Understanding Democracy – The Importance of the Constitution

According to the historian Roger Osborne, the American Revolution was the most decisive event in the history of democracy. Within the first seventy years of the new United States of America’s existence, every white adult male had the right to vote in state and federal elections, almost every important public official was elected, a series of national and state institutions had been set up to protect citizens from the power of the state and from the tyranny of the majority, political parties had been established that relinquished power peacefully after elections, and a culture of mass participation in politics had emerged.   

No-one could have known at the time, of course, that subsequent events would propel this new nation to global superpower status with the result that democracy would eventually become the pre-eminent form of government that it is today. When representatives of Britain’s thirteen American colonies drafted and signed the American Declaration of Independence in July 1776, of course, they could not have known the profound importance of their actions. The Declaration of Independence provided the inspiration for the revolution, with its bold assertion that all men were created equal and endowed by their Creator with the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But it was the drafting of the American Constitution and the design of the new form of government that was to have the more profound and lasting consequences. Five years after independence, a Congressional Convention met to draft the Constitution for the new nation. In the words of future Secretary of State, John Jay, Americans became ‘the first people … with an opportunity of deliberating upon and choosing forms of government under which they should live.[1]’ The task they faced was no less than how to design an effective system of government that could replace tyranny and protect the majority of citizens from oppression.

Democracy lay at the heart of the system the American Founding Fathers devised to do so. The new American system was not to be the direct system of democracy that the ancient Athenians had used. Instead, the American system was to be based on the idea of representative democracy. Rather than every citizen having the right to attend and vote in the national assembly, as was the case in Ancient Athens, U.S. citizens would elect representatives who would attend the legislature and act on their behalf.

To prevent the government from becoming too powerful, the legislature would be comprised of two national legislative assemblies, the House of Representatives and the Senate. A President, also elected by the people, would lead the executive arm of government. All elected representatives would serve for fixed terms and could be removed by the people at elections to be held at fixed time periods.

Crucially, elected representatives would be forced to operate within a precisely defined framework of law, which was laid down in the Constitution. An independent judiciary would act as a check on the behaviour of the President and the Legislature. And a Supreme Court would be established tasked with defending not the government, but the Constitution. To further ensure the protection of citizens from possible oppression by their elected government, protections for citizens’ rights, including freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to trial by jury, and freedom of religion, were written into the Constitution.

Through this extraordinary innovation in governance, the Founding Fathers found a way to take the fundamental principles of democracy established in Ancient Greece and create a system of government that could apply these principles to nation states comprising millions of citizens. The form of government they crafted – representative democracy based on the rule of law and a written Constitution which provided protection for individual rights – has proven to be the most effective means of protecting citizens from oppression by the state since the invention of the state itself.

Read more about what democracy really means here.

[1] John Jay, The Correspondence and Public Papers of John Jay, Henry P. Johnston, ed., G.P. Putnams Sons, 1890, Vol. I, 161

1 thought on “Understanding Democracy – The Importance of the Constitution

  1. Pingback: Understanding Democracy – The Importance of Human Rights | disorderedworld

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