Many of the framers of the U.S. Constitution feared direct democracy. Shortly after the Revolution, political power was largely invested in a wealthy, landowning elite who saw direct democracy in the hands of the masses as dangerous. They understood that power could not simply rest in the hands of the majority. So the writers of the Constitution formed a republic where powers were separated and the minority possessed significant influence.
In a direct democracy, citizens vote for policies and laws directly, not through elected representatives. In such a system, the majority wins. However, most citizens are not legal experts that can competently draft legislation. Thus, a much more common form of democracy is a representative democracy in which citizens elect individuals to represent their interests and make decisions for them. The framers of the Constitution understood that simple majority rule could deprive the minority of important rights, and for this reason they did not form a direct democracy but rather a representative democracy, or a republic.
A key component of a republic is that the head of the government is popularly elected, not a king or queen. Lawmakers and other officials are also elected by the citizens to represent their interests in government. The framers felt the government needed to be tolerant and protect the rights of minority groups, which, they believed, would be difficult under a direct democracy. Thus, the framers created a federal government in which powers were separated between the various branches of government and between the states to give minority factions opportunities for representation. The framers also established a Supreme Court to ensure that new laws are legal and protect citizen rights.
Madison and Democracy
James Madison is largely viewed as the "Father of the Constitution." In his "Federalist Papers," Madison made a strong case for a republic and the separation of powers. He ardently advocated for political power for the minority, which could not happen under a direct democracy. In Madison’s "Federalist No. 10," he promoted a representative democracy in which common citizens would elect statesmen to represent their interests. Madison likewise believed in federalism, or the separation of powers, so that factions, or minority interests, would have multiple avenues to power. He saw factions as protection against tyranny and encouraged a form of government that would encourage and bolster factions.
Another important contributor to the Constitution, Benjamin Franklin, believed wholeheartedly in the republic he helped create. Prior to the Constitution, Franklin had helped draft Pennsylvania’s constitution in 1776, an exercise that influenced him during the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia where he functioned as elder advisor. It is reputed that Franklin told a woman, who asked what sort of government the convention created, “A republic, Madam, if you can keep it.” Given the increased pluralism of American society, it is a testament to the founders that the republic, rather than a direct democracy, created by the Constitutional Convention has survived.
- Internet Encyclopedia of Democracy: American Enlightenment Thought
- U.S. Department of State's Bureau of International Information Programs: Defining Democracy
- Harvard Political Review: The Dangers of Direct Democracy
- Cornell University Law School: Federalism
- Southeast Missouri State University: James Madison's Federalist No. 10 and the American Political System
- Springfield Technical Community College Shays' Rebellion, From Revolution to Constitution: Benjamin Franklin
- National Constitution Center: Perspectives on the Constitution: A Republic, If You Can Keep It
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images