Democracy's Debut

In American history classes, we learn that the era between American revolutionaries’ victory at Yorktown and the enactment of the Constitution was chaotic and not exactly popular with voters.

That’s putting it mildly. Post-Yorktown, pre-Constitution America was nothing like the America we know today. The states maintained a weak alliance through the Articles of Confederation. In the absence of an effective federal government with real power, America the sovereign entity was unable to levy taxes, fund its military, or repay the debts that burdened its member states. In short, we were on the verge of collapse.

We rightly remember what came next – the debate over, drafting of, and enactment of the Constitution, completed in 1788 – as one of the greatest consolidations of power into one central government in history. The achievement created order from disarray and solved many of the problems inherent in the Confederation that came before. 

But the Constitution of the United States of America also represents the crowning achievement of democracy up to that point, and possibly until now: one nation, through a vote of its people, constituted itself.

As Yale constitutional scholar Akhil Reed Amar writes, when the draft Constitution was finalized on September 17, 1787, “[t]he proposal was a mere piece of paper .” But the elections held in every state to ratify that piece of paper “made the opening words flesh: We, the people of the United States, did in fact ordain and establish” our government.

Aside from the practical concerns of the Framing generation (ability to levy taxes, fund a military, repay debts, and engage in unified diplomacy), the ratification of the constitution represented something far more radical:

Before the American Revolution, no regime in history — not ancient Athens, not republican Rome, not Florence nor the Swiss nor the Dutch nor the British — had ever successfully adopted a written constitution by special popular vote.

“The Audacity of Democracy,” The Los Angeles Times, 9/16/12

The Constitution became the binding document of Americans in perpetuity precisely because a majority of American voters chose that to be the case between 1787 and 1788. The process still left most Americans out: although unpropertied white men were temporarily granted the right to vote on ratification, it would take a century more for America to recognize African Americans and freed slaves as voting citizens, and another 50 years for women to win that right.

But when we talk about the founding generation and how they felt about democracy – rule by the people – we would be wise to note that the same federal government we have today was ordained and established by the most radically democratic and popular action known to history.  

We would do well to credit the durability of our Constitution, and nation, to the revolutionary act of democracy that brought it into being.