This Day in History: “A simple democracy . . . is one of the greatest of evils.”

On this day in 1789, a signer of the Declaration of Independence writes a letter to John Adams. The letter sounds harsh to modern ears. And yet it makes perfect sense.

“A simple democracy,” Benjamin Rush wrote, “or an unbalanced republic, is one of the greatest of evils.”

Wait. Democracy . . . . evil?! What on earth could he mean?

Simple. Our Founders knew that, as a matter of history, simple democracies tend to implode. Naturally, they wanted to avoid such a catastrophe.

Perhaps you’ve heard the analogy: A democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner. (Yikes!) Our Founders knew this dynamic, too. Pure democracies cannot prevent bare majorities from tyrannizing over large minority groups. Too often, they crumble under the influence of bare majorities or emotional mobs.

Unsurprisingly, then, our Founders did not create a simple democracy. They worked to create something even better.

But what could they do? They still valued self-governance. They’d just fought an entire Revolution because they had no representation in Parliament. They weren’t about to ditch the concept of democracy entirely. In the end, they came up with a unique solution: Our Constitution blends the best elements of democracy (self-governance), republicanism (deliberation and compromise) and federalism (state-by-state action). The many checks and balances in our Constitution are meant to protect our freedom.

Power is separated among three branches of our federal government. Neither the President nor the judiciary is supposed to encroach upon the legislative function. Moreover, some power is left to the states–or to the people themselves! The Constitution requires super-majorities to take some actions, such as to amend the Constitution or to override a presidential veto. And we have an Electoral College.

When we ignore such safeguards in our Constitution, we jeopardize our own liberty. Both Rush and Adams would have understood that.

Perhaps more modern Americans need to know this history, too.

Further Reading: