Perry Bush: Founders understood fragility of democracy

By Perry Bush - Guest Columnist

Editor’s note: Perry Bush, of Bluffton University, delivered this as a speech at the pro-democracy rally in Lima held Thursday, the anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol.

Good afternoon, friends. Thanks for gathering to remember our wonderful heritage of democracy on this cold winter day. I’ll keep my remarks short. I just want to take a brief look backwards into history with you and explore three major points.

First, we need to understand why the founders, almost 250 years ago, were so worried about the prospects for democracy. They were not at all sure they could create a democracy that would last. Secondly, it would be helpful today to review how they tried to safeguard democracy in the new government they created: the U.S. Constitution. Finally, we need to talk a bit about why those efforts have continued beyond the Constitution and into our own day.

Historians have outlined how the women and men who created this republic were driven by a deep fear about the prospects for democracy. They saw it as fragile, delicate, in need of constant oversight and protection. They were convinced that any manifestation of power – whether it was political power, military power or economic power – fundamentally endangered democracy.

They used physical metaphors. Power, they said, had a “voracious appetite” for liberty; it “devoured” liberty. The more power you had in a society, the less liberty you had. The founders were not anarchists; they did not want to live in what they called a “state of nature.” They believed that some measure of power protected liberty. But to preserve democracy, that power had to be limited and circumscribed carefully.

In the end, after a long and complex process that I won’t even try to summarize, the founders came together to create a whole new social contract that would serve as the basis for their ongoing political life together. They called the contract the United States Constitution, and it was a remarkable, amazing, accomplishment.

This is basic, high school civics stuff, but as we recall, this new government was set up into three co-equal bodies of government – the executive, legislative and judicial – each with the capacity to check and balance each other.

Moreover, it was rooted in some basic principles of U.S. Constitutionalism that were breathtakingly new on the global stage and which have safeguarded our liberties ever since: that power resides in the people; that the power of the state is located in a written document, the Constitution, that expresses the popular will; and that this government could only operate within the limits set out in that charter. If this document did not give this new state the power to do something, then the government could not do it.

Liberty was not some add-on, extra-chrome option the state magnanimously granted the people. Freedom was the foundation upon which the structure of government rested. Freedom was the default.

Those were all radical ideas in the later 18th century — heck, they’re radical now — and this foundation stone for a whole new state was not set in place without incredible controversy, complexity and compromise. I suspect the compromises – between big states and smaller ones, between states that held people in bondage and states that did not — are well-known to anybody who has graduated from the fourth grade, and I don’t want to spend time reviewing them here. But it’s worth reviewing two of the controversies attending the birth of the Constitution that continue to reverberate in political debate today and have spawned two centuries of reform.

First, to gain the support of white southerners, the Constitution allowed them to count the people they held in bondage as three-fifths of a person for reasons of taxation and congressional representation. In other words, it tacitly recognized slavery. The Constitution enshrined racial inequality.

Secondly, the major creators of the Constitution, historians have documented, were by and large wealthy, aristocratic men. They had begun to fear that the power of the people had gone too far, and in their new government they established some real checks on the popular will: the electoral college, for instance, or the stipulation that U.S. Senators would be elected by state legislatures, not by ordinary voters. We’ve only had the direct election of U.S. senators now for a little over a century.

In other words, the founders created an amazing charter for a new government that has preserved democracy for almost 250 years and for which they deserve everlasting gratitude; but in enshrining inequality and checking the popular will, they also created a charter that was fundamentally flawed. To point out these flaws is not a sign of disrespect; in fact, it’s the opposite of disrespect.

Ever since the first government under the new constitution began functioning, it was the target of reform, and rightfully so. Some of our greatest leaders have recognized the flaws in our democracy and have worked to correct them.

For instance, take Lincoln. “As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes,” he wrote. Soon, he warned, “it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”

Or take Franklin Roosevelt, who in 1935 pledged to his Secretary of Labor, a former social worker named Frances Perkins, that “we are going to make a country in which no one is left out.”

For nearly the entire history of this country, the efforts to manifest Roosevelt’s words have been led not just by presidents or elites in Washington but by ordinary Americans: farmers, artisans, working people, labor unions and especially by women and people of color.

In fact, the two parallel liberation struggles of women and people of color have been intertwined and have served for decade after decade as a great source of democratic possibility and renewal. They have left us with a legacy that we have gathered today to preserve; we stand here shivering in our dedication to it.

The founders worried incessantly about the health of American democracy. It was a precious, delicate thing, they warned, and it needed constant protection. They were unsure whether the nation they created could preserve democracy. The events in Washington D.C. a year ago have left that still very much an open question. We gather in the cold today as a declaration of our commitment to protect the democracy we have inherited, and as participants in the ongoing struggle to make it even better.

Thank you very much.

By Perry Bush

Guest Columnist

Perry Bush, who holds an academic doctorate, is the history and religion department chair at Bluffton University. He was a a Fulbright Scholar lecturing in Ukraine in 2012. His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of the newspaper. Reach him at [email protected].

Perry Bush, who holds an academic doctorate, is the history and religion department chair at Bluffton University. He was a a Fulbright Scholar lecturing in Ukraine in 2012. His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of the newspaper. Reach him at [email protected].

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