Adams: The Loss of the Democratic Republic

This is a follow-up post to my previous one regarding Adams’ constitutional views.

So John Adams saw the necessity of a mixed government, combining and balancing the monarchical, the aristocratic, and the democratic natures within society.


“A senate consisting of all that is most noble, wealthy, and able in the nation, with a right to counsel the crown at all times, is a check to ministers, and a security against abuses…Another assembly, composed of representatives chosen by the people in all parts, gives free access to the whole nation, and communicates all its wants, knowledge, projects, and wishes to government, it excites emulation among all classes, removes complaints, redresses grievances, affords opportunities of exertion to genius, though in obscurity, and gives full scope to all the faculties of man; it opens a passage for every speculation to the legislature, to administration, and to the public; it gives a universal energy to the human character, in every part of the state, such as never can be obtained in a monarchy.”

Remember, he is speaking to people who still had a king (in France and England) and had to couch his arguments in their context. He then states: “There can be no free government without a democratical branch in the constitution (his opponents argue that this is all that is needed). Monarchies and aristocracies are in possession of the voice and influence of every university and academy in Europe. Democracy, simple democracy, never had a patron among men of letters…Men of letters must have a great deal of praise, and some of the necessaries, conviniences, and ornaments of life. Monarchies and aristocracies pay well and applaud liberally. The people have almost always expected to be served gratis, and to be paid for the honor of serving them (via programs to get money from the rich given to them).” He follows this with this warning: “The people in America have now the best opportunity and the greatest trust in their hands, that Providence ever committed to so small a number, since the transgression of the first pair; if they betray their trust, their guilt will merit even greater punishment than other nations have suffered, and the indignation of Heaven.” I might argue that this is the case; that we have betrayed that trust, but I will leave it for another time.

Without a recognition that each portion of the people (those who are more monarchical, more aristocratic, or more democratic in nature) have their strengths and weaknesses, there can be no separation of power. Without separation of powers, according to Adams, this follows:

It would have been much to the purpose, to have inserted a more accurate investigation of the form of government of the ancient Germans and modern Indians; in both, the existence of the three divisions of power is marked with a precision that excludes all controversy. The democratical branch, especially, is so determined, that the real sovereignty resided in the body of the people, and was exercised in the assembly of king, nobles, and commons together. These institutions really collected all authority into one centre of kings, nobles, and people. But, small as their numbers and narrow as their territories were, the consequence was confusion; each part believed it governed the whole; the chiefs thought they were sovereigns; the nobles believed the power to be in their hands; and the people flattered themselves that all depended upon them. Their purposes were well enough answered. without coming to an explanation, so long as they were few in number, and had no property; but when spread over large provinces of the Roman empire, now the great kingdoms of Europe, and grown populous and rich, they found the inconvenience of each not knowing its place. Kings, nobles, and people claimed the government in turn; after all the turbulence, wars, and revolutions, which compose the history of Europe for so many ages, we find simple monarchies established everywhere...The most probable, or rather the only probable change is the introduction of democratical branches into those governments. If the people should ever aim at more, they will defeat themselves.

How do the people defeat themselves by aiming at more? The Constitution was set up with five branches of government: the executive; the Senate (representing the interest of the aristocracy and the states); the House (representing the interest of the commons); the judiciary (independent); and the states (where the true power was to reside). The separation of powers diminished to four branches after the Civil War because of the Civil War Amendments, which eliminated the states’ protection from control by the national government (they also did some great things…it’s just that they were worded in such a way as to allow extension of federal power into places it hadn’t been allowed before). The power then diminished to three with the Seventeenth Amendment which made the Senate into another House by changing the way the Senators were elected by popular vote. This changed the Senate’s constituency (making it the people instead of the states (and aristocracy)) and basically created a legislature that appears to purely represents the demos.

So why does the aristocracy need their own branch? Why can’t the Senate also represent the demos? The reason is that groups are put into branches of government, not to allow them to exert their desires, but to put them above board so that they can be checked. All the interests of the society need to be visible so that it can be checked.
This appearance of representing the democratic portion of society, however, is just that, an appearance. We can see that campaigns are directed at the people, promising those who elect the representatives what the people want. However, what do the people get? The demos receive what the corporate and special interest groups want. Why not? These are the groups that actually fund the campaigns. If the representative has to chose between doing what has been promised to the people (in order to get elected), and what the financiers want, the representative will chose the financier every time. The sad thing is that the people have a short memory (because we are focused on so many other things, some important, others much less so) and so the representatives can make the same campaign promises over and over again, without ever following through. If the representative were to disregard the interest of the financier in order to follow through on a promise, she would have a horribly difficult time getting funding for re-election. Those controlling the purse-strings have a very long, and very vengeful memory; after all we are talking about money.

This leads to a very dangerous situation: Aristotle, who gave Adams and many modern political thinkers their initial structures, describes it thus: “But when this exclusion (from the political process) is concealed, then the object is that the privileged class may deceive their fellow inhabitants.” Aristotle was describing how to classify citizens and that most often, it is obvious who is excluded from the opportunities and responsibilities of citizenship. I believe that we are at a point, due to constitutional changes and corporate cronyism and special interest money, where we, Joe and Jane American, think that we have a role in the political process, but are deceived in a system that is controlled by the very group that needs most to be checked: the aristocracy.

This takes away the Democratic Republic created by Madison, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton and gives us an Aristocratic Economic State. Welcome to the New and Improved America.

4 Replies to “Adams: The Loss of the Democratic Republic”

  1. Mike,

    Do you have a solution? Maybe we need more Statesmen among us, the commonfolk.

    I think this issue is much more complicated than corporate cronyism and special interest money (to which, by the way, I am not necessarily opposed, but neither will I attempt to defend it here.) The influence the current aristocracy has upon us, the deceived masses, is compounded by the seemingly never-ending dumbing down of the populous. I know your take on education, at least somewhat. How many of “The Classics” have Joe and Jane American read? What percentage of American college students, or graduates for that matter, could A) read, B) understand, and C) explain . . . say . . . the Declaration of Independence? I think a disappointing minority.

    The idealist in me believes in the potential integrity of man. Your argument presupposes that money given brings an elected “representative” into the camp of the giver; that the motivation to take a given position or represent a given interest is based upon the desire to continue receiving money, the end being re-election. In my world (wouldn’t you love to know what else goes on here?), persons running for elected office make known their positions, because those positions stem from beliefs and principles which are not purchased. Upon exposition of those beliefs and principles, contributors give their support (money) to the candidate they feel has positions (based upon principles) which best represent them or are in their own best interest. In this case, those contributing have the right to expect only that an elected official remain true to his principles, those espoused while yet a candidate. On the other hand, it remains the solemn responsibility of the elected to stand true to the same. Re-election happens when an official’s position actually represents the interest of a majority of his constituents.

    Now, with regard to re-election. I know that my perfect little world doesn’t exist (we both know that the Democrat party is corrupt :-)). I think, given the dismal current state of affairs that you describe, one of the most potentially functional solutions would be to simply eliminate re-election at all. Hence, you remove the motivation previously described. That being said, I already understand the criticism that the aristocracy could still exercise a disproportionate amount of influence by simply picking a new stooge each election, rather than working to keep the same stooge in office; but it’s a move toward a slightly leveler playing field. And you know me, I’m all for the little guy . . . especially the one that bags my stuff at WalMart (and the one in China who makes it).

    Also, since this is about the Separation of Powers, I haven’t even commented on the subtle tyranny of the Judiciary, about which Jefferson was extremely fearful. Perhaps another post.

  2. Rick,

    I think that term limits is a huge piece of the puzzle. This would eliminate the idea of being a politician for life ad encourage those who truly want to solve problems to get involved. Another benefit is that with term limits, less would get accomplished and the government would be less involved in society’s issues.

    My take on education is one that is very grassroots. It starts in the family, with parents actually reading good literature to their children. Imagine a home that speaks the language of Dickens, Shakespeare, Hugo, Tolstoy, Bronte, Stowe, etc. These are the books that delve into the human character, and although they are 200 years old (or more) still help shape human character.

    Additionally, schools should spend much more time on government and civics. This would require teachers to actually know what they are talking about regarding government and being able to discuss it in a non-partisan, but principled way…but principles are no longer used in our society and we are left with Men Without Chests.

    BTW, your idealism about integrity is most often trumped by the Founders’ sense that checks and balances and separation of powers were needed at each step to prevent abuse of the system. They just knew that ambition and money create serious problems (because they read Roman and Greek history and the Bible).

    Would adding more stringent requirements for voting be helpful? I think it would have to be instituted after a major re-education campaign had taken place. Otherwise, NO ONE WOULD BE ABLE TO VOTE!!! Sad day.

    Maybe local churches could start up the education of adults with monthly classes on government, regardless of location or denomination. This would create a powerful environment in which to learn.

    This from Tocqueville regarding the early American colonists (1620-1750): The character of Anglo-American civilization in its true light…is a result of two distinct elements, which in other places have been in frequent hostility, but which in America have been (had been) admirably incorporated and combined with one another. I allude to the spirit of Religion and the spirit of Liberty…Political principles and all human laws and institutions were moulded and altered at their pleasure (but religious truths remained intact). Thus, in the moral world everything is classed, adapted, decided, and foreseen; in the political world everything is agitated, uncertain, and disputed: in the one is a passive, though a voluntary, obedience; in the other an independence scornful of experience and jealous of authority.

    If only we could approach, as a society, politics in this fashion, but we fear to discuss, fear to argue, fear to hurt feeling (not you of course). But if in our churches we could discuss, not necessarily issues, but structures and forms, perhaps that would be a solution.

  3. Why would you send your children to school in a field? Grass? Roots? Besides, if you teach them at home, you wouldn’t have the help of someone who graduated from a University with a College of Elementary Education

    “Dickens, Shakespeare, Hugo, Tolstoy, Bronte, Stowe, etc.”? I don’t know these people? Are they this years’ contestants on American Idol, perhaps? Now there’s some culture and education. And you forgot Snoop Dogg, yo.

    Men Without Chests. Perhaps I’ll have to re-read Abolition. BTW (note my first internet abbreviation!), maybe better for an offline discussion, but have you read The Problem of Pain? or The Weight of Glory? Not quite as intense as Abolition, but exquisitely insightful.

    How could we teach government and civics and the Bible in a church all together like that? Wouldn’t that be violating the sacred principle of separation of church and state?

    I don’t think the realism of the Founders necessarily trumps my idealism; they just understood that they live in, say, Zarahemla rather than the city of Enoch.

    I am all about adding some aptitude requirements to vote.

    Tocqueville? Wasn’t he a French guy? What happened to the French guys like him?

    I’m insulted that you think I don’t fear hurting others’ tender feelings. In fact, I think maybe I won’t ever go back to church again because you said that. I think I always try to be sensitive to the wussies and idiots. And the only reason I don’t like to argue is because you’re always wrong and I’m always right, so it’s not really that much fun because there’s no novelty in it.

    You read too much.

  4. Just when I thought you wanted a serious reply, you come with this 🙂

    I have read parts of The Weight of Glory. The Inner Ring is awesome. I haven’t read The Problem with Pain, but I understand it is a great read.

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