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  • Published: 4 June 2024
  • ISBN: 9781761048623
  • Imprint: Viking
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 416
  • RRP: $36.99

The Forever War


American democracy has become so diseased because for most of the country’s history it has never been that healthy. ‘We the people’, the rousing words that opened the preamble to the Constitution, were not conceived of as a catch-all for mass democracy or an inclusive statement of participatory intent. Rather, this nebulous term referred to what in modern parlance would be called the body politic. Much of the deliberations of the 55 male delegates at the constitutional convention in Philadelphia during the long hot summer of 1787 focused on how that body politic should be restrained in an intricately designed straightjacket.

To describe the outcome as an experiment in democracy is misleading, because the Founding Fathers did not care for the word, which is nowhere to be found either in the Declaration of Independence or the US Constitution. When the country’s second president, John Adams, used the term ‘democratical’, it had a negative connotation. ‘Throughout the founding era,’ the historian Joseph Ellis has noted, ‘the term “democracy” remained an epithet, used to tar an opponent with the charge of demagoguery or popular pandering.’

The right to vote was never enshrined in the original Constitution, an omission which continues to astound many Americans. Likewise, the Bill of Rights, the bundle of ten amendments designed to rectify the shortcomings of the original text, says nothing about voting. Slave owners were granted more protections than would-be voters.

To this day, it is the dirty little secret of the US Consti­tution. Despite being amended 27 times, the country’s operating manual still includes no positive assertion of the right to vote. The 15th Amendment, ratified after the Civil War, frames it only in a negative manner:

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude.

Justifiably, then, voting has been described as the missing right. The wealthy elite, which gathered in their frock coats and silk stockings in Philadelphia, regarded government as a closed shop. Alexander Hamilton was keen for the new republic to retain hierarchical trappings, even going as far as to suggest that senators should serve for life and that the presidency should be akin to an elected monarchy. James Madison, its foremost framer, spoke unashamedly of how the constitution had ‘to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority’. Watching from Paris, where he was serving as America’s ambassador at the time, Thomas Jefferson spoke of the Founding Fathers as an ‘assembly of demigods’. Later, he referred to America’s rulers as ‘a natural aristocracy’.

It was not just a sense of blue-blooded entitlement that guided the Founding Fathers’ thinking. In the period imme­diately after the final defeat of the British at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, they had been alarmed by how newly independent Americans were exercising too much say in the running of the country. In some states, assemblies were elected on an annual basis. State assemblymen, who did not always come from the ruling class, displayed danger­ously populist tendencies. The framers looked fretfully at former colonies, like Pennsylvania, which had been posi­tively promiscuous when it came to deciding who could vote. Anyone who had paid taxes and been resident for a year was eligible – almost 90 per cent of white men.4 In Virginia, Jefferson bemoaned the concentration of so much power in a popularly elected legislature, describing it as an ‘elective despotism’.

These fears came to a head during the Shays’ Rebellion of 1786, an armed uprising of debt-ridden farmers in western Massachusetts protesting the excessive taxation imposed by the state legislature in Boston. Led by Daniel Shays, a former captain in the Continental Army who had fought at Lexington, Bunker Hill and Saratoga, this pitchfork army demonstrated how a grassroots movement could imperil the fledgling nation. Though recent historical accounts have emphasised how the revolt was overwhelmingly nonviolent – an ‘honourable rebellion’ – it terrified much of the ruling elite. On hearing the ‘melancholy information’ coming out of Massachusetts, George Washington warned Madison the country was ‘fast verging to anarchy and confusion!’ and believed the passions of the populace had to be tamed. Conse­quently, 1786, the year of the Shays’ Rebellion, loomed even larger in the minds of the many of the framers than 1776, the year of the Declaration of Independence.

The fear of the unruly mob explains the thinking behind an oft-cited quote from John Adams, which he penned in 1814: ‘Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet, that did not commit suicide.’ His fear was not of unchecked presidential power, the meaning projected onto the quote during the Trump years. More worrying was unchecked people power, which had been demonstrated so murderously during the French Revolution: ‘This democrat­ical Hurricane, Inundation, Earthquake, Pestilence call it which you will,’ as Adams described it.8 Such was his fear of the popular will that in 1787 he wrote to Jefferson, noting: ‘Elections, my dear sir . . . I look at with terror.’

The framers therefore designed a system of government to guard against ‘the tyranny of the majority’, a phrase thought to have been first used by Adams in 1788, the year before the storming of the Bastille. The Massachusetts delegate Elbridge Gerry – whose name, fittingly, would inspire the term ‘gerry­mander,’ a form of electoral manipulation – put it best. ‘Our chief danger arises from the democratic parts of our constitu­tions,’ he said. ‘The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy.’

Voters would get to directly elect just one branch of government, the House of Representatives. Yet the House could hardly be described as representative. Under the noto­rious three-fifths compromise agreed in Philadelphia, which allowed states to include three out of every five enslaved persons in their population tally, the south received a dispro­portionately high number of seats.

The make-up of the Senate was also grossly undemocratic. Each state was represented by two senators, even though there were large discrepancies between the populations of the 13 former colonies. The most populous state, Virginia, which harboured some 447,000 people, of whom more than 40 per cent were enslaved, was almost 20 times bigger than lowly Georgia. The malapportionment of the present-day system – where Wyoming’s 576,851 citizens wield the same clout in the Senate as California’s 39 million, and where South and North Dakota’s combined population (1.6 million) gets four seats compared to Texas’s two (29 million) – was baked in from the start. US senators were also appointed by state legislatures rather than elected by the people, a practice that continued until the ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913.

Folklore has it that over breakfast one morning, Washington pointed to the saucer which Jefferson had just used to cool his coffee, and suggested an analogy with the Senate. But, as with many supposed quotes from the early years of the republic, scholars can find no documentary evidence that Washington ever referred to ‘a senatorial saucer’. Nonetheless, that was the intention. As James Madison explained in Federalist No. 62, one of the essays penned to persuade Americans to adopt the new constitution, the make-up of the Senate would guard against the kind of ‘sudden and violent passions’ that could produce ‘intemperate and pernicious resolutions’.

The Electoral College, the mechanism for electing the president, also served as a firewall against the popular will. Initially, in a majority of states, state legislatures rather than voters picked the electors who selected the president. There was also a supplementary safeguard. The founders assumed that no presidential candidate, besides Washington, would secure a majority in the Electoral College, in which case the election would be decided in the House of Representatives. As Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 68, the Electoral College would therefore ‘afford as little opportunity as possible to tumult and disorder’. Thus the Founding Fathers produced a democratic anomaly: the only elected office in the land where the winning candidate did not necessarily have to win the most votes.

In the early years of the new republic, the states decided who was eligible for the franchise, and most limited that right to white men of property – often landowners with holdings of at least 50 acres. For sure, the franchise was expansive compared to other countries. Europe at this time was domi­nated still by the great royal houses. Banishing hereditary succession was rightly considered radical. So, too, the notion that governments should be subject to the consent of the governed. Yet voting rights were heavily restricted.

Blacks were mostly excluded. States such as New Jersey, Maryland, Connecticut and Pennsylvania, where Black men born free were initially able to vote, soon withdrew this right. The vote was also denied to Native Americans, who were not even all granted citizenship until 1924 and had to wait until the late 1950s before Utah and North Dakota became the last states to allow them to vote.

New Jersey was the only state in which white women were given the suffrage, although this right was wrenched away in 1807. Abigail Adams, who later served as the country’s second First Lady, urged her husband to push for the enfranchisement of women, but he told her, dismissively, that the power women wielded in the home should not be transferred to the political arena. The tyranny of George III should not be replaced with what he called ‘the despotism of the petticoat’.

This was very much a partial democracy, rather than a mass democracy. Self-government was left to a self-selecting few. ‘When the Founders spoke of “the People” they did not entertain notions of democracy – indeed they abhorred the idea,’ writes David Reynolds in America: Empire of Liberty. ‘In their republic they assumed that only whites, males and property owners would vote.’

In post-colonial America, then, only around 20 per cent of the adult population were eligible to vote. By the 1800 presidential election, when John Adams and Thomas Jeffer­son squared off against each other for the second time – and when voting lasted from April to October because states could decide their own election days – the population was more than five million people, but the electoral roll included the names of just 600,000 citizens.

Overall, the fear of designing a democratic model that was excessively majoritarian produced a democratic model that was excessively minoritarian. Presidents could be elected despite losing the popular vote. The make-up of the Senate, as Alexis de Tocqueville observed in the 1830s, meant that ‘a minority of the nation, dominating the Senate, entirely paralyses the will of the majority represented in the other house’. The House of Representatives was notoriously unrepresenta­tive because of the Faustian bargain which had produced the three-fifths compromise.

So while the Declaration of Independence was radical in intent, the Constitution was conservative by comparison. Revisionist historians have come to regard it as a counter-revolutionary text: a national rule book that conceived of democracy in a restrictive, sometimes even anti-democratic, form. ‘The Constitution drafted in Philadelphia acted as a check on the Revolution,’ the historian Jill Lepore has observed, ‘a halt to its radicalism.’18 The widely held notion, then, that America’s founding document, which has since come to enjoy a near Biblical status, marked the culmination of the Revolution is a myth. The cold calculus, caution and compromise displayed at Philadelphia in 1787 was in many ways the antithesis of the spirit of 1776.

The Forever War Nick Bryant

The Forever War tells the story of how America’s political polarisation is 250 years in the making, and argues that the roots of its modern-day malaise are to be found in its troubled past.

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