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The Spirit of American Government - A Book Review

Friday, November 03, 2006

Would you believe that in 1906 almost no one referred to the United States as a democracy? Odd, but true!
I have on my desk a book published in 1912 written by J. Allen Smith, LL.B., Ph.D.. J. Allen Smith was a University of Washington political science professor. His book is titled The Spirit of American Government - A Study of the Constitution: Its Origin, Influence and Relation to Democracy.
Smith believed that a system of government was intentionally created by the framers of the Constitution to deliberately hinder the growth of true democracy. He goes on to show how the Constitution obstructed majority rule by placing checks and balances on the different branches of government which severely limited the voice and will of the people. He also explained the rational behind why the president and senators were not originally popularly elected or why the people had no hand in the appointing of judges. He then closed the book by laying out a road map showing how America can find her way to true democracy. I must admit that after reading his recommendations for getting to a true democracy I had an eerie feeling I'd been down this road before.
In his own words:
Our political writers have for the most part passed lightly over the undemocratic features of the Constitution and left the uncritical reader with the impression that universal suffrage under our system of government ensures the rule of the majority. It is this conservative approval of the Constitution under the guise of sympathy with majority rule, which has perhaps more than any thing else misled the people as to the real spirit and purpose of that instrument. It was by constantly representing it as the indispensable means of attaining the ends of democracy, that it came to be so generally regarded as the source of all that is democratic in our system of government. It is to call attention to the spirit of the Constitution, its inherent opposition to democracy, the obstacles which it has placed in the way of majority rule, that this volume has been written.
~J. Allen Smith, Seattle, Washington. January, 1907.
All and all, I must say I rather enjoyed reading this book. For me it was very much like going back in time to the doorstep that lead to where we are today as a nation. It was especially interesting when you consider the fact that we are almost exactly one hundred years from the time he wrote this book.


Blogger Mark said...

On the Future of Freedom Foundation web site, there's a quote from the 1939 book, America in Midpassage, by the historians, Charles and Mary Beard:

"At no time, at no place, in solemn convention assembled, through no chosen agents, had the American people officially proclaimed the United States to be a democracy. The Constitution did not contain the word or any word lending countenance to it, except possibly the mention of "We, the people," in the preamble . . . When the Constitution was framed no respectable person called himself or herself a democrat."

Nowadays, respectable or no, everyone calls himself a democrat.

6:13 PM  
Blogger Steve Rankin said...

James Madison said that direct democracies are "short in their lives and violent in their deaths."

In 1828, the legislatures of Delaware and South Carolina were still choosing those states' presidential electors, rather than letting the voters pick them.

11:38 AM  

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