The United States, using models from both England and France, invented modern politics. The American Revolution was fought, at least in part, over liberty, both political and economic (Breen, 2004; Middlecauff, 1982). The economic part of this equation was relatively simple as the new science of economics was pretty much about abolishing the feudal system in Europe and allowing for the growth of a commercial middle class, which advocated laissez-faire economics (Smith, 1910).
Political liberty was harder to define and turn into a practical governing system. At first, the Founders tried the same kind of anarchic system that the economic system had evolved into, the Articles of Confederation, but this document proved to be ineffective in creating a government, so at the instigation of George Washington, delegates to Congress of the Confederation created a Constitutional Convention to fix the Articles. They eventually threw out the Articles and wrote the Constitution (Middlecauff, 1982).
The Articles of Confederation and the Constitution are attempts to translate the ideology of Liberty, which was the reason for the American Revolution, into a practical governing system. Politics are the mechanism by which this governance is accomplished. The great change in American Politics from European Politics is that while a great deal of the political dealings in Britain and particularly in pre-Revolutionary France was about the governed appealing to the authority figure represented by the King and his court, the American system did away with the King, the central authority, and instead vested power in the people of the country. The first three words of the constitution are “We the people…,” because the Founders believed that all power emanated from the natural rights and power of the people of the United States of America.
This statement might seem peculiar to anyone reading it as the Constitution is full of what seems to the modern reader a lot of authoritarian ideas. The most obvious one is slavery, but slavery survived in the Constitution as a compromise needed to get it past the Southern States. That was remedied by the Civil War, but other systems, like indirect voting, were more motivated by a fear of the “mob,” or what in today’s world would be called the “Masses.” The 17th Amendment to the Constitution mandated the direct election of the Senate in 1913, which solved part of this problem, but the Electoral College still exists for the indirect election of the President. These two provisions, along with the provision establishing that the District of Columbia would not have the vote, were motivated by the fact that the French Revolution was being waged as the Constitution was being written and the Founders, seeing how the Paris Mob controlled the country of France, wanted to avoid the chaos going on there.
What we in the modern world tend to forget is that there was a lot of pessimism about the American experiment with democratic elections, expecting the whole thing to collapse into chaos rather quickly. The fact that it did not had to do with two things, one in the Constitution and another effect that showed itself soon after the Constitution was ratified. The first is that the Constitution was designed to change. Not just with the amending procedures written into it, but by the fact that it was written in a very interpretable way. This is particularly true for the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution. Also, once the government understood the role of the Supreme Court, under the guidance of the Fourth Chief Justice, John Marshall, the Constitution became a living document, changing with the times.
What also preserved American Democracy was the ever expanding participation of the citizens in the Government over the years. From universal, white, male citizens to the inclusion of male blacks to the inclusion of women, more groups became a part of the governmental system (Foner, 1999). This has meant that while the Constitution seems to be a non-inclusive document, inclusion has gradually extended to more people.
Liberty was against what the philosophic basis of Western Civilization was about. Until the enlightenment, beginning in the 18th century that basic philosophy was oriented around Monotheism, Christianity in particular. This was basically a monarchist system. God, the King, passed down a set of rules, through his church and after the Reformation Churches, which his subjects followed (Watts, 1970). The Enlightenment questioned and eventually destroyed this system. Liberty is about individuals being able to make their own moral, theological, and political decisions, rather than being subject to a monarch (Crocker, 1969). This created a tension that we still see today. Religion is inherently authoritarian, and people with authoritarian tendencies tend to adhere to religious dogma quite closely so religious interference in politics tends to inhibit liberty and create a more conservative political culture (Altemeyer, 2006).
Also, the capitalist economic system that was so important to the economic life early American, is also based on an authoritarian structure. Owners pass down policy to managers who control the workers—little liberty there. This tension between liberty and authoritarianism has led to a swinging between more liberty and less liberty in this country. In the early part of U.S. history, there was enough wealth from our resources and the vast frontier that there was very little obvious tension between the two poles. After the industrial revolution, we saw a concentration of wealth that led to the almost feudal system of the Gilded Age at the end of the 19th century. The Union movement and the Great Depression put an end to that, leading to the Great Prosperity of the mid-20th century. Today, we are in danger of the same kind of power play by the economic elite, who no longer have to worry about customers, and so can ignore everyone who is not rich. Authoritarian thinking is their defense against those who understand Liberty in egalitarian terms.
Altemeyer, B. (2006). The Authoritarians. Retrieved from https://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/.
Breen, T. H. (2004). The marketplace of the revolution: How consumer politics shaped American independence. New York: Oxford University Press.
Crocker, L. G. (1969). The age of enlightenment. New York: Walker and Company.
Foner, E. (1999). The story of American freedom. New York: W. W. Norton.
Middlecauff, R. (1982). The glorious revolution: the American Revolution 1763-1798. New York: Oxford University Press.
Smith, A. (1910). Inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations. London: Everyman’s Library.
Watts, A. (1970). Nature, man & woman. New York: Vintage Books.
— Rick Umbaugh
Today’s guest contributor, Rick Umbaugh, is a writer in St. Charles, IL, working on a book about BDSM called Powerful People.