Democracy in the Early Republic

Today, most Americans think democracy is a good thing. We tend to assume the nation’s early political leaders believed the same. Wasn’t the American Revolution a victory for democratic principles? For many of the Founders, however, the answer was no.

A wide variety of people participated in early U.S. politics, especially at the local level. But ordinary citizens’ growing direct influence on government frightened the founding elites. At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Alexander Hamilton warned of the “vices of democracy” and said he considered the British government—with its powerful king and parliament—“the best in the world.” Another convention delegate, Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, who eventually refused to sign the finished Constitution, agreed. “The evils we experience flow from an excess of democracy,” he proclaimed.

Too much participation by the multitudes, the elite believed, would undermine good order. It would prevent the creation of a secure and united republican society. The Philadelphia physician and politician Benjamin Rush, for example, sensed that the Revolution had launched a wave of popular rebelliousness that could lead to a dangerous new type of despotism. “In our opposition to monarchy,” he wrote, “we forgot that the temple of tyranny has two doors. We bolted one of them by proper restraints; but we left the other open, by neglecting to guard against the effects of [the people’s] ignorance and licentiousness.”

Such warnings did nothing to quell Americans’ democratic impulses in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Americans who were allowed to vote (and sometimes those who weren’t) went to the polls in impressive numbers. Citizens also made public demonstrations. They delivered partisan speeches at patriotic holiday and anniversary celebrations. They petitioned Congress, openly criticized the president, and insisted that a free people should not defer even to elected leaders. In many people’s eyes, the American republic was a democratic republic: the people were sovereign all the time, not only on election day.

The elite leaders of political parties could not afford to overlook “the cultivation of popular favour,” as Alexander Hamilton put it. Between the 1790s and 1830s, the elite of every state and party learned to listen—or pretend to listen—to the voices of the multitudes. And ironically, an American president, holding the office that most resembles a king’s, would come to symbolize the democratizing spirit of American politics.