Pages:11 (3277 words)
Why American Democracy Has Failed and Why the Anti Federalists were Right
The Declaration of Independence, written in 1776, asserted that “all men are created equal.”[endnoteRef:2] It was an Enlightenment notion: Thomas Paine, an avid follower of the Enlightenment Movement in Europe, had written the Rights of Man to support and promote the ideas of the philosophical revolution that had gotten underway decades prior with Rousseau’s Social Contract and the latter’s pursuit of naturalism in opposition to the Old World values, virtues and order.[endnoteRef:3] The problem that occurred in America was that the Founding Fathers were not of the same mind as Thomas Paine, though they readily used his words and ideas in their Declaration of Independence. Paine truly believed in the equality of all men and he was whole-heartedly opposed to the institution of slavery. The Founding Fathers were not, and the equality they expressed in the Declaration of Independence was meant primarily to be limited to the rights of the propertied class, i.e., themselves. Thus, the original Constitution of the US did not even address the issue of rights of blacks or women. As far as the framers of the Constitution were concerned, blacks, women and those without property were not to be afforded the same rights as the landed class. The individual states gave voting rights only to those individuals who owned property. It was not until the 15th Amendment of 1870 that the Constitution was amended and voting rights were ensured for all men regardless of race. Women, still, would have to wait another half century before they would receive suffrage. And that only came about as a result of an agreement between Carrie Chapman, leader of the Women’s Movement in the early 1900s, and President Wilson, who wanted support from the public for entry into WW1. The Women’s Movement had been opposed to war but it also wanted Congressional support for suffrage. Wilson promised that if Chapman threw support behind the war, he would move Congress to support an amendment to the Constitution to grant women the right to vote.[endnoteRef:4] In this manner, through backroom dealings and questionable reversals of principle, human rights were gradually protected by the US Constitution. What this shows, however, is that the ideal of American Democracy was not always in alignment with the reality of democracy in America. [2: Declaration of Independence. (1776). Retrieved from https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript] [3: Rousseau, J. (2018). Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rousseau/] [4: Van Voris, J. (1996). Carrie Chapman Catt: A Public Life. New York City: Feminist Press at CUNY.]
Human Rights and the Dignity of the Individual Person
In the 18th century, the rights of man were not a matter to be taken lightly or even something that one took for granted. As Lynn Hunt points out, one of the big questions over right was the issue of voting—the distinction between political and civil rights: “Political rights guaranteed equal participation; civil rights guaranteed equal treatment before the law in matters concerning marriage, property, and inheritance.”[endnoteRef:5] Today, the assumption is that people should have both civil and political rights and that these are part of their basic human rights—but such was not the notion in France. Certainly it was not the notion in America, where the test run for the French Revolution was conducted via the Declaration of Independence and the War that followed. [5: Hunt, L. (2016). "Introduction: The Revolutionary Origins of Human Rights." In The French Revolution and Human Rights: A Brief History with Documents, 2nd Edition, edited by Lynn Hunt, 1-31 (Boston: Bedford), 1.]
Rousseau had helped to champion the idea of these rights, but he never moved beyond a vague, romantic idea of emancipation and freedom. Liberty was like an 18th century intellectual drug that fueled many a heady debate in many a salon. It was not necessarily something that anyone expected or foresaw needing to be writ down in fine, well-examined terms. Rousseau’s doctrines had helped to inspire the surge in Revolutionary ardor, but had done little in terms of developing a scholastic-like approach to the problem of governance. Those with a more scholastic-like mind, men like Abbe Sieyes, for example, demonstrated a bit more restraint in their approach to the rights of man than did Robespierre, who pushed for total equality and saw it as one of the noblest virtues of the revolution.
Natural law as summarized by Diderot in the middle of the 18th century in France had done enough to provoke outcry among the Old World political and religious classes. Like most of the Enlightenment thinkers, the idea of Original Sin was rejected, and naturalism like what Rousseau envisioned was viewed as wholly appropriate and acceptable and something that the Old World institutions blocked and opposed on principle because the leaders of the Old World knew if naturalism ever got a toehold in society, society would reject the Old World institutions out of hand.[endnoteRef:6] That was the belief of the Romantics and Revolutionaries, of Rousseau and his offspring, at any rate. Sieyes, who had become a Catholic priest (though his actual belief in the tenets of Catholicism is another matter), had a more reserved opinion on the matter, which came forward in his own arguments on how the rights of man should be observed by the new French Republic being created on the corpse of the monarchy. [6: Hunt, L. (2016). "Introduction: The Revolutionary Origins of Human Rights." In The French Revolution and Human Rights: A Brief History with Documents, 2nd Edition, edited by Lynn Hunt, 1-31 (Boston: Bedford), 5.]
If there was any commonality among the Revolutionaries, however, it was at least on the matter of liberty. When the revolutionaries took over in France, the first principle they put forward was an echo of Rousseau’s doctrine in The Social Contract. Rousseau had written that man is born free and everywhere he is in chains in The Social Contract. The National Assembly in France in 1789 wrote: “Men are born and…
…federal levels. Anyone could potentially be president—and the election of Lincoln showed as much. He had held no political status of much worth prior to his election. He was a country lawyer who won enough support among the electorate at the head of a new party to gain the White House at a particularly turbulent time in America. Lincoln has long been seen as a symbol of anyone being able to become president. Barack Obama is a more recent symbol of that same idea. The ideal of equality, of equal rights among all people, and of collective bargaining still exists in America. The ideals of American Democracy are always being pursued in some form or another. It is the reality of governance that tends to present the problems and the difficulties. Athenian democracy was a different matter altogether as the ancient city-state was smaller by an order of magnitude: it was essentially the type of government that the Anti-Federalists envisioned for themselves.
Yet, equal respect in the context of public decisions is nonetheless a hallmark of American Democracy as far as the ideals go. Today, the practice of equal respect has been somewhat destroyed by partisan politics in Washington. Whether it is Republicans attempting to drag President Clinton through a sordid impeachment process focusing on his sexual relations with an intern, or Democrats attempting to drag President Trump through a charade of collusion and various other accusations, the process of demonstrating equal respect seems lost on today’s political representatives. They engage in virtual signaling, bending the knee to the mob, kowtowing to big media, submitting to big pharma, and advocating on behalf of The Lobby. In short, there is very little respect shown to constituents. The seizure of power by governors even at the state level in response to a flu overly-hyped by big media as the next Black Death shows the extent to which today’s representatives view themselves as mini-dictators. In a nation that was meant to facilitate collective bargaining decisions and the establishment of policies that would cater to freedom and equality, the current turn of events bodes nothing good and in fact seems indicative of the path once taken by China a century ago as it descended into Communism.
Are the ideals of American Democracy closer today or are they further away than ever before? Equality under the law appears to be present on paper, but complaints of systemic racism still rage and the rise of Black Lives Matter is an indication that people feel disenfranchised and oppressed even still. Voting rights have been granted to all people, including women and young people, yet few people actually go out and vote. This indicates that there is little belief or trust in the democratic process. What does it mean, therefore, for the ideals to be pursued by some while the vast majority steer clear of the system altogether, seeking only to be left alone? Perhaps it means that the ideals of American Democracy are no…
Declaration of Independence. (1776). Retrieved from https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript
Rousseau, J. (2018). Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rousseau/
Van Voris, J. (1996). Carrie Chapman Catt: A Public Life. New York City: Feminist Press at CUNY.
Hunt, L. (2016). "Introduction: The Revolutionary Origins of Human Rights." In The French Revolution and Human Rights: A Brief History with Documents, 2nd Edition, edited by Lynn Hunt, 1-31 (Boston: Bedford), 1.
Hunt, L. (2016). "Introduction: The Revolutionary Origins of Human Rights." In The French Revolution and Human Rights: A Brief History with Documents, 2nd Edition, edited by Lynn Hunt, 1-31 (Boston: Bedford), 5.
National Assembly. “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, 26 August 1789.” Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite. http://chnm.gmu.edu/revolution/exhibits/show/liberty--equality--fraternity/item/3216
Foote, S. (1958). The Civil War: Ft. Sumter to Perryville. NY: Random House.
Brutus No. 1. (1787). http://www.constitution.org/afp/brutus01.htm
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