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This Day in History: "Democracy is a volcano"

On this day in 1788, Fisher Ames addresses delegates at the Massachusetts state ratifying convention. Would his state ratify the U.S. Constitution and join the Union? Ames certainly hoped so.

Nevertheless, the statements he made on this day so long ago may sound shocking to modern ears.

“A democracy is a volcano, which conceals the fiery materials of its own destruction,” Ames thundered. “These will produce an eruption, and carry desolation in their way.”

What could he mean by that? Was he an elitist who didn’t trust the people? Too many people cast such a judgment on the Founders. These same people may urge the country to abandon constitutional institutions because of their supposedly elitist and anti-democratic roots.

Unfortunately, such an interpretation misunderstands our founding generation. Yes, in this case, Ames spoke of democracy as a volcano. It seems distrustful of the people. But his next sentence went in the opposite direction: He expressed his immense confidence in the people.

“The people always mean right,” Ames told his listeners, “and, if time is allowed for reflection and information, they will do right.”

He distinguished between two types of self-governance: Emotions that can seize a mob in the heat of the moment versus deliberate, thoughtful decision-making. Obviously, he thought, the people can always be trusted in the latter circumstance.

But perhaps Ames speaks best for himself:

“I would not have the first wish, the momentary impulse of the public mind, become law; for it is not always the sense of the people, with whom I admit that all power resides. On great questions, we first hear the loud clamors of passion, artifice, and faction.” Instead, Ames expressed his desire that the “sober, second thought of the people shall be law.”

His comments reflect the difficult questions that faced the Constitutional Convention during the summer of 1787. How can a people be self-governing, even as minority groups are protected from the tyranny of a bare or unreasonable majority? How can a large, diverse country, composed of both big and small states live harmoniously together? How can the interests of a variety of people be reflected in such a vast territory as the United States of America?

Democracy, standing alone, cannot create the delicate balances needed among all these competing interests. Thus, our Constitution creates something better. Our system is a blend of democracy (self-governance), republicanism (deliberation and compromise), and federalism (state-by-state action). Power is separated among three branches of government. Moreover, power is divided between the states and the national government. Even more power is left 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.

The Founders’ statements against simple democracy—to say nothing of the institutions they created—are best understood in this larger context. To the degree that we are having trouble today, perhaps it’s because we spent 2020 & 2021 forgetting to respect the checks and balances in our Constitution.

After all, the careful balance of power in our Constitution protects liberty.

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