Perry Bush: The founders understood the fragility of democracy

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Editor’s Note: Perry Bush of Bluffton University gave the speech at the pro-democracy rally in Lima on Thursday, the anniversary of the January 6, 2021 insurgency on Capitol Hill.

Good afternoon, folks. Thank you for coming together to remember our wonderful legacy of democracy on this cold winter day. I will be brief in my remarks. I just want to take a quick step back in history with you and explore three main points.

First of all, you have to understand why the founders, almost 250 years ago, were so worried about the prospects of democracy. They were not at all sure they could create a democracy that would last. Second, it would be helpful today to review how they tried to save democracy in the new government they created: the US Constitution. Finally, we have to explain a bit why these efforts have continued beyond the Constitution and to the present day.

Historians have pointed out how the women and men who created this republic were driven by deep fear about the prospects for democracy. They viewed it as fragile, delicate, requiring constant surveillance and protection. They were convinced that any manifestation of power – be it political power, military power or economic power – fundamentally endangered democracy.

They used physical metaphors. Power, they said, had a “voracious appetite” for freedom; he “devoured” freedom. The more power you had in a society, the less freedom you had. The founders were not anarchists; they didn’t want to live in what they called a “state of nature”. They believed that a certain measure of power protected freedom. But to preserve democracy, this power had to be limited and carefully circumscribed.

In the end, after a long and complex process that I won’t even attempt to summarize, the founders came together to create a whole new social contract that would serve as the basis for their continued political life together. They called the contract the Constitution of the United States, and it was a remarkable, incredible accomplishment.

These are basic civic education topics in high school, but as we remember, this new government was set up in three co-equal governing bodies – the executive, the legislature and the judiciary – each. with the ability to control and balance oneself.

Moreover, it was rooted in some basic tenets of American constitutionalism which were breathtakingly new on the world stage and which have safeguarded our freedoms since then: that power resides with the people; that the power of the state is found in a written document, the Constitution, which expresses the popular will; and that this government could only operate within the limits set by this charter. If this document didn’t give this new state the power to do something, then the government couldn’t do it.

Freedom was not an extra, extra-chrome option that the state generously granted to the people. Freedom was the foundation upon which the structure of government rested. Freedom was the default.

They were all radical ideas in the late 18th century – damn they are radical now – and this cornerstone of a brand new state was not put in place without incredible controversy, complexity and compromise. . I suspect that the compromises – between large states and smaller ones, between states that held people in slavery and states that did not – are well known to anyone who graduated from fourth year, and I don’t want to spend time seeing them again. here. But it’s worth reviewing two of the controversies that accompanied the birth of the Constitution that continue to resonate in political debate today and spawn two centuries of reform.

First, to gain the support of white Southerners, the Constitution allowed them to count the people they held in slavery as three-fifths of a person for tax purposes and congressional representation. In other words, he tacitly recognized slavery. The Constitution enshrines racial inequality.

Second, the main creators of the Constitution, historians have documented, were on the whole wealthy and aristocratic men. They had started to fear that the power of the people had gone too far, and in their new government, they put in place real brakes on the popular will: the electoral college, for example, or the stipulation that American senators would be elected. by state legislatures. , not by ordinary voters. We have only had the direct election of US senators for a little over a century.

In other words, the founders created an amazing charter for a new government that has preserved democracy for nearly 250 years and for which they deserve eternal recognition; but by enshrining inequality and controlling the popular will, they also created a charter that was fundamentally flawed. Pointing out these flaws is not a sign of disrespect; in fact, it is the opposite of disrespect.

Since the first government under the new constitution began to function, it has been the target of reform, and rightly so. Some of our greatest leaders recognized the flaws in our democracy and worked to correct them.

For example, take Lincoln. “As a nation we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now read practically “all men are created equal except negroes,” he wrote. Soon, he warned, “it will be written ‘All men are created equal, except negroes, foreigners and Catholics.’ In this regard, I would prefer to emigrate to a country where people do not claim to love freedom, in Russia, for example, where despotism can be taken in its purest form and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.

Or take Franklin Roosevelt, who in 1935 promised his Secretary of Labor, a former social worker named Frances Perkins, that “we are going to make a country in which no one is left behind.”

For much of this country’s history, efforts to manifest Roosevelt’s words have been led not only by presidents or elites in Washington, but by ordinary Americans: farmers, artisans, workers, unions and most of all by women. and people of color.

In fact, the two parallel liberation struggles of women and people of color have intertwined and have served, decade after decade, as a great source of democratic possibility and renewal. They left us a legacy that we have come together today to preserve; we are here, shivering with our dedication.

The founders were always concerned about the health of American democracy. It was a precious and delicate thing, they warned, and she needed constant protection. They did not know if the nation they had created could preserve democracy. The events in Washington DC a year ago have left this question still very open. We meet today in the cold to declare our commitment to protect the democracy we have inherited and as participants in the ongoing struggle to make it even better.

Thank you very much.

Perry Bush, with an academic doctorate, is the director of the department of history and religion at Bluffton University. He was a Fulbright Fellow and lectured in Ukraine in 2012. His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, which owns the newspaper. Contact him at [email protected]


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