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How to Founding Fathers Developed Democracy

Info: 3154 words (13 pages) Essay
Published: 16th Oct 2017 in Politics

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How the Founding Fathers of the United States designed political institutions that embody the values of democracy and liberty while preventing the rise of tyranny over time?

American democracy is often perceived as a true model for democratic institutions around the world. The United States presidential system has often been copied by many states in Africa, Asia and Latin America (Llanos 55). Despite their best efforts, few nations have achieved similar success in creating stable democratic regimes that respect and protect individual rights for long periods of time. In this modern era of democratization, an insightful analysis of American institutions will help us understand what types of institutions are likely to help democratic regimes survive and thrive over time. The following essay argues the founding fathers of the United States designed a unique formula of democratic institutions that was specifically designed to guarantee the survival of democratic values and liberty while preventing the rise of tyranny. In order to support this claim we shall analyze the three cornerstones of American democracy: an “evolving” written constitution, a federal system that constitutionally divides power between the national and subnational level and a presidential system which separates power into different branches.

An evolving written constitution

The founding fathers of the United States were largely inspired by important political philosophers just as Montesquieu and Locke when designing the American Political system (Pole 152). As a result of their theories and beliefs, the founding fathers realized efficient democracy requires the recognition of a powerful written constitution as the supreme law of the land (Caraley 384). By recognizing the law as supreme, it was possible to clearly distribute power and to guarantee the protection of individual rights and freedoms. The American Constitution is one the most influential documents ever written as it recognizes the importance of natural rights but also the need for a government to have the democratic consent of its people . The American Constitution is unique as it is often perceived as a “living” document that evolves along society needs and values (Barnett 10). The United States is a nation born out of revolution that fought with reason and action against the oppressive actions of a tyrant. The modern origins of the constitutionalism can be traced back to the American Declaration of Independence issued on July 4th, 1776 (Alibrandi 22). This document officially affirmed the right of the thirteen colonies for self-determination and cut ties with British Crown due to the abuses inflicted by British authorities (Bradley 92). In 1787 Philadelphia Convention, the American Patriot James Wilson claimed that freedom would be guaranteed under common law and the charter of the individual colonies (Alibrandi 23). As a result of this rebellious attitude, British forces invaded the colonies in an attempt to regain control of the territory. However, the American patriots endured and managed to defeat British troops with the support of France (Alibrandi 21). In 1783, British authorities signed the Treaty of Paris that officially recognized the United States as independent state (Alibrandi 21). The fear and despise of any type of tyranny is an important characteristic of the American people that constantly shapes their political debates and beliefs. It was the very same fear of tyranny that pushed the Continental Congress to adopt the Articles of Confederation as way to redistribute power. Under the Articles of Confederation, the United States became a confederacy where individual states retained a great deal of power and independence (Bradley 92). This system established a legislative branch of government and weak central government that would be responsible for the foreign affairs and protection of the territory (Bradley 92). However, as a result of ineffective central authority, the new nation faced many issues such as free-riding, inter-state tensions and poor commerce due the different currencies in circulation. In 1786, the Continental Congress which was the executive body of the confederation authorized the state legislature to appoint delegation to meet in Philadelphia to strengthen the Articles (Pole 150). At first, delegates proposed the Virginia Plan which aimed to create a strong national government where power would be separated in three branches and the executive would be appointed by popular vote (Pole 150). This initiative was rejected and the delegations moved to analyze the New Jersey Plan which was a less radical version of the Virginia plan that aimed to preserve the key outlines of the confederation (Pole 150). However, this proposal was also rejected as many delegates deemed necessary the creation of a strong national government to guarantee the prosperity and security of the young nation. The last plan was known as the Connecticut Compromise aimed to approve the American Constitution and set in place a strong national government where the executive would be appointed through the creation and us of the Electoral College (Morlon 345).

Federalism as a principle

The found fathers realized that in order for democracy to survive in the United States, the thirteen colonies needed to adopt a true federal system to ensure that interest of both large and small states were respected. One of the major reasons behind the downfall of the relationship between the American colonies and the British Crown lies on fact that British authorities had refused to accommodate the growing interests for more equitable representation of these states (Hulchinson 5). Following the Declaration of Independence of 1776, the Americans colonies renounced British sovereignty and established themselves as a unity of independent states (Alibrandi 22). Following the recognition of independence in 1783, the United States became a confederacy. The Articles of Confederation embodied the basic fear of strong government and highlighted the importance of individual states (Bradley 92). The United States described itself as a confederacy by which several states had voluntarily agreed to join a firm league of friendship for common defence. However, the states were committed to retain freedom, sovereignty and independence. Under the system, limited powers were vested in the legislature that had no way ratifying treaties, changing finances or defend the national territory without the complete approval of all its members (Bradley 92). In addition, there was no mention for the creation of an executive branch as many administrative duties were left in the hands of committees appointed by Congress. This first experiment of American Federalism was hardly operational and was marked by its inefficiency that deeply affected the people’s confidence in any government (Bradley 93). Shays’ rebellion seriously tested the power of the new nation as it became clear that the United States required a new way to divide institutions that power between the national level and the states in order to prosper and thrive (Bradley 93). Many Americans believed federalism was a major compromise where a strong government could be implemented but ensure that government would not be strong enough to impose tyranny as there were different jurisdictions of power among the states (Bradley 93). The concept of federalism is associated with the constitutional division of powers between national and subnational levels of government. In a true federal state, the national and subnational governments are required to cooperate and treat each other as partners in order to find consensus.

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In the 1780’s, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington had decided to come up with a constitutional plan to divide power between the national governments and the states that would become the basis of American Federalism (Alibrandi 23). The adoption of American Constitution led to an open debate between two major groups of Americans. The first group was the Federalists, who often referred to themselves as Plubius (Pole 151). They advocated for a strong national government based on separation of powers that included a set of checks and balances. Among the most prominent Federalists figures we find the likes of James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and Jay (Pole 151). These eloquent and intelligent individuals managed through a series of published documents to convince Americans to support the creation a strong national government to ensure the protection of their liberties and rights (Pole 151). By acknowledging that men were ambitious and rapacious, the federalists proposed to design a system of government that would make ambition counteract ambition (Pole 152). By investing a great amount of power and authority in Congress, they hoped to reconcile the interest of the people and the elites as both of chambers required majoritarily support to pass legislation (Llanos60). On the other hand, the Anti-Federalist fiercely opposed this new set of institutions. On a series of published letters, this group attacked the proposed Constitution as they believed that an excessively powerful government would put in jeopardy the individual rights and freedoms that they had fought so hard to obtain from Britain (Alibrandi 27). In the end, the federalists were successful in convincing the American people in creating a strong government to reinforce legislation but also worked arduously to limit its power in a manner so that the state could not legally threaten individual rights. On September 17, 1787, the majority of the states ratified the American Constitution which officially put an end to the American Confederation and set the foundations of the more stable federal democracy (Alibrandi 23). In 1791, the American Congress adopted ten amendments to the American Constitution known as the Bill of rights (Salt 491). This set of liberties and fundamental rights cannot be violated by the government and should be protected by the government by all means. The evolving nature of the American Constitution is largely propelled by the ability of Congress to pass new amendments to expand the protection of rights and freedoms as American society changes over time. Americans display profound respect for this text and the supremacy of law is one of the predominant factors that make their nation a strong democracy.

Separation of power with check and balances

The American Constitution separates power into three different branches referred as the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government (Caraley 379). Each branch has a specific area of jurisdiction and powers that are meant to provide effective government. This approach was justified by the ideas of Montesquieu and Locke who claimed that the consolidation of power ultimately leads to tyranny (Pole 152). The American presidential system is a living remainder of the struggle against tyranny. Under a presidential system, institutions are designed in such a way to provide limited government that functions on the premise of separation of power. Since no individual can hold more than one position at the same time within these branches of government, power remains unfocused and more difficult to obtain. It is important to note, the founding fathers of the United States had a profound distrust on the ability of men to govern themselves democratically ( Morlon 341). For this reason, they believed in the creation of a system of government with limited popular control to prevent the majority to oppress others through the use direct democracy known as “mob rule” (Morlon 343).

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The solution envisioned to by the founding father was the creation of a system of checks and balances to regulate the separation of powers. Checks and balances provide the ability for one branch, under very specific circumstances, to deny or block the action of another branch whose actions are deemed unconstitutional and vice versa (Fontana 1141). This is a representation of James Madison’s ideals found in his works Federalist 10 and Federalist 51 that advocated for the creation of a system of government where ambition would counter-act ambition. The idea of competition between the three branches of government was central to the constitutional design in order to prevent a potential tyrant from consolidating its power (Fontana 1141). However, it is important to note the American Constitution does not perfectly separate the power of the legislative, executive and judicial branches but rather fragments these powers so that branches can check each other’s authority (Bulman Ponzen465). This lack of precision was used in more than one occasion by presidents to take significant action in order to protect the rights and freedoms of American people (Marchisio 220). In addition, since no branch of government can unilaterally declare that they represent the popular will, this thick form of accountability is necessary to give legitimacy to the government.

Ever since the adoption the American Constitution, the role and power of the executive branch has been under close scrutiny. Initially, the founding father envisioned a system where Congress would be the most powerful branch of government (Morlon 342). However, historic events and major crisis have often led to an increase in power of the president. In the majority of time, presidents such as Reagan, Lincoln and Roosevelt had made an extraordinary use of the presidential power to take decisive action (Young 328). The American president and its Cabinet are responsible for reinforcing and implementing the law. It is important to note, that the American Constitution perceives the American President as the supreme leader of the armed forces and the representatives of the American people at the international stage (Young 328). While the president yields great power, his actions are largely confined to the limits prescribed in the American Constitution. In addition, the American president is constraint by a fixed term in office which prevents from clinging to power for too long. The fact that there is an open window for change in power every four years makes political competition far more intense as candidates have to engage in efficient and concise policy-making to attract a high number of votes. A major factor that contributes to the stability of the American democracy is free regular elections that allow the people to express their political preferences by casting ballots (Caraley 379). The founders believed that the only way to prevent the rise of tyrannical figure was to hold free elections periodically so that people in positions of power would have to act according the interests and needs of their constituents. It is important to note that for a long period of time, the right of vote was only given to white male property owners (Salt 486). The exclusion of women and African-Americans of voting rights put in doubt the legitimacy of the elections as many members of society were unfairly excluded from exercising their basic rights (Salt 486).

Free elections and voting rights were not the only feature established by the founding fathers when designing effective democratic institutions. In terms of legislative power, the Constitution adopted bicameral chamber known as Congress to create and pass legislation. Congress is composed by two chambers: the House of Representatives and Senate (Morlon 342). The House of Representatives is known as the lower chamber where candidates are elected through direct popular vote. Since it was taken for granted that the legislative would function on a majority rule, it was important to create a devise to prevent direct democracy (Morlon 342). A solution to this problem was found in the creation of the American Senate. Initially members of the Senate were appointed by their states legislature and were meant to represent the interest of their particular states (Morlon 342). In addition, members of the Senate are given equal voting power and equal number of representatives at the upper house regardless of population disparities (Morlon 342). Today, Senators are elected to serve six year terms

With regards to the judicial branch of government, the American Constitution grants the Supreme Court the power of judicial review which allows it to override decisions made by lower courts or legislation that is deemed unconstitutional (Harriger 201). The judicial court has played an important part in shaping American democracy as it keeps a close eye on the actions of the legislative and executive. Most Americans revere the constitution, in particular libertarians, which praise the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution (Barnett 9). The majority of provisions found in the Bill of rights were designed to place certain citizens beyond the reach of majorities and officials that might want to oppress them (Harriger 201). The Bill of Rights provided the necessary legal protection to ensure one’s right to life, liberty, property, freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of worship and assembly as well as other fundamental right that could not be submitted to vote (Caraley 386). The written nature of the constitution performs a restraining function because of its semantic meaning that is independent of the desires who decide to interpret it (Caraley 387). The Supreme Court has played a fundamental role in protecting people’s rights and advancing the struggle for equality of minorities. The Supreme Court ensures a stable democratic government by interpreting the law and the Constitution in a manner that is fair an equal for people.

Conclusion

To conclude, the political success of American democracy can be largely attributed to the herculean effort displayed by the founding fathers when designing American institutions. The incorporation of democratic ideals into an effective set of institutions guaranteed the survival and success of American democracy through time and change. American democracy is built on three cornerstones that prevent the rise of tyranny. The first one is the recognition of the American constitution as supreme law of the land which guarantees the protection of individual rights and freedoms. The second was the adoption of a federal system that demonstrated a compromise to include the needs and interests of large and small states. The third cornerstone is the adoption of a separation of powers to prevent individual from consolidating absolute power. James Madison played a fundamental role in creating a double protection system provided by federalism and the separation of power among the three branches of power which protects to this day the quality of American democracy.

 

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