As the presidential election draws near both contestants make fatuous appeals to America’s near-sainted Founding Fathers and that almost sacred scroll known as the Constitution. History has seen more than its share of distortion. Myths and misconceptions have sprung up that many people now take as fact. However, historical interpretation must be based on evidence, which in many cases is either lacking or contradictory. Myths are powerful because they say things people want to believe. History does matter, which is why people in power put so much energy into controlling it. To talk of elitist power today as something new and forget its roots and actually praise the oppressors as spokesmen for liberty and treat their imposed laws under the constitution as admirable achievements is to forget actual real history and fall victim to ruling class propaganda and ideology. When people are asked the question ‘What is democracy’ many will respond with the example of the American republic, its institutions permitting supreme power to be in the hands of the people. But democracy implies something very much more than the widest possible franchise and equal voting rights. It means that the people should have complete control over the administration of social life. It presupposes at the very outset the ownership by the people of all the means of life. If people do not have control of the production of the social wealth then contrary to popular conviction existing republics no more encapsulates democracy than did monarchies.
Hailed as the birthplace of democracy, the 1787 Philadelphia Convention was nothing short of a coup to ensure a ’revolution of gentlemen, by gentlemen, and for gentlemen’ as one historian described it. The Philadelphia Convention was little more than the the capture of political power by the rich section of colonial society and the Constitution designed to protect private property, to prevent interference with its ownership by the majority of the people. In short, the Constitution was designed to perpetuate the rule of the rich minority. The proceedings of the Convention in Philadelphia were conducted in secret. The general public was not privy to the debates and discussions, as it was for their social betters to decide and determine the new nation’s future.
The ensuing war of independence did not establish a truly democratic government. It did not significantly change the structure of American society but rather, it reinforced the political, economic, and social divisions between classes in the Americas. Despite the pretensions of being ‘enlightened’ – sweeping aside monarchy, aristocracy and the established church – the new republic was never designed to be anything other than an oligarchic state. The Constitution constructed an array of political institutions of checks and balances, motivated by a paranoid fear of populism and suspicion of central government power. Ensuring a suffrage of only white, property-owning men, the new United States of America was controlled by an economic elite possessing considerable wealth. The founders of America held an estimated net worth (in today’s dollars) ranging from $20 million to $500 million. Probably they were all in the top 0.1 percent of the wealth distribution. Much of their wealth (as in the cases of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison) was in the form of slaves. So the political system reflected the interests of property-holding white men such as themselves. Slavery was permitted to flourish for 77 years after the Constitution was ratified and a substantial majority of the population was denied suffrage for over a century. They kept in place a system that was, by any reasonable definition, never a democracy.
It is an inconvenient truth for ‘libertarians’ that the proposals for a minimalist government grew out of the South’s need for human bondage and from the desire of slave-holders to keep the federal government so constricted as to be unable to abolish slavery. That is why many Founding Fathers icons – the likes of Patrick Henry, George Mason, Thomas Jefferson and the later incarnation of James Madison – were slave owners who understood the threat to slavery posed by democratic ideals.
Fifty-five men — landed gentry, ne’er-do-well merchants and prosperous lawyers — defined the government under which Americans live. Extending political power to the people was never on their agenda. The Founding Fathers substituted the abstract principles that ‘all men are created equal’ and that power is derived from ‘the will of the people’ by adopting the practice where ‘the people’, non-property owners, women and, of course, slaves were excluded. Those architects of the Declaration of Independence built a system of government based on the division of power that would guard against any excesses of popular democracy.
As they were not themselves in the majority, the rich feared that the less well-off could vote to take away their property, so arrangements restricting the franchise and indirect election were incorporated into the Constitution to keep power out of the hands of the majority. The president was to be an elected monarch. Having two different chambers of Congress, a Senate and a House of Representatives, placed an obstacle to simple majority rule. There are 435 Representatives and 100 Senators. 51 Senators can block the majority rule. Moreover, Senators were elected for six years instead of the two for which Representatives are elected. The electoral college to elect the president operates intentionally in opposition to majority rule in this same way. In a system of electing the President by mere simple majority, a candidate or party could win by appealing to 51% of the voters. The electoral college serves as a partial safeguard against those who might be able to win the national popular vote.
Those who argue that the Founding Fathers were motivated by high-minded ideals ignore the fact that it was they themselves who repeatedly stated their intention to create a government strong enough to protect the ‘haves’ from the ‘have-nots’. They gave voice to the crassest class prejudices, never hiding their concern was to thwart popular control and resist all tendencies toward class ‘leveling’. Their ‘checks and balances’ were chiefly concerned with restraining the peoples’ power and maintaining their own. The true genius of the Founding Fathers was their promise to all Americans that – if they would support the revolution – then they, their social betters, would agree to create an entirely new social order.
Most of the population consisted of poor freeholders, tenants, and indentured hands (the latter trapped in servitude for many years). In order to survive, a typical family often had to borrow money at high interest rates and was caught in that cycle of rural indebtedness which today is still the common fate of agrarian peoples in many developing and undeveloped countries. It tends to cause a community-oriented culture to arise on farms or in small towns. Their concept of independence was associated with inter-dependence and cooperation, all for the common good. Women worked with men, families traded labor and livestock. In this culture of mutual concern and shared obligation working people took care of one another. They held common standards, completely different from the values of a market-driven, commercial approach to life.
The wealthy class of merchants, lawyers, bankers, and plantation farmers followed a completely different way of life – every person for him or herself. In the capitalist world-view of the wealthy class, the community was merely a system of exchange between producers and consumers, the moneyed and the toilers. The holy of holies for the merchant was the market. Government was to be controlled by elites or ‘social superiors’ who decide what is best for the ‘common’ people. Its role was to protect private ownership and ensure that the market system runs smoothly. This requires that the government use force if necessary to protect private property and the rights of capitalists over workers.
The fourth president, James Madison, warned of the perils of democracy, saying that too much of it would jeopardize the property of the landed aristocracy. ‘In England,’ he observed, ‘if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of the landed proprietors would be insecure.’ Land would be redistributed to the landless, he cautioned. Without the rich exercising monopoly privileges over the commons, the masses would be less dependent on elites like them.
Edmund Randolph, America’s first attorney general, said, ‘Our chief danger arises from the democratic parts of our constitution.’
Alexander Hamilton derided ‘pure democracy.’ At the Constitutional Convention he declared: ’All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and well born, the other the mass of the people. The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct, permanent share in the government.’
James Madison, ‘father’ of the Constitution, wrote in The Federalist Papers 10: ‘Democracies have ever been … incompatible with … the rights of property…[because they threaten] the unequal distribution of property.’
The new Constitution put property rights ahead of human rights. It established a republic in which the courts protected the privileges of the minority. It need not have been that way. Other voices were silenced.
James Cannon, Christopher Marshall, Timothy Matlack, and Thomas Paine (author of The Rights of Man and the only one of these men who is well known) formed a group dedicated to gaining political participation for landless laborers, artisans, tenant farmers and others whom the upper class wished barred from involvement in government. To the radicals, independence looked like a chance to make their ideals into realities so that for the first time those without affluence would finally have influence in government.
A Council of Safety drew up the interim Pennsylvania Constitution. Adopted on September 28, 1776, this document established Pennsylvania’s official title, the ‘Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. It provided for annual parliaments in which neither voting nor holding office would be subject to any property qualification. Politicians would be limited to four terms and judges appointed by the legislature for seven-year terms and removable at any time.
The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 excluded all of the characteristics of British rule, replacing the position of governor with an executive council of twelve members who were to be elected directly by the people. It also rejected a bicameral legislature (a legislature with two houses), because it resembled the British Parliament’s House of Lords and House of Commons: ‘Just as there was no need for a representative of a King, for we have none, so could there be no need of senates to represent the House of Lords, for we have not, and hope we never shall have, a hereditary nobility.’
Many wealthy property owners reacted with horror to the Pennsylvania Constitution. They described it as an ‘absurd Constitution,’ ‘a mob government’ where the enfranchisement of the poor would lead to a situation where the ‘rabble…will vote away the Money of those that have Estates.’
Some, such as Thomas Young, did try to push for a provision in the state constitution limiting how much property any one person could own, leading to a redistribution of wealth. In the new and free Pennsylvania, declared teacher and mathematician James Cannon, ‘over-grown rich Men will be improper to be trusted.’
‘An enormous Proportion of Property vested in a few Individuals is dangerous to the Rights, and destructive to the Common Happiness, of Mankind,’ read one proposed passage for the new constitution, ‘and therefore every State hath a Right by its Laws to discourage the Possession of such Property.’
These radical measures, however, were narrowly defeated and removed by the more conservative members of the drafting body.
Similar progressive constitutions were adopted in some other states. Upon the founding of the Vermont Republic in July 1777, a constitution, modelled upon Pennsylvania’s, was adopted that gave all freemen the vote even if they owned no property. Slavery was banned outright, and by a further provision existing male slaves became free at the age of 21 and female slaves at the age of 18. Not only did Vermont’s legislature agree to abolish slavery entirely, it also gave full voting rights to African-American males.
The first article declared that ‘all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain natural, inherent and unalienable rights, amongst which are the enjoying and defending life and liberty; acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety,’ echoing the phrases in the Declaration of Independence. The article went on to declare that because of these principles, ‘no male person, born in this country, or brought from over sea, ought to be holden by law, to serve any person, as a servant, slave or apprentice, after he arrives to the age of twenty-one Years, nor female, in like manner, after she arrives to the age of eighteen years, unless they are bound by their own consent.’
The second article declared that private property ought to be subservient to public use. This established the basic principle of social property prevailing over private individual property in Vermont.
The primary legislative authority was to be exercised by a single assembly with members elected for one term. A twelve-member Supreme Executive Council would administer the government. Judges would be appointed by the legislature for seven-year terms and removable at any time. All approved legislation would take effect only at the next session of the Assembly, so that the people of the state could assess the utility of the new law. The President was to be elected by the Assembly and Council together. The Continental Congress, however, refused to recognize the independence of Vermont or even allow it to be represented.
The revolution of the small farmers and artisans re-surfaced soon after the War of Independence with Shays’ Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion. And then the real class nature of the new America was revealed in its stark brutality.
Daniel Shays was from Massachusetts and had joined the Continental Army. When he went home in 1780, he found himself in court for non-payment of debts. He was not alone in being unable to pay off debts, and began organizing for debt relief. In 1786 people joined together and marched on the Worcester courthouse to block the foreclosure of mortgages. Shays’ Rebellion was put down by a mercenary army, paid for by well-to-do citizens.
As described by a historian, ‘the uprising was the climax of a series of events of the 1780s that convinced a powerful group of Americans that the national government needed to be stronger so that it could create uniform economic policies and protect property owners from infringements on their rights by local majorities…These ideas stemmed from the fear that a private liberty, such as the secure enjoyment of property rights, could be threatened by public liberty — unrestrained power in the hands of the people.’
The Whiskey Rebellion of 1791-94 was a response to a federal tax on whiskey that closed down small producers. It was crushed by a militia led in person by two Founding Fathers, President George Washington and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. Washington later went into the whiskey-distilling business himself and became one of the largest producers in the nation.
What Could Happen
Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia formally designate themselves in their state constitutions as ‘commonwealths’ — a traditional term for a community founded for the common good. This is still the aim of the World Socialist Movement — to create a worldwide cooperative commonwealth.
It should be easy enough to set up a genuine popular democracy in the United States. Libertarian municipalism, as advocated by Murray Bookchin, inspired by New England town-hall meetings, proposes to do so by simply establishing sufficient numbers of general assemblies. There are over 16,000 townships in the United States. Could such a style of democracy meet the needs of Americans? The number of school districts in the United States is approximately 13,000. What if each school district had an assembly that debated and voted on local regional and global issues? Or increasing the sphere of the 3,143 counties of the United States?
The basic building-block can be the community or neighborhood assembly where citizens meet to discuss and vote on the issues of the day. These assemblies elect mandated and recallable delegates who then link up with other assemblies forming a confederated council, a ‘community of communities’.
The difference between this form of delegate democracy and representative democracy is that in a representative democracy decision-making power is given without pre-conditions to representatives who are then free to act on their own initiative. In a delegated democracy the electing body possesses the power; the delegate follows instructions and can be recalled at any time should the electing body feel that their mandate is not being met. Thus power remains with the people.
These self-governing communities, based on principles of direct democracy, would come together across national borders. This will generate a system of multi-tiered levels of organisation – local, regional and global – polycentric society-wide planning with a greater preponderance of decision-making and planning at the local level where the bulk of issues impacting on our lives tend to arise. More localised control, however, does not equate with local communities taking local resources into local ownership. In fact, if anything, the very notion of ‘ownership’ would die out completely. In de facto terms, there would be no ‘ultimate control’ and that term itself would also be rendered meaningless. Universal common ownership of the productive resources of society means that nobody owns them at all. The means of production cannot be monopolised by any one person or group and we will have a genuine global democracy, a co-operative economy, and the dissolution of the nation-state. In ancient Athens citizens governed themselves. That is democracy in action.
We can only present examples of what is possible as there are many variations of models to choose from to best fit requirements. We are not preparing a blueprint but to demonstrate what is practical and pragmatic by adapting and adjusting what we already have. As in the nickname of Missouri, the ‘show me state’, we are attempting to show the possibilities that exist in the flexibility of administrative structures. The Industrial Workers of the World, for instance, bases its future administration on industrial unionism, a democracy which concentrates upon workplaces rather than geographic constituencies. Other parts of the world possess their own possibilities such as parish councils in England, panchayats in India. In Mexico, there are the municipal authorities but in the more remote indigenous communities remote far from the formal seat of formal government there are ‘presidentes auxiliares’, directly elected by local voters without political party participation, responsible for agrarian issues, such as the communal land.
’We have our forms of organizing ourselves that are deeply rooted, and what the law says on paper is one thing, but here everything has to go through the assembly, and we will continue living this way because it has worked well for us,’ explained a commissioner of communal resources in a Zapotec community. The land in these towns and villages is communal; it belongs to everyone. There is no private property, not even small plots are sold. The transference of land is done through a transfer of land rights. A father can transfer his land to his children, for example. Everything must go through the assembly. No one can sell the land and no one can buy it.
On the other hand, leaving the decision-making process to a system of elected committees could be seen as going against the principle of fully participatory democracy. If socialism is going to maintain the practice of inclusive decision making which does not put big decisions in the hands of small groups but without generating a crisis of choice, then a solution is required, and it seems that the computer industry may have produced one in the form of ‘collaborative filtering’ (CF) software.
This technology is currently used on the internet where people are faced with a super-abundance of products and services, CF helps consumers choose what to buy and navigate the huge numbers of options. It starts off by collecting data on an individual’s preferences, extrapolates patterns from this and then produces recommendations based on that person’s likes and dislikes. With suitable modification, this technology could be of use to socialism – not to help people decide what to consume, but which matters of policy to get involved in. A person’s tastes, interests, skills, and academic achievements, rather than their shopping traits, could be put through the CF process and matched to appropriate areas of policy in the resulting list of recommendations. A farmer, for example, may be recommended to vote upon matters which affect him/her, and members of the local community, directly, or of which s/he is likely to have some knowledge, such as increasing yields of a particular crop, the use of GM technology, or the responsible use of land by ramblers.
The technology (or a more modern version that has no doubt been developed already) would also put them in touch with other people of similar interests so that issues can be thrashed out more fully, and may even inform them that “People who voted on this issue also voted on…” The question is, would a person be free to ignore the recommendations and vote on matters s/he has little knowledge of, or indeed not vote at all? Technology cannot resolve issues of responsibility, but any system, computer software or not, which helps reduce the potential burden of decision making to manageable levels would facilitate democracy.
Socialism will not be a one-size-fits-all type of society but will reflect the rich tapestry of local regional life-styles, customs and traditions of the world. We acknowledge that working people will determine their own means and methods of self-emancipation and that there will be a variety of ways of organizing the actual implementation of socialist administration. Although it is not always emphasized enough, we accept that there will be a large degree of diversity in the manner this is done and that we only lay down guidelines that apply to political and social and cultural conditions that we face here. Other places and other communities will have there own approaches, depending on local customs and traditions. As the socialist message grows and begins to incorporate more peoples, it will change its outward form to meet and fit specific conditions while still retaining its inner core tenets. We cannot think of imposing a Euro-American-centric cultural view of politics and society. As world socialists we too must take notice of the planet’s diversity.
Rather than vote on November the 3rd for the lesser evil candidate, fellow-workers can initiate a new revolution. Only half the public is registered to vote, and only half of registered voters vote. ’Of, by and for the people’, is sadly not the reality. Americans are apathetic because of the failure of the system to serve the people and they are also angry because no one is held responsible for their misdeeds.
The present White House incumbent and the challenger remain indifferent to the concept of accountability to the majority. Trump and Biden are complicit in the camouflage of plutocracy by creating the form and appearance of popular government with only a minimum of substance. The role of the people is limited to choosing from among the political elite the representatives who would rule over them.
Article V of the Constitution, in effect, legalizes revolution – the right to alter or abolish the social system and the present form of government.
And according to the Declaration of Independence: ‘whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness…when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.’
This is the time for a new revolution for a new type of independence.
World Socialist Movement
World Socialist Party of the United States
The Constitution of the United States – Charles Beard
Alan Johnstone is a member of the World Socialist Movement and contributor to the Socialist Party of Great Britain’s blog, “Socialism Or Your Money Back” at: https://socialismoryourmoneyback.blogspot.com/