage them in every possible way; which is one of the proofs of the argument we have advanced, that men act right only upon compulsion; but from the moment that they have the option and liberty to commit wrong with impunity, then they never fail to carry confusion and disorder everywhere. It is this that has caused it to be said that poverty and hunger make men industrious, and that the law makes men good; and if fortunate circumstances cause good to be done without constraint, the law may be dispensed with. But when such happy influence is lacking, then the law immediately becomes necessary.
Thus the nobles, after the death of the Tarquins, being no longer under the influence that had restrained them, determined to establish a new order of things, which had the same effect as the misrule of the Tarquins during their existence; and therefore, after many troubles, tumults, and dangers occasioned by the excesses which both the nobles and the people committed, they came, for the security of the people, to the creation of the Tribunes, who were endowed with so many prerogatives, and surrounded with so much respect, that they formed a powerful barrier between the Senate and the people, which curbed the insolence of the former.
I shall not pass over in silence the disturbances that occurred in Rome from the time of the death of the Tarquins to that of the creation of the Tribunes; and shall afterwards refute the opinion of those who claim that the Roman Republic has always been a theatre of turbulence and disorder, and that if its extreme good fortune and the military discipline had not supplied the defects of her constitution, she would have deserved the lowest rank amongst the republics.
It cannot be denied that the Roman Empire was the result of good fortune and military discipline; but it seems to me that it ought to be perceived that where good discipline prevails there also will good order prevail, and good fortune rarely fails to follow in their train.
Let us, however, go into details upon this point. I maintain that those who blame the quarrels of the Senate and the people of Rome condemn that which was the very origin of liberty, and that they were probably more impressed by the cries and noise which these disturbances occasioned in the public places, than by the good effect which they produced; and that they do not consider that in every republic there are two parties, that of the nobles and that of the people; and all the laws that are favorable to liberty result from the opposition of these parties to each other, as may easily be seen from the events that occurred in Rome.
From the time of the Tarquins to that of the Gracchi, that is to say, within the space of over three hundred years, the differences between these parties caused but very few exiles, and cost still less blood; they cannot therefore be regarded as having been very injurious and fatal to a republic, which during the course of so many years saw on this account only eight or ten of its citizens sent into exile, and but a very small number put to death, and even but a few condemned to pecuniary fines.
Nor can we regard a republic as disorderly where so many virtues were seen to shine. For good examples are the result of good education, and good education is due to good laws; and good laws in their turn spring from those very agitations which have been so inconsiderately condemned by many. For whoever will carefully examine the result of these agitations will find that they have neither caused exiles nor any violence prejudicial to the general good, and will be convinced even that they have given rise to laws that were to the advantage of public liberty.
And if it be said that these are strange means, — to hear constantly the cries of the people furious against the Senate, and of a Senate declaiming against the people, to see the populace rush tumultuously through the streets, close their houses, and even leave the city of Rome, — I reply, that all these things can alarm only those who read of them, and that every free state ought to afford the people the opportunity of giving vent, so to say, to their ambition; and above all those republics which on important occasions have to avail themselves of this very people.
Now such were the means employed at Rome; when the people wanted to obtain a law, they resorted to some of the extremes of which we have just spoken, or they refused to enroll themselves to serve in the wars, so that the Senate was obliged to satisfy them in some measure.
The demands of a free people are rarely pernicious to their liberty; they are generally inspired by oppressions, experienced or apprehended; and if their fears are ill founded, resort is had to public assemblies where the mere eloquence of a single good and respectable man will make them sensible of their error. “The people,” says Cicero, “although ignorant, yet are capable of appreciating the truth, and yield to it readily when it is presented to them by a man whom they esteem worthy of their confidence.”
One should show then more reserve in blaming the Roman government, and consider that so many good effects, which originated in that republic, cannot but result from very good causes…
If the republic had been more tranquil, it would necessarily have resulted that she would have been more feeble, and that she would have lost with her energy also the ability of achieving that high degree of greatness to which she attained; so that to have removed the cause of trouble from Rome would have been to deprive her of her power of expansion.
And thus it is seen in all human affairs, upon careful examination, that you cannot avoid one inconvenience without incurring another. If therefore you wish to make a people numerous and warlike, so as to create a great empire, you will have to constitute it in such manner as will cause you more difficulty in managing it; and if you keep it either small or unarmed, and you acquire other dominions, you will not be able to hold them, or you will become so feeble that you will fall a prey to whoever attacks you…
And therefore in all our decisions we must consider well what presents the least inconveniences, and then choose the best, for we shall never find any course entirely free from objections…
But as all human things are kept in a perpetual movement, and can never remain stable, states naturally either rise or decline, and necessity compels them to many acts to which reason will not influence them; so that, having organized a republic competent to maintain herself without expanding, still, if forced by necessity to extend her territory, in such case we shall see her foundations give way and herself quickly brought to ruin…
Seeing then the impossibility of establishing in this respect a perfect equilibrium, and that a precise middle course cannot be maintained, it is proper in the organization of a republic to select the most honorable course, and to constitute her so that, even if necessity should oblige her to expand, she may yet be able to preserve her acquisitions.
To return now to our first argument, I believe it therefore necessary rather to take the constitution of Rome as a model than that of any other republic, (for I do not believe that a middle course between the two can be found,) and to tolerate the differences that will arise between the Senate and the people as an unavoidable inconvenience in achieving greatness like that of Rome.
Which brings us to the 4th President of the United States. At 5’4” and 100 pounds, “Little Jemmy” Madison fit no one’s picture of a statesman-hero. What he was, however, was a staggering political genius; mastering Latin in boyhood, finishing Princeton in two years, and, in the hot summer of 1787, substituting for Jefferson and Adams in Philadelphia as the chief negotiator of America’s new constitution. After polishing off the modern world’s first mixed constitution, Madison went on the road to sell it; his 85-part sales pitch (co-written with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, and signed ‘Publius’) became known as The Federalist Papers.
The former Princeton classics ace knew his Polybius and Machiavelli by heart (with a large dose of the hard-headed, clear-eyed Scottish Enlightenment alongside), and the themes of constitutional balance and managing political conflict became Madison’s tonic chords. But with the U.S. Constitution, and the essays he used to promote it, Madison takes democratic theory another quantum leap forward. Geniuses of the ancient world had taken political divisions — the one, the few, the many — as a given; their main debate was how much political power each should enjoy. Madison surpasses Polybius in his idea that authority will not be traded off between classes but rather wielded by a constantly evolving coalition of individuals and interests, a majority-in-flux. He incorporates and outpaces Machiavelli as well, taking the Italian’s brief hymn to Roman political conflict and turning it into a meticulously explored constitutional principle.
Power against power, party against party, executive veto against congressional initiative: if you want to understand American politics, read Federalist #51. Never before was such a sober assessment of human selfishness joined to a more poetic vision of how a good society could be built in spite of it. Madison’s core belief, that “the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights,” is the one America continues to grapple with.
TO WHAT expedient, then, shall we finally resort, for maintaining in practice the necessary partition of power among the several departments, as laid down in the Constitution? The only answer that can be given is, that as all these exterior provisions are found to be inadequate, the defect must be supplied, by so contriving the interior structure of the government as that its several constituent parts may, by their mutual relations, be the means of keeping each other in their proper places. Without presuming to undertake a full development of this important idea, I will hazard a few general observations, which may perhaps place it in a clearer light, and enable us to form a more correct judgment of the principles and structure of the government planned by the convention.
In order to lay a due foundation for that separate and distinct exercise of the different powers of government, which to a certain extent is admitted on all hands to be essential to the preservation of liberty, it is evident that each department should have a will of its own; and consequently should be so constituted that the members of each should have as little agency as possible in the appointment of the members of the others.
Were this principle rigorously adhered to, it would require that all the appointments for the supreme executive, legislative, and judiciary magistracies should be drawn from the same fountain of authority, the people, through channels having no communication whatever with one another…
But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.
It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.
In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.
This policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public. We see it particularly displayed in all the subordinate distributions of power, where the constant aim is to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other — that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights. These inventions of prudence cannot be less requisite in the distribution of the supreme powers of the State.
But it is not possible to give to each department an equal power of self-defense. In republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates. The remedy for this inconveniency is to divide the legislature into different branches; and to render them, by different modes of election and different principles of action, as little connected with each other as the nature of their common functions and their common dependence on the society will admit.
It may even be necessary to guard against dangerous encroachments by still further precautions. As the weight of the legislative authority requires that it should be thus divided, the weakness of the executive may require, on the other hand, that it should be fortified. An absolute negative on the legislature appears, at first view, to be the natural defense with which the executive magistrate should be armed. [Ed. The ‘absolute negative’ came to be called the President’s ‘veto power’, from the Latin veto, ‘I forbid.’] But perhaps it would be neither altogether safe nor alone sufficient. On ordinary occasions it might not be exerted with the requisite firmness, and on extraordinary occasions it might be perfidiously abused. May not this defect of an absolute negative be supplied by some qualified connection between this weaker department and the weaker branch of the stronger department, by which the latter may be led to support the constitutional rights of the former, without being too much detached from the rights of its own department?
If the principles on which these observations are founded be just, as I persuade myself they are, and they be applied as a criterion to the several State constitutions, and to the federal Constitution it will be found that if the latter does not perfectly correspond with them, the former are infinitely less able to bear such a test.
There are, moreover, two considerations particularly applicable to the federal system of America, which place that system in a very interesting point of view.
First. In a single republic, all the power surrendered by the people is submitted to the administration of a single government; and the usurpations are guarded against by a division of the government into distinct and separate departments. In the compound republic of America, the power surrendered by the people is first divided between two distinct governments, and then the portion allotted to each subdivided among distinct and separate departments. Hence a double security arises to the rights of the people. The different governments will control each other, at the same time that each will be controlled by itself.
Second. It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part. Different interests necessarily exist in different classes of citizens. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure.
There are but two methods of providing against this evil: the one by creating a will in the community independent of the majority — that is, of the society itself; the other, by comprehending in the society so many separate descriptions of citizens as will render an unjust combination of a majority of the whole very improbable, if not impracticable.
The first method prevails in all governments possessing an hereditary or self-appointed authority. This, at best, is but a precarious security; because a power independent of the society may as well espouse the unjust views of the major, as the rightful interests of the minor party, and may possibly be turned against both parties.
The second method will be exemplified in the federal republic of the United States. Whilst all authority in it will be derived from and dependent on the society, the society itself will be broken into so many parts, interests, and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority.
In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects. The degree of security in both cases will depend on the number of interests and sects; and this may be presumed to depend on the extent of country and number of people comprehended under the same government.
This view of the subject must particularly recommend a proper federal system to all the sincere and considerate friends of republican government, since it shows that in exact proportion as the territory of the Union may be formed into more circumscribed Confederacies, or States oppressive combinations of a majority will be facilitated: the best security, under the republican forms, for the rights of every class of citizens, will be diminished: and consequently the stability and independence of some member of the government, the only other security, must be proportionately increased.
Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit. In a society under the forms of which the stronger faction can readily unite and oppress the weaker, anarchy may as truly be said to reign as in a state of nature, where the weaker individual is not secured against the violence of the stronger; and as, in the latter state, even the stronger individuals are prompted, by the uncertainty of their condition, to submit to a government which may protect the weak as well as themselves; so, in the former state, will the more powerful factions or parties be gradually induced, by a like motive, to wish for a government which will protect all parties, the weaker as well as the more powerful.
It can be little doubted that if the State of Rhode Island was separated from the Confederacy and left to itself, the insecurity of rights under the popular form of government within such narrow limits would be displayed by such reiterated oppressions of factious majorities that some power altogether independent of the people would soon be called for by the voice of the very factions whose misrule had proved the necessity of it.
In the extended republic of the United States, and among the great variety of interests, parties, and sects which it embraces, a coalition of a majority of the whole society could seldom take place on any other principles than those of justice and the general good; whilst there being thus less danger to a minor from the will of a major party, there must be less pretext, also, to provide for the security of the former, by introducing into the government a will not dependent on the latter, or, in other words, a will independent of the society itself.
It is no less certain than it is important, notwithstanding the contrary opinions which have been entertained, that the larger the society, provided it lie within a practical sphere, the more duly capable it will be of self-government. And happily for the republican cause, the practicable sphere may be carried to a very great extent, by a judicious modification and mixture of the federal principle.
How is our system managing its conflicting energies? Does America’s constitution strike the right balance?
What will be the next great idea to take us forward?