Fourth of July history lesson

Posted: Jul 03, 2002 12:00 AM
On July 4, 1776, our forefathers set about creating conditions by which every American has a chance to better himself, to determine his own fate, to pursue happiness on his own terms, or most importantly, simply to be left alone. Ah, but did they create a democracy? Certainly, we tend to equate America with democracy, but we don't often truly understand its historical meaning. We also say that America is republic, again without much thought as to what that means. So, what do these terms mean? Which are we and does it really matter? In ancient Greece, democracy meant a form of government by a select group of men who would vote on issues affecting the city-state where they lived. According to what we've learned from Aristotle, this system involved civil service of some form or another (be it holding office, participating in general assemblies or even simple jury duty). We gather from the writings of Plato, however, that democracy was considered one of the worst forms of government, considered little better than anarchy and mob rule. Socrates belittled it as a "charming form of government, full of variety and disorder." For a long while the common belief was that people could not be trusted to follow anything but their own selfish interests. The fear of anarchy remained a serious impediment to government by the people, of the people and for the people. Few, if anyone, believed in individual, "self-evident" rights. Therefore, the best form of government was one where the best man - or "philosopher-king," to use Plato's term - governed. Republicanism, regarded as a better alternative to democracy, was the prevailing philosophy at the time of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1789. In their debates the Founding Fathers hesitated to use the word "democracy" in describing the system of government they were establishing. Thomas Jefferson himself only used the word when applying it to small communities such as New England town meetings. He never applied it to the country as a whole. Jefferson was not alone. Most people in the original 13 states shunned the word. Yet democracy still had its supporters, like Alexander Hamilton. In the attempt to have the Constitution accepted and ratified, Hamilton, along with John Jay and James Madison, wrote a series of letters, known as "The Federalist Papers" expounding on the virtues of union and the new form of government being attempted by the former colonies. While he never actually used the word, Hamilton made clear his trust in the wisdom of the people. In The Federalist No. 15, he stated, "we must extend the authority of the Union to the persons of the citizens, - the only proper objects of government." Abraham Lincoln, who also expressed great faith in government by the people, rarely used the word democracy in public addresses. Teddy Roosevelt was one of his few predecessors who did, speaking of our "democratic republic" in his inaugural address of 1905. Yet it was not until Woodrow Wilson led us into the First World War that the idea truly began to catch on that America is a democracy - we must make the world "safe for democracy," he said at the time. Except that the word "democracy" never appears in the Constitution. The word "republic" does, however, in that the Constitution guarantees to each state a republican form of government, but it does not define the term "republican." Nor is there any law that strictly declares us to be one or the other. The truth is, while our nation may have been initially intended to be a "democratic republic" at a time when majority opinion favored a more republican form of government, over the years we have been steadily moving toward a much more democratic system than was initially envisioned. Changes to the Constitution have increased enfranchisement of the electorate (every citizen, upon reaching the age of 18, is granted the right to vote, regardless of color, class, education, ethnicity or other superficiality in the eyes of the law) and have granted us greater authority in choosing our leaders (for instance, the 17th Amendment allows senators to be chosen directly by the people of their respective states). In spite of this, we still remain a republic. According to Dr. Kenneth Tollet, professor of history at Howard University, what the Founding Fathers established was a "mercantile" republic, designed to advance the commercial interests of the agriculturally-based electorate, (who were white, propertied males). Dr. Tollet likewise believes we are now witnessing a revival of classical republicanism, or an ideal system where the people's representatives put aside their own private interests to govern for the public good. But the question remains, are we a democracy or a republic? It doesn't really matter, according to columnist Bruce Fein. He believes a far more important question we should be asking is whether our institutions are serving the public interest and providing for the common good. The answer to that, I believe, is yes, because of our particular mix of democracy and republicanism, which has evolved to make America the envy of the world.