Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

Federalist #14

First, a big thank you to Dr. Allen for his insightful comments.  As usual, Dr. Allen does much more than simply explain to us what is in the reading, he takes us several steps further.

And thank you to all of you who commented today.  Especially to Kay for her heartfelt story about the airport encounter, and the glimpse into the soul of our Union.

Wow! I loved Federalist #14!  There are so many beautiful passages about unity in our country –  “the kindred blood which flows in the veins of American citizens, the mingled blood which they have shed in defense of their sacred rights, consecrate their Union, and excite horror at the idea of their becoming aliens, rivals, enemies.” While the American people “have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience…”  But the item that most caught my attention was the discussion of the difference between a republic and a democracy. I was struck by the fact that many of the communication and travel constraints our founding fathers operated under have been removed in present day by technology, and by the fact that technology is facilitating our country’s move toward democracy, something our founding fathers would not see as an improvement.

The difference between a republic and a democracy is so important, and so little understood.  In Federalist 14 and elsewhere, Publius devotes a good amount of time explaining the difference between these two forms of government, and detailing the weaknesses of a democracy as opposed to a republic.  In our founding fathers’ time, a democracy within a large geographic area was impossible, limited by the “distance from the central point which will just permit the most remote citizens to assemble as often as their public functions demand, and will include no greater number than can join in those functions.”  In Federalist 14 Madison points out that the geographic size makes the United States much more suited to a republic than a democracy.

Today, technology has erased the constraint imposed by geographic size, and our culture is drawing us towards democracy. Television shows such as American Idol where millions of people cast ballots; online polls where instant readouts of the public’s tastes, preferences and opinions are measured; Twitter, Facebook: all put more power than ever in the collective public’s hands to instantly express opinions on any matter.

But the weakness of pure democracy is the same, whether it is a small geographic area where the people are physically coming together to vote on every issue affecting them, or whether it is millions sitting at computers, in front of their televisions, or texting on their cellphones “voting.”  As Hamilton states in Federalist 71, “The republican principle demands that the deliberate sense of the community should govern the conduct of those to whom they intrust the management of their affairs; but it does not require an unqualified complaisance to every sudden breeze of passion, or to every transient impulse which the people may receive from the arts of men, who flatter their prejudices to betray their interests.”

In Federalist 10 the weakness of pure democracy was summed up this way: “From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths. Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of government, have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions.

As the culture draws us toward democracy, and with the geographic constraints on democracy removed by technology, it is more important than ever that we understand the systemic flaws of this type of governance.

Our elected officials must be firmly grounded in the meaning of the republic, and their role in balancing competing interests and factions.  We must understand the fundamental reasoning and principles that drew our founding fathers to govern through a republic, and the Federalist Papers are vital for that understanding.

I am so grateful for all who are adding to our knowledge base each day, and journeying with us through these readings.  Thank you!!

Good night and God Bless!

Cathy Gillespie


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