Democracies and Their Discontents
The following quotation from James Madison from Federalist #10 is frequently used by the detractors of democracy:
" . . . democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with 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." -- James Madison
The most significant part of this quote is the " . . . " because by that means, the quote is lifted out of its context and made to mean something that Madison had no intention of saying: something, indeed, that contradicts the very essence of the Founding Father's philosophy.
Democracy is acknowledged to be a vague term, but its essential meaning is "government by the people." And the above excerpt is often quoted by the enemies of popular government and majority rule as an indication that the Founding Fathers were also enemies of popular government.
But the key to understanding what Madison was saying lies in the " . . . " What that ellipsis replaces is the beginning of the sentence, which reads:
"Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles etc."
And what does SUCH DEMOCRACIES refer to? It refers to the earlier part of the paragraph, which was speaking of PURE DEMOCRACIES.
Those who use this quote as a proof text against democratic government do so because they fail or refuse to understand what Federalist No. 10 was all about, and that is FACTIONS, i.e., a party or a group within a democracy that seeks its own interest over those of the whole. Madison was saying that in the case of pure democracies, such factions are unavoidable and lead inevitably to the downfall of the state. HE WAS NOT SPEAKING OUT AGAINST THE BASIC PRINCIPLE OF A GOVERNMENT OF THE PEOPLE, as today's enemies of popular government and majority rule would have us believe. What he was arguing was that the REPUBLICAN FORM which the new Constitution had instituted was one that would prevent the formation of factions, and that it was a form of democratic government that was far superior to the "pure" form.
Therefore, those who use this quote in order to destroy our faith in democratic self-government are not only distorting the true intent of Madison, they are making themselves the enemy of everything Madison and the Founders stood for. More to the point is what Jefferson wrote:
"Democrats consider the people as the safest depository of power in the last resort; they cherish them, therefore, and wish to leave in them all the powers to the exercise of which they are competent." --Thomas Jefferson to W. Short, 1825.
And this one:
"We of the United States are constitutionally and conscientiously democrats. We consider society as one of the natural wants with which man has been created; that he has been endowed with faculties and qualities to effect its satisfaction by concurrence of others having the same want; that when, by the exercise of these faculties, he has procured a state of society, it is one of his acquisitions which he has a right to regulate and control, jointly indeed with all those who have concurred in the procurement, whom he cannot exclude from its use or direction more than they him." --Thomas Jefferson to P. Dupont, 1816.
"The full experiment of a government democratical but representative was and is still reserved for us. The idea... has been carried by us more or less into all our legislative and executive departments; but it has not yet by any of us been pushed into all the ramifications of the system, so far as to leave no authority existing not responsible to the people; whose rights, however, to the exercise and fruits of their own industry can never be protected against the selfishness of rulers not subject to their control at short periods... My most earnest wish is to see the republican element of popular control pushed to the maximum of its practicable exercise. I shall then believe that our government may be pure and perpetual." --Thomas Jefferson to I. Tiffany, 1816.
The only alternative to a government of the people is some form of despotism based on force. Those who oppose "democracy" are usually unable to see that the extension of their argument necessarily results in a despotic government. For as Jefferson wrote regarding majority rule, which is the way decisions are made in a democracy:
"The first principle of republicanism is that the lex majoris partis is the fundamental law of every society of individuals of equal rights; to consider the will of the society enounced by the majority of a single vote as sacred as if unanimous is the first of all lessons in importance, yet the last which is thoroughly learnt. This law once disregarded, no other remains but that of force, which ends necessarily in military despotism." --Thomas Jefferson to F. von Humboldt, 1817.
Those who wish to discard democratic government and who seek a form of government based on "Individualism" and the rights of each individual in opposition to the majority fail to realize that what they propose could only be instituted by a dictator, because the only alternative to democracy, i.e., government by the people, is dictatorship.
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