The Dream of Democracy

…is seldom a reality…

Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy. It is not true, in fact, and nowhere appears in history. Those passions are the same in all men, under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty.”

~ John Adams, letter to John Taylor, 15 April 1814


Democracy is easy in principle, but extremely difficult in practice.  We only have to look to the current events in Egypt to see that even for a people who want democracy, success can be elusive.  The Egyptians started their own revolution, and then set forth to achieve it, and they struggle.  The American experiment with democracy is the most stable and longest lasting of any thus far in history.  We are in this area, utterly unique.  As the Founding Fathers well knew, democracy doesn’t magically solve all of a nation’s problems.  Nor does it automatically lead to a society that embraces liberty and freedom and rights as bedrock principles.  After all, the ability for people in society to participate in their government is no guarantee that they will actually do so or do so with the good of the whole in mind.  One can elect poor leadership just as easily as one can inherit it through royal ruling families.  Was Napoleon any less a dictator for being democratically elected?  The biggest problem with democracies in general has always been that they degenerate.  So why has America been the exception?  What did our Founding Fathers do that makes our dream remain a reality?

In a word, they mistrusted.  Our Founders didn’t rely on any one group or any one part of government or any one person’s thoughts for just about anything.  Thomas Jefferson may have been the main author of the Declaration of Independence, but he wrote it in committee, and the committee ended up changing some of it (and the Continental Congress even more).  Three distinct portions of government weren’t even enough; the legislature had to be separated and bicameral.  The Constitution itself would have never  been adopted without the demanded addition of the Bill of Rights.  All because some of the Founders simply didn’t trust their rights to be perpetually secure without getting it in writing.  The Founders took nothing for granted.  They thought seriously about what they were doing and where it would lead 10, 15, 100 years down the line.  Their system has lasted because they even mistrusted themselves.  They didn’t assume that our government would make it; they assumed it might very likely fail, and they set about implementing things to prevent that collapse.  And yet today, do we jealously guard our freedoms and our form of government?  Do we look to shore up the cracks that might cause it to collapse?  Or do we assume it will last forever because it has already lasted a long time?  We have a choice.  We can assume that merely to dream of democracy is enough.  OR we can do the hard work of mistrusting and maintaining our dream so that we never have to watch it die.


Res Publica

Documentation without Representation:

John Adams, letter to John Taylor, 15 April 1814

Electronic Copy Courtesy of the Online Library of Liberty

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