English statesman Edmund Burke observed that America is the only nation ever to be founded upon an idea. The American idea, and ideal, is that there really can be a country where all persons are “created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and that the purpose of government is to secure these rights, deriving its just powers from the consent of the governed.
History reveals that across time and the globe, disputes over succession of power have usually been settled by mobs or armies in the streets, ending with one of the contenders dead or fled. Even in civilized England, three sitting kings were murdered by their successors and one was deposed by Parliament, which then beheaded him. But in America, where there are at least 250 million guns in private hands, there is no such history of violence over elections. Perhaps it is because we may change administrations but not governments. Elections here don’t bring violence, at worst they bring . . . lawyers. Through the lens of history, our domestic political predicament is unusually peaceful.
America’s founders realized that the people of a democracy would inevitably divide into factions, setting the people in opposition to one another. For that reason, the founders mistrusted direct democracy. “Democracies,” James Madison wrote in Federalist 10, “have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” The founders feared the tyranny of a democratic majority almost as much the tyranny of a monarchy. The script of Mel Gibson’s blockbuster movie, The Patriot, reflected this fear when Mel Gibson’s character expressed doubts about the revolution by asking a colonial assembly, “Will you tell me why I should trade one tyrant three thousand miles away for three thousand tyrants one mile away?”
Hence the founders rejected direct democracy. In fact, wrote historian Fred Barbash,
“Democracy, as we think of it, wasn’t a serious option. Democracy was an alien notion; the word itself was rarely used in the debates of that time. The real power, they believed, resided in the House of Representatives, elected by popular vote.”
(As an aside, the founders appear to have assumed that presidential elections would be decided by the House more often than not. “It will rarely happen that the majority of the whole votes will fall on any one candidate,” said George Mason of Virginia.)
There is the famous anecdote of Benjamin Franklin leaving the Constitutional Convention and being asked by a woman on the sidewalk what government she would have. “A republic,” he answered, “if you can keep it.” Of course, a republic will have factions, too, but is much less subject to their ill effects. It would be nice to say that the founders thought that high-falutin ideals like truth, justice and morality would protect national unity, but they weren’t so naive. They knew high ideals could be easily perverted for tyranny’s purposes. The unity of the nation may be rooted in the ideals of the government but can be preserved only in the form of the government. So the founders made the nation a republic, which is the main reason we have the electoral college rather than direct election.
A republic, as defined by the founders, is a government which derives all its powers from the people and is administered by persons holding their offices for a limited period. Essential to a republic is that elected officials come from all segments of society and not from a small proportion, or a favored class. Furthermore, every tenure of office must be conditional in some way, either by limiting terms by law or by enabling removal by law.
Factionalism cannot be eliminated from society. “The latent causes of faction are sown in the nature of man,” Madison wrote, because differing interests always have divided humankind “into parties . . . and rendered them much more disposed to . . . oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good,” an observation proven every four years. Madison observed that the tendency toward disunity was so deeply rooted in human nature that the most violent conflicts have been kindled for the most frivolous reasons.
Madison thought it folly “to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.” Furthermore, politicians necessarily deal with matters immediately at hand and rarely take a long view of things.
Now, here is the reason I’ve gone through this civics lesson, for the Founders left a bombshell for church people. John Adams wrote, “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled with morality and religion. Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
In other words, the founders understood that the protections of constitutional liberty depended on the morality and religious conviction of the people. Yet while morality and religion were necessary for liberty, they cannot guarantee liberty, because, wrote Madison, “Neither moral nor religious motives can be relied on” to control factionalism and discord. After all, a sense of morality and religion do not even prevent “the violence of individuals.” In civil affairs, the moral and religious senses restrain factions less and less as factions get bigger. Thus, individually moral and religious men and women inflamed and united by acrimonious passion become a mob.
This is an important point. The present election has inflamed passions throughout the country, including to the violence that the Founders warned us. Neither candidate has made much in the campaigns of their religious convictions. It is just as well. America's Founders trusted neither religion nor its lack as a qualification of a candidate. While we may hope and pray that our national leaders will be guided by the highest ideals of moral and religious convictions, our nation’s founders warned us not to count on it, either for office seekers, office holders or voters. We must seek another source of unity for our nation, not to supplant morality and religion but to complement them.
Our continuing hope for national unity is that we re-unite around the flagpole of the ideals of the republican form of government the founders bequeathed us. We must re-educate ourselves in republican ideals (note the small "r") and how it inhibits the dangers of democracy. The Federalist Papers wax long and eloquent on the virtues of a republic, but I’ll not list them here.
A closing thought: James Madison wrote in The Federalist Papers Number 39 of “that honourable determination which animates every votary of freedom, to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government."
The prosperity of American civilization does not rest upon the power of government to rule us, not even in the slightest. The future of our nation is founded by our ability and willingness to govern ourselves, to suppress the devils of our passions to let flower the better angels of our nature.
If we cannot continue to do that then truly our votes will not matter.