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Alfred de Grazia:

PUBLIC & REPUBLIC : Political Representation in America



A mind habituated from birth to a political idea can never feel the flush of excitement that came with the first inception of the idea. What is more, such a mind finds it difficult to conceive of alternative ideas. Representation by static estates or representation of the medieval absorptive kind are unimaginable to many modern men. By the same token, they must strain to see in the ideas of representation of the direct democrats any great novelty, any great cause for enthusiasm, or any discernible growth or decline.

Whenever the full lines in the picture of direct democracy are drawn, America in the first half of the nineteenth century will serve as the active model. For in America then, the beliefs of the Levellers, the Radicals, the Turgots, and the Jeffersons activate their psychology of political man on a vast scale, sufficient to provide an example for all nations. When the picture is completed, though with many streaks and stains still remaining, some will say of direct democracy what some good professors said of laissez-faire economics: "It didn't fail; it, simply, never had a chance."

The cry arose at an early date. Said the political scientist and historian Richard Hildreth, in 1842:

"Democracy, in the municipalities and republics of Europe, has been mixed up, as it now is in the pseudo-monarchy of Great Britain, with foreign ingredients still more numerous and more operative than those at work in the American states. The experiment, therefore, of a pure democracy, on any considerable scale, may be said yet to remain to be tried; though of all states of which we know any thing, the northern, or free states of the American Union, certainly come the nearest to it."[1]

It is true that few political institutions have "a chance." A great number of men and their institutions are several times as old ideologically as they are chronologically. Political ideas and institutions work in a relativity context much more oppressive and immediate than does physics. As Alfred North Whitehead declared in his Symbolism, Its Meaning and Effect: "At any epoch some people have the dominant mentality of the past, some of the present, others of the future, and others of the many problematic futures which will never dawn. For these various groups an old symbolism will have different shades of vague meaning."[2] The Americans of the early nineteenth century had to face up to a Constitution which contained ideas of representation incompatible with their own. They had to contend with a dual sovereignty of state and nation which perplexed them mightily in their employment of existing democratic devices.

The triumphant ascendance of the great body of the people was proclaimed everywhere.[3] The movement toward direct democracy was most pronounced inside the state governments. The attitude of the people toward political life in general and toward the political institutions which developed during the period reflects the sweeping character of the movement. This chapter describes the enlarged employment of the direct democratic ideas, and defines the impulses behind the new machinery of representation which came about in the government and the political parties. First of all, it must be emphasized that the main rush and sweep of the period produced a unitary conception of the nature of representation. Whereas the Burkean idea of representation was organic, and the Madisonian idea was incipiently pluralistic, the direct democratic idea was collective. Representation in the minds of most Americans of the pre-Civil War period was representation of the whole people, not of any part or of any minority. There was no appeal from the people, it was believed: the mass of the electorate was the highest law. The majority, using the tremendously lengthened lever of universal suffrage with the majority principle as a fulcrum, was the force which moved the whole nation. As the proportion of direct democracy in the governments increased, the importance of the majority principle mounted. It was the myth, the fiction, the eternal verity of the times which was to command instant and complete submission. The many were believed to be always more correct than the few, and the interests of the many were always to be preferred to those of the few.[4]

The Madisonian theory of mobile interest representation was in abeyance. To profess it publicly after 1800 became increasingly risky.[5] Its tenets of a divided society, a disparity of possessions and interests, were unfriendly to the temper of the times. While "checks and balances" were often mentioned with some favor, the implication was not that they were useful for governing constructively, but that they were useful for hampering any government at all. Translated into terms of representation, the shift meant that the people might do just as well without government, but, faced with its inescapable presence, must break its authority into as many controllable fragments as possible. Whereas Hamilton would have implemented the checks-and-balances theory by giving property disproportionate representation, the early nineteenth-century democrats regarded the principle as a way to enmesh those hungry for power.

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