By Joey Lyons, VI Form
The Founding Fathers’ Intent and the Formation of the Constitution
Throughout the country’s history, Americans have romanticized the nation-building work of the Founding Fathers. Since egalitarianism, liberty and democracy are central to the American mythos, Americans have often associated those ideals with the country’s founders. In making this association, Americans neglect the private interactions between the founders and, instead, focus on their public rhetoric. In public documents, most of the Founding Fathers expressed a desire to establish an inclusive democracy with majority rule. However, the founders, all of whom were in the economic elite, communicated different beliefs amongst themselves. Privately, the Founding Fathers wrote about their concerns over the possibility of oppressive majority rule by common people. As wealthy landowners, events, like the Rhode Island Currency Crisis and Shay’s Rebellion (both in 1786), convinced them that a new constitution had to replace the Articles of Confederation. This Constitution would protect the right to property and, as Benjamin Franklin put it, prevent the “rabble” from assuming control over the government (1). While the Founding Fathers publicly expressed a desire to expand democracy, in their private interactions, the founders revealed their intent to construct a government that restricted the power of majorities and, thus, limited democracy.
Before drafting the Constitution, the Founding Fathers publicly advocated for a democratic system of government based on the principles of equality and majority rule. In American democracy, as George Mason described in his Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776, all power would be “derived from, the People” (2). Thomas Jefferson echoed this ideal in the Declaration of Independence, when he wrote that American government would derive its “powers from the consent of the governed” (3). Jefferson and Mason wrote these documents in 1776, when tensions between America and Britain were the highest. They wrote not only to express their grievances against oppressive British rule, but also to unify Americans behind a common struggle for freedom and political representation. In the buildup to and during the American Revolution, many of the Founding Fathers used rhetoric, including cries for democracy and majority rule, to garner public support for the war. However, as their private discussions during the formation of the Constitution revealed, the founders did not entrust the uneducated majority with the future of the nation and, thus, when they drafted the Constitution, aimed to limit the political power of the masses.
When the Founding Fathers met at the Philadelphia Convention in 1787, they discussed the federal government’s inability, under the Articles of Confederation, “to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority” (4). When the American government operated under the Articles of Confederation, the Founding Fathers witnessed potential dangers popular democracy posed not only to the stability of the nation, but also to their wealth and property. In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, John Jay referenced Shay’s Rebellion, a popular uprising in Massachusetts that began in retaliation to the foreclosures of farms. He wrote “A spirit of Licentiousness has infected Massachusetts…” (5). The inability of a weak, federal government to respond to class conflicts worried Jay, who, as a member of the minority elite, was vulnerable to the commoner majority. In a letter to John Jay, George Washington wrote that preventing a majority from infringing on basic rights, such as the right to own property, required “the intervention of a coercive power” that could “pervade the whole union” (6). To provide this protective body, the Founding Fathers empowered the federal government with the ability to efficiently respond to middle-class majority transgressions. The founders also constructed the federal government in a way that afforded significant power to representatives and limited the power of the vote. In this way, the founders allocated a disproportionate amount of political power to educated, wealthy people and undermined the power of the middle-class majority.
At the Constitutional Convention, the Founding Fathers outlined a political system that limited majority influence in politics. This system restricted direct, political participation and placed boundaries on democracy. As members of the elite, the Founding Fathers did not want the uneducated majority to control government. As Thomas Jefferson described in a letter to Edmund Pendleton, “a choice by the people themselves is not generally distinguished for its wisdom” (7). In order to undermine the political influence of majorities, the founders built a complex government with three branches that checked and balanced one another. This distribution of power reduced the possibility that a single faction, even a majority, might dominate all facets of government. With the Constitution, the founders also limited the number of direct elections. The people could only vote for members of the House of Representatives every second year (8). Until the states ratified the Seventeenth Amendment 1913, residents of a state could not even vote for their Senators. Instead, state legislatures voted on their Senate representative: a process Mercy Otis Warren ridiculed as “the exclusion of the voice of the people in the choice of their first magistrate” (9). The Constitution also excluded the people from the election of judges. According to the Federalist Number 78, this exclusion needed to exist in order to prevent “oppressions of the minor party” (10). With the Constitution, the Founding Fathers bounded the political influence of common people, crippled the power of majorities in dictating government action, and concentrated power in the hands of representatives.
While the Founding Fathers publicly advocated for a government built on the principles of equality and majority rule, they drafted the Constitution in order to construct a representative democracy that granted an uneven amount of political power to the aristocratic elite. The founders believed that American government should entrust wealthy, educated people with political decisions. After witnessing political and social tumult in the years following the American Revolution, many of the Founding Fathers felt that a new Constitution needed to restrict the political influence of the uneducated masses in order to preserve the nation’s stability. While the Founding Fathers retreated from their public promises to extend American democracy, their Constitution outlined a far more stable and efficient form of government than that that had existed under the Articles of Confederation.
Joey Lyons is a VI Form day student from Southborough, MA. Academically, Joey enjoys integrating his favorite disciplines (history and literature) in humanities classes.
1. Isaacson, Walter. Benjamin Franklin : an American life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004. Print.
2. Virginia Declaration of Rights, June 12, 1776
3. Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776
4. James Madison, quoted in Notes of the Secret Debates of the Federal Convention of 1787 by Robert Yates
5. John Jay, letter to Thomas Jefferson, October 27, 1786
6. George Washington, letter to John Jay, August 1, 1786
7. Thomas Jefferson, letter to Edmund Pendleton, August 26, 1776
8. United States Constitution, 1787
9. Mercy Otis Warren, Observations on the New Constitution, and on the Federal and State Conventions by a
Columbian Patriot, 1788
10. Federalist Number 78, May 28, 1788