By Reflection and Choice

In 1787, Hamilton, Madison, and Jay penned the series of pamphlets that ultimately became the Federalist Papers in order to convince the public to support the new constitution, which would replace the inadequate Articles of Confederation. They divided up the job of explaining the ideas behind each element of the constitution – federalism, the presidency, the bicameral Congress, the courts, and so on. Hamilton took on the job of writing the first chapter and gave the broad overview of this historical moment.

At the time, the country was in crisis. Yes, the war was over, but the confederation was falling apart because the central government was too weak. Pissed off farmers were causing problems in Massachusetts, each state had its own currency, and the state legislature in Virginia wasn’t being checked.

The new constitution hoped to remedy those problems, but it was far from a done deal. Hamilton and Madison had to convince people to support their plan. At stake was this very young democracy.

Hamilton begins, “It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”

See, a democracy in a large country was an entirely new enterprise, and nobody knew how this whole thing was going to work out. While political philosophers have discussed and debated the merits and weaknesses of democracies since the Greeks, those discussion were always theoretical. Beyond some cities in Switzerland and in Greece (supported by a system of slavery), no large nation had ever maintained a system of government based on the popular vote. And they had no idea how this was all going to work in our country. In this one sentence, Hamilton asked whether a group of people was capable of ruling themselves with rational decisions and voting, or were we forever doomed to be ruled by kings and tyrants.

Since the authors of the Federalist Papers were building up arguments for why this constitution should be passed, clearly they believed that institutions mattered. Madison said that if all men were angels, no government would be necessary. So, our human nature wasn’t enough to maintain a government. But at the same time, they also said that without rationality, without broad agreement about certain values, this whole thing was going to fall apart. Laws are good, but not enough.

We are in the midst of a crisis right now. It is perhaps the biggest crisis to our democracy in my lifetime. With the less than seven weeks until the election, I have major worries about voting rights, the peaceable transfer of power, and whether the results will be accepted by the public. I am watching chaos unfold in Kentucky and feeling uneasy about comments that I see on social media (“too bad that the cops didn’t die”). The virus has unleashed fear and economic instability, and had destabilized basic government services.

Hamilton and Madison feared that when emotions get too hot, rationality would flee, and the system would fall apart.

Democracies are not inevitable. Looking at China and Russia, I think that capitalism, or a corrupt version of capitalism, is permanent, but democracies can be squashed. Look at Hong Kong. Democracies can be destroyed from the top or they can fall apart from below when people lose faith.

I am worried. I am really worried.

5 thoughts on “By Reflection and Choice

  1. To my understanding, there has been a fair amount of historical/political science work tending to suggest that long-established democracies do not collapse, except under foreign conquest. Countries like post-Soviet Russia or Weimar Germany were very briefly established democracies, and Hong Kong has been in essence conquered. None of these countries furnishes much grounds for concern about the preservation of America’s essential democratic character. (That doesn’t mean that democratic countries are necessarily governed wisely or justly, but that is another issue.)


    1. Agreed. The election of 1800 was pretty dicey for the US when the country was young. I doubt our democracy will collapse but perhaps its democratic character will change. We seem to be abandoning the “liberal” part of liberal democracy (and maybe in this case, both sides are actually to blame).

      (So as to avoid charges of hiding behind my anonymity, I am H.A. Erler, Kenyon College PSCI Dept.).


  2. What countries count as long established democracies for this evaluation? How long counts as “long established”? Who get to vote to for a country to count as a democracy?

    Was the American Civil War a collapse of democracy?

    (not rhetorical questions)

    I like it when Laura returns to her nerdy political science roots (especially when others chime in).

    I started thinking about the times when the national & electoral college votes diverge

    “Since the national popular vote was first recorded in 1824, there have been four presidential elections where the winner won the Electoral College and lost the popular vote:

    Donald Trump (R) in 2016
    George W. Bush (R) in 2000
    Benjamin Harrison (R) in 1888
    Rutherford B. Hayes (R) in 1876”


    The previous two times were after the Civil War after the South succeeded in disenfranchising Black Americans after Reconstruction. Was that a failure of democracy?


  3. I can see you teaching this subject and it makes me think I should read the Federalist papers. I feel like I haven’t (though I must have read some excerpts when I took AP US history, right?).


    1. bj said, “I feel like I haven’t (though I must have read some excerpts when I took AP US history, right?).”

      I bet you/we did.


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