Most people living in the United States are familiar with our form of government commonly referred to as a democracy. A democracy, by definition, is the form of government where the people retain the top ruling authority. There are two forms of democracy generally recognized, one being direct democracy and the other a representative democracy. As we approach the upcoming elections in November, it is a good opportunity to look back at some of the problems inherent with democracy. We can also look at how the framers of the U.S. constitution attempted to address the failures encountered by previous democracies.
Even though a democracy is designed to allow the people to rule themselves, this is likely to be the biggest problem with such a form of government. People by nature are greedy and self-motivated. In a democracy, the policies and laws reflect that of the majority's views, thus leaving the minority underrepresented. Another issue is that the people can be fooled or mislead causing events and policies that are contradictory to that of the "greater good". In a democracy there are vast numbers of individuals all with different needs, desires, and motivations. Those needs and desires can drive people to bond together with others of similar views causing the rise of factions. The presence of strong factions can greatly shift the power of a democracy to a select group of people.
Throughout history, democracy has been attempted several times. The two significant examples of this are Athens, Greece about 2500 years ago and the Roman's about 2100 years ago. The Athenians practiced direct democracy, where all citizens had a direct involvement in policies and issues. A core problem with this was only about thirty percent of Athens population were citizens. The other seventy percent were women, slaves and foreigners. Thus thirty percent controlled all governing aspects of life for the whole. The Romans had a representative democracy, this was where people were elected by the citizens to make up the governing body called the Senate. Much like Athens not all people were citizens. The body that elected the representatives were made up of the land owners and wealthy merchants, as well as military heroes. In turn they elected those representatives who best reflected their owns wants and desires. Demagogues were prevalent and often gave rise to many problems. They would sway a few factions to their favor thus increasing their own political power. An issue that both of these civilizations faced was their size. Eventually they grew so large in population that keeping order over the whole and effectively representing the people was increasingly difficult. In places like England where a parliament was created, they retained a monarch who still had severe influence over the government. Often times the ruling authority made themselves immune to the laws which governed the people.
After declaring their independence from Great Britain, the United States formed a confederation as a central governing body. This meant that the newly formed states were independent, and voluntarily allowed the central government to take on some minimal duties. Some of which were forming an army, making treaties and alliances, borrowing money from the people, and forming a postal system. However it didn't allow for other considerations which eventually lead to its demise. The confederation didn't allow the government to levy taxes making it near impossible to pay for the army. Also, it was not allowed to implement military quotas making it impossible to form a standing army. Although the central government could enter into treaties it had no power to enforce them as well as being unable to control foreign relations of the states. The government could pass laws but the states were left to enforce them at their own discretion. In order to enact any laws, Congress had to get nine states to approve it. Congress was not allowed to make changes to the Articles of Confederation without consent of all thirteen states. The central government had no authority to regulate commerce between the states. It also lacked a judiciary system so there was no way to resolve quarrels between states. Also, each state printed their own money and was able to tax goods from other states. This lead to inflation and unstable economies within the states. Finally there was no executive branch to help guide and coordinate the central governments actions.
After the Articles of Confederation were deemed to be inadequate the thirteen states sent representatives to the Constitutional Convention. During this convention there were two plans proposed, the New Jersey plan and the Virginia Plan. Both of these plans had their benefits and problems, eventually Roger Sherman came up with the Great Compromise. It was the Great Compromise that set up the bicameral system of the House of Representatives and the Senate.
This new system moved to solve the problem of ensuring the majority of the people were represented in government while still providing adequate presence of the minority. Also, the three-fifths compromise was introduced, allowing for slaves to be partially counted in the population. This was to avoid alienating the southern states where the use of slaves contributed greatly to their economies. The system of checks and balances was also created by having three separate but equal branches of the government. This was to ensure that no one branch would acquire an overwhelming power or influence over the others. Congress was left to pass the laws, the Executive was to enforce the laws, and the Judiciary was left the authority to review the laws. It was decided that federal laws were to be the highest law of the land. The central government was given the power to print a single form of money thus stabilizing inflation and trade. The new government retained the authority to raise a standing army but was now granted the power to levy taxes in order to maintain it. The federal government also assumed control over interstate commerce and could impose tariffs on foreign goods. One important part was the creation of the Bill of Rights, in these amendments, the individual was granted certain rights that are protected from infringement by the government. Finally the constitution gave the provision that anything not directly addressed in it was left to the states themselves to govern.
At the time of its creation, our democracy was looked on by the world as what was going to be the next failed attempt at a people trying to govern themselves. Over the last couple of centuries our country has seen its share of successes and failures. But through it all, we have maintained our democracy and pushed ever forward. At no given time in history can a people foresee what the future holds. Our founding fathers did see though that future generations would be best served to be allowed to make decisions for themselves. In that, they framed our Constitution to resolve problems with democracy, allowing for its progression, and at the same time maintaining its ideals and faith in the people to govern themselves.