The Intentions of the Framers of our Constitution

Signing of the Constitution of the United States

Signing of the Constitution of the United States

Most of the 55 Men Who Drafted Our Constitution Were Not Fond of Democracy

Nearly all of the fifty-five delegates who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 had been given specific instructions by the legislatures of their states to do nothing more than amend the Articles of Confederation. One of the first decisions they made was to ignore those instructions and draft an entirely new document.  (A couple of the state delegations came armed with detailed proposals for a new form of government.)  They also decided to take a vow of secrecy. Not a word spoken in the room where they were meeting was to be shared with the public or the press. They even took the precaution of sending one or two delegates to dinner with Benjamin Franklin each evening. Dr. Franklin was known to speak freely once he had consumed a drink or two and the delegates accompanying him to dinner were charged with changing the subject if the topic shifted to matters that were under discussion in the convention. 

But several of the delegates did take written notes during the convention, most notably James Madison, who took copious notes using a system of shorthand he devised himself. The others in attendance knew that he was taking notes - he sat directly in front of George Washington (who was presiding) facing the other delegates. He checked with those who had spoken each day to verify that he had captured their remarks accurately. They knew that they could trust him not to share those notes with the public. And their trust was well placed. The notes that Madison took were not published until after his death and as the youngest of the 55 men who worked through that long, hot summer to adopt the Constitution of the United States, he was also the last to pass away.

It is common to quote from The Federalist Papers when appealing to the intentions of our "Founding Fathers", and there is some justification for doing so.  However, the essays that make up The Federalist Papers were written for public consumption and to encourage support for the ratification of the Constitution.   In determining how the delegates felt about democracy, Madison's notes are a more accurate source.   And although there were exceptions, for the most part the men who drafted our Constitution were not fond of democracy.  [Note: these quotes are taken from Madison's notes.  They are typically framed as him quoting other delegates.  I have reframed them in some cases.]

Roger Sherman referred to “the inconveniencies of democracy” and “opposed the election by the people, insisting that it ought to be by the State Legislatures. The people, he said, immediately should have as little to do as may be about the Government. They want (lack) information and are constantly liable to be misled.” 

John Dickenson: “A limited Monarchy he considered as one of the best Governments in the world. It was not certain that the same blessings were derivable from any other form. It was certain that equal blessings had never yet been derived from any of the republican form.”

Edmund Randolph observed that “the general object was to provide a cure for the evils under which the U. S. labored; that in tracing these evils to their origin every man had found it in the turbulence and follies of democracy.” 

Elbridge Gerry: “The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy. The people do not want virtue but are the dupes of pretended patriots. In Massachusetts, it had been fully confirmed by experience that they are daily misled into the most baneful measures and opinions by the false reports circulated by designing men, and which no one on the spot can refute.” [Note: It was Elbridge Gerry who once drew an electoral map that contained district lines so convoluted some seeing them thought that one district resembled a salamander, hence, the term “gerrymander.”] 

With regard to electing the president, George Mason, “conceived it would be as unnatural to refer the choice of a proper character for chief Magistrate to the people, as it would, to refer a trial of colors to a blind man.” Charles Pinkney agreed, saying that “An election by the people being liable to the most obvious and striking objections. They will be led by a few active and designing men.” 

It may come as a shock to most Americans to discover that our Founding Fathers had such a negative view of democracy, but given the feelings of the majority of the delegates regarding democracy, it should come as no surprise that the system that was put in place by the Constitution of the United States was designed to appear to be democratic, but there were three deliberate “checks” on the will of the people (Madison referred to them as "successive filtrations") – the senate, the president, and the Supreme Court. 

The people of each state were allowed to vote directly to elect members of the House of Representatives, but senators were (originally) elected by state legislatures, the president was (and still is) elected by the members of the Electoral College, and Supreme Court justices were (and still are) nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate.  

Flaws in the manner in which we conduct our election have frequently resulted in a House of Representatives that does not reflect the will of the people.  Combined with the checks on majority rule that are embedded in our Constitution, the result has been a government that is a flawed democracy (at best) and does not meet the strict definition of a representative democracy.   If we want democracy in America, we need to change the way we conduct our elections and remove the anti-democratic provisions from our Constitution.