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Why the Founding Fathers Rejected Democracy in Favor of Representative Government


As seen in the Constitution’s many checks and balances, the framers recognized that a pure democracy, like an authoritarian monarchy, would be subject to the whims of human nature and result in a fundamentally flawed approach to governing.

In today’s era, some politicians and much of the media often talk about the “sacredness” of democracy and how giving more direct voting power to the people is a good that should be advanced.

Advocates of this position will insist that America is a nation that was fundamentally established upon the precepts of democracy; anyone who claims otherwise is seen as rejecting those principles and will be labeled as “un-American.”

But is this a biblically and morally responsible position to advocate for, and how should Christians feel about it?

To begin, let’s look at elements of American history and determine if the Constitution calls for America to function as a pure “democracy,” as some claim it does, or at least that it should.

In a letter to John Taylor, dated December 17, 1814, U.S. President John Adams wrote,

“Remember, Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself….It is vain to say that Democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than Aristocracy or Monarchy.”

Additionally, Founding Father James Madison wrote,

“Democracy is the most vile form of government…democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with the personal security or the rights of property, and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”

Alexander Hamilton also argued during a series of debates,

“Real liberty is neither found in despotism or the extremes of democracy, but in moderate governments… But if we incline too much to democracy, we shall soon shoot into a monarchy.”

But wait, you ask, isn’t America a nation “of the people, by the people, and for the people”? Yes, of course. But as shown in these iconic statements, and in the words of the Constitution, America was intended to be governed not by a “direct democracy” but rather by a “representative republic.”

This is clear in the composition of the U.S. Senate, where residents of each state are given equal representation regardless of their state’s population, and in the Electoral College, in which states appoint electors, who elect the president of the United States based upon the proportional value of each state’s population, not by a direct popular vote system. By contrast, the House of Representatives is elected by a more direct and popular vote system, as each of the 435 congressional districts in the U.S. House are drawn according to population, or approximately 765,000 residents per district after the 2020 census.

However, the original structure of how Congress is chosen has changed. While House members are, and have always been, elected through direct vote by the people, that was not always the case for senators. Initially, U.S. senators were elected by state legislatures. In 1913, thanks to a push by the burgeoning progressive movement of the early 20th century, the 17th amendment allowing direct election of senators was ratified, giving the people the ability to choose their senators just like they do their House members — via a statewide popular vote.

And if the progressives have their way in the 21st century, there will be no Electoral College electing the President but instead a nationwide popular vote.

Ultimately, the Founders’ original approach was all designed to provide “checks and balances,” giving the United States the “moderate government” that Alexander Hamilton discussed.

Arguably, a pure democracy and an authoritarian monarchy are mirror images of each other, being subject to the whims of human nature, and as such make for fundamentally flawed approaches to government. In a pure democracy, giving “power to the people without restraint” is the ultimate goal, and while this idea may seem good in practice, it rests on one, fundamental assumption that is clearly at odds with a biblical worldview — that mankind is essentially good.

We know this is not true from a basic reading of Scripture. In Psalm 53:3, we read, “They have all fallen away; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one,” and the Apostle Paul references this passage again in Romans 3:10-12.

Inversely, in an authoritarian monarchy, everything the king does is justified because it is in his own best interest. This brings to mind some of the philosophies discussed in Machiavelli’s famous work, The Prince, most significantly, the belief that the acquisition of power is what matters most, not morality or legitimate authority. In other words, “the ends justify the means,” which is anathema to biblical governance.

As such, a pure democracy and an unrestrained monarchy are two roads that both lead to tyranny. They simply take different routes to get there.

Another example of how the Founders protected against this was in how difficult they made it for the U.S. Constitution to be amended. In Article V of the Constitution, the onerous process to amend the U.S. Constitution requires ratification by two-thirds of the states (38 by today’s count), along with a two-thirds majority vote of both houses of Congress.

By contrast, state constitutions are increasingly amended by direct vote through citizen referendums or initiatives, also popularly known as ballot measures.

Although not entirely new, the referendum process came into vogue in the late 19th century, when the progressive movement began questioning the integrity of representative government. Nebraska led the way by providing a way for cities to add referendums to the ballot in 1897, and two years later, South Dakota became the first to allow for statewide ballot measures. By 1918, 31 states had approved a process for statewide ballot measures. Today, 39 states allow statewide referendums.

Not surprisingly, these measures are pushed and touted in our modern era by progressive activists, who cite “sacred democracy” as the reason to put key issues before the people. The problem is that the issues are complex but are often distilled into a simple but vague question. Voters typically vote on the referendum with a “yes” or “no” answer.

Sometimes, the way a measure is worded is confusing and convoluted, so a voter who believes they are agreeing to an issue may actually be rejecting it, and vice versa. That’s because there are almost never any debates or contextual education on the issue, but rather advocates on both sides will employ paid advertising, social media campaigns, media interviews, and other promotional efforts to tout their position. 

In some states, a ballot initiative can amend the constitution of a given state, even bestow a “right,” with a bare majority of 50.1 percent of the vote, though some states, like Florida, have a 60 percent threshold.

Through the years, referendums have been used to decide all sorts of issues, ranging from approving bond measures and temporary tax measures to legalizing marijuana and lotteries to banning single-use plastic bags to overriding prior referendums.

And since the Dobbs decision overturned Roe v. Wade and sent the issue of abortion back to the states, ballot measures have been used to establish abortion as a “right” under the constitutions of various states. These include Ohio, California, Vermont, and Michigan. This fall, the right to abortion will be on the ballot in more states, including Florida and Arizona.

If America’s Founding Fathers knew today that a state’s constitution could be changed to allow the murder of an unborn child through a simple majority, my belief is that they would be mortified.

The framers of the U.S. Constitution were clear that the ability of a bare majority — meaning, half of those who are eligible and actually exercise their right to vote, plus one additional vote — to leverage power over the remaining population posed a grave threat to the stability and identity of the American nation.

It’s why they wrote, over and over again, that a pure, direct form of democracy was not their favored approach to American government. It’s also why they instituted safeguards such as the Electoral College, the composition of the U.S. Senate, and making it so difficult to amend the U.S. Constitution.

Ultimately, while the design and framework for constitutional government is meant to uphold and protect the freedom of its citizens as much as possible in an imperfect, fallen world, that freedom cannot be absolute and it must include responsibility. Part of that responsibility entails not creating a tyranny of the majority, whereby a bare majority gets to rule over the minority. That is a formula for divisiveness, not good governance that seeks to consider and ensure the well-being of all citizens.

If you like this article and other content that helps you apply a biblical worldview to today’s politics and culture, consider making a donation here.

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