- Published: 27 November 2011
A short search of the debates in the Constitutional Convention of 1787 for the "11 excesses of democracy" mentioned by Hamilton Abert Long, revealed the following. These excerpts are taken from Madison's notes of the Convention, searched using the American Freedom Library CD-ROM, and are by no means the final word on the subject from the Convention. More is to be found in the Federalist Papers, as well as Elliot's records of the Ratifying Conventions of the States.
Thursday, May 31st.
[Discussion of the procedure for electing members of the House of Representatives...]
Mr. GERRY. The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy. The people do not want virtue, but are the dupes of pretended patriots. In Massachusetts it had been fully confirmed by experience, that they are daily misled into the most baneful measures and opinions, by the false reports circulated by designing men, and which no one on the spot can refute. One principal evil arises from the want of due provision for those employed in the administration of government. It would seem to be a maxim of democracy to starve the public servants. He mentioned the popular clamor in Massachusetts for the reduction of salaries, and the attack made on that of the Governor, though secured by the spirit of the Constitution itself. He had, he said, been too republican heretofore: he was still, however, republican; but had been taught by experience the danger of the leveling spirit.
[Discussion of the procedure for electing members of the Senate...]
Mr. RANDOLPH observed... that the general object was to provide a cure for the evils under which the United States labored; that in tracing these evils to their origin, every man had found it in the turbulence and follies of democracy; that some check therefore was to be sought for, against this tendency of our governments; and that a good Senate seemed most likely to answer the purpose.
Wednesday, June 6th
[More on the procedure for electing the House of Representatives...]
Mr. MADISON considered an election of one branch, at least, of the Legislature by the people immediately, as a clear principle of free government; and that this mode, under proper regulations, had the additional advantage of securing better representatives, as well as of avoiding too great an agency of the State Governments in the general one. He differed from the member from Connecticut, (Mr. SHERMAN,) in thinking the objects mentioned to be all the principal ones that required a national government. Those were certainly important and necessary objects; but he combined with them the necessity of providing more effectually for the security of private rights and the steady dispensation of justice. Interferences with these were evils which had, more perhaps than anything else, produced this Convention. Was it to be supposed, that republican liberty could long exist under the abuses of it practised in some of the States? The gentleman (Mr. SHERMAN) had admitted, that in a very small State faction and oppression would prevail. It was to be inferred, then, that wherever these prevailed the State was too small. Had they not prevailed in the largest as well as the smallest, though less than in the smallest? And were we not thence admonished to enlarge the sphere as far as the nature of the government would admit? This was the only defence against the inconveniences of democracy, consistent with the democratic form of government. All civilized societies would be divided into different sects, factions, and interests, as they happened to consist of rich and poor, debtors and creditors, the landed, the manufacturing, the commercial interests, the inhabitants of this district or that district, the followers of this political leader or that political leader, the disciples of this religious sect or that religious sect. In all cases where a majority are united by a common interest or passion, the rights of the minority are in danger. What motives are to restrain them? A prudent regard to the maxim, that honesty is the best policy, is found by experience to be as little regarded by bodies of men as by individuals. Respect for character is always diminished in proportion to the number among whom the blame or praise is to be divided. Conscience, the only remaining tie, is known to be inadequate in individuals; in large numbers, little is to be expected from it. Besides, religion itself, may become a motive to persecution and oppression. These observations are verified by the histories of every country, ancient and modern. In Greece and Rome the rich and poor, the creditors and debtors, as well as the patricians and plebeians, alternately oppressed each other with equal unmercifulness. What a source of oppression was the relation between the parent cities of Rome, Athens, and Carthage, and their respective provinces; the former possessing the power, and the latter being sufficiently distinguished to be separate objects of it? Why was America so justly apprehensive of parliamentary injustice? Because Great Britain had a separate interest, real or supposed, and, if her authority had been admitted, could have pursued that interest at our expense. We have seen the mere distinction of color made, in the most enlightened period of time, a ground of the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man. What has been the source of those unjust laws complained of among ourselves? Has it not been the real or supposed interest of the major number? Debtors have defrauded their creditors. The landed interest has borne hard on the mercantile interest. The holders of one Species of property have thrown a disproportion of taxes on the holders of another species. The lesson we are to draw from the whole is, that where a majority are united by a common sentiment, and have an opportunity, the rights of the minor party become insecure. In a republican government, the majority, if united, have always an opportunity. The only remedy is, to enlarge the sphere, and thereby divide the community into so great a number of interests and parties, that, in the first place, a majority will not be likely, at the same moment, to have a common interest separate from that of the whole, or of the minority; and in the second place, that in case they should have such an interest, they may not be so apt to unite in the pursuit of it. It was incumbent on us, then, to try this remedy, and, with that view, to frame a republican system on such a scale, and in such a form, as will control all the evils which have been experienced.
Tuesday, June 26th, 1787
[More on the procedure for electing the Senate...]
Mr. HAMILTON. This question has already been considered in several points of view. We are now forming a republican government. Real liberty is neither found in despotism nor the extremes of democracy, but in moderate governments.
Those who mean to form a solid republican government ought to proceed to the confines of another government. As long as offices are open to all men, and no constitutional rank is established, it is pure republicanism. But if we incline too much to democracy, we shall soon shoot into a monarchy. The difference of property is already great amongst us. Commerce and industry will still increase the disparity. Your government must meet this state of things, or combinations will, in process of time, undermine your system. What was the tribunitial power of Rome? It was instituted by the plebeians, as a guard against the patricians. But was this a sufficient check? No. The only distinction which remained at Rome was, at last, between the rich and poor. The gentleman from Connecticut forgets that the democratic body is already secure in a representation. As to Connecticut, what were the little objects of their government before the revolution? Colonial concerns merely. They ought now to act on a more extended scale: and dare they do this? Dare they collect the taxes and requisitions of Congress? Such a government may do well, if they do not tax; and this is precisely their situation.