On this day in 1787, delegates to the Constitutional Convention signed the Constitution. Perhaps you’ve heard what Benjamin Franklin did immediately afterwards?
He’d been spotted by a Philadelphia matron as he emerged from that meeting. She was curious. What had delegates been doing behind closed doors? “Doctor,” she reportedly called out, “what have we got, a Republic or a Monarchy?” Franklin’s response was brief: “A Republic, if you can keep it.”
The tale is simple, yet Franklin is often misquoted. Some think Franklin responded: “A democracy, if you can keep it.”
Modern Americans easily believe this misquote because the foundations of our Constitution are not taught—and thus are not understood. But Franklin and other Founders knew better.
Simple democracies are dangerous.
Our second President, John Adams, once observed that “democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” A signatory to the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Rush, stated, “A simple democracy . . . is one of the greatest of evils.” Another signer agreed: “Pure democracy cannot subsist long, nor be carried far into the department of state—it is very subject to caprice and the madness of popular rage.”
Think about it. In a simple democracy, 51% can rule the other 49% all the time, without question. (In some cases, a mere plurality might even suffice.) Imagine what a bare or emotional majority can do in the wake of an event such as 9-11. In fear, anger, or outrage, 51% could enact any law, regardless of its effect on the other 49%. Even very sizable minorities can be tyrannized in such a system. Religious freedoms and civil liberties can easily be infringed.
If the Founders rejected simple democracy, does that mean they rejected self-governance altogether?
Remember, the Founders had just fought a bloody Revolution. They’d made many personal sacrifices—and they did it all, at least partly, because they had no representation in Parliament. The principles of self-governance were important to our Founders. They would not abandon them now.
What, then, were they to do? How could our Founders create a Constitution that allowed the people to be self-governing, even as they erected hurdles to stop irrational, bare majorities? How could minority political interests, especially the small states, be protected? What constitutional provisions allow majorities to rule, but also require them to consider the needs of the minority?
Our Founders solved the problem by creating a Constitution that combines democracy (self-governance) with federalism (states’ rights) and republicanism (deliberation and compromise). This is why we have a Senate (one state, one vote) and a House (one person, one vote). It is why our government is divided into three co-equal branches: executive, legislative and judicial. It is why we have supermajority requirements to do things like amend the Constitution. It is why we have presidential vetoes.
And it is why we have an Electoral College.
When the checks and balances in our Constitution are respected, they enable us to accomplish the near-impossible: be self-governing, even as we avoid mob rule and majority tyranny.
Can we keep our Republic, as Franklin hoped? Perhaps it depends on our ability to educate future generations about the foundations of our Constitution.
For more information, please see my book, Why We Need the Electoral College