Lately, there’s been a lot of chatter about our democracy or democratic form of government. Some political commentators use fear to suggest our “democracy is in peril” if certain people from the opposing political party are elected. Unfortunately, this type of fear mongering has been around since America was constituted.
The problem with that critique? America was founded as a republic, not a democracy.
In fact the Founding Fathers were adamant that America was, is, and should never devolve into a democracy (where the majority rules). Listen to their words:
- James Madison: “Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security, or the rights of property; and have, in general, been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”
- John Adams: “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”
- Fisher Ames: “A democracy is a volcano which conceals the fiery materials of its own destruction. These will produce an eruption and carry desolation in their way. The known propensity of a democracy is to licentiousness [excessive license] which the ambitious call, and ignorant believe to be liberty.”
- John Quincy Adams: “The experience of all former ages had shown that of all human governments, democracy was the most unstable, fluctuating and short-lived.“
- Dr. Benjamin Rush: “A simple democracy . . . is one of the greatest of evils.“
It’s clear our Founders were adamantly against a democratic rule of government.
That’s because they were well-versed in history, including the writings of Plato. In Plato’s “Republic” (penned circa 380 BCE), Plato revealed the five stages of human government. These stages can individually last for long periods of time or they can be burned through in short order, depending on how the nation is constituted or re-constituted.
For example, since 1789–when America created its national constitution–France has re-constituted fifteen times. When Plato’s stages are laid against American political history, it would seem we traveled largely in the first two stages for most of our national life. However, we have quickly passed into the third and could move into the fourth. Let’s review Plato’s five stages of government or how a national politic is born, matures, devolves and dies.
STAGE ONE: “ROYAL AND ARISTOCRATICAL”
This government is both good and just. Virtue and hard work mark it. There’s a pursuit of truth and wisdom. The politicians and rulers are motivated by helping the people, even to the sacrifice of their own health and wealth. They rely upon history, religion, science and the arts to create a beautiful, positive and productive (royal) culture for all to enjoy.
STAGE TWO: “TIMOCRATICAL”
This government is still good, and often indistinguishable from Aristocratical, but its virtues now lean toward honor and fame. Some of the rulers enjoy the political limelight and are now swayed by either flattery (being loved) or fear (being hated). Some now have little experience “governing” or “leading,” because their “fame” created political opportunity. They never built a business, led an organization, managed a company or governed a state. As a result, these rulers are prone to greed, ambition and arrogance.
STAGE THREE: “OLIGARCHICAL”
With greed, government (the ruling class) quickly moves toward creating and keeping power. They write laws, draft orders and invent rules that benefit them (while appeasing the public–through entitlements–to think they’re governing to their benefit). Virtues are only useful to retain power. The rulers also create a new “ruling [political] class” based upon ignorance (uneducated) and inexperience, because such surrogates are easier to manipulate and control. The goal? To create two states (or classes): the rich and the poor. Government no longer fixes problems but creates them to keep the populace salivating for another handout or quick fix. National debt rises to pay for all the entitlements to keep the people satisfied.
STAGE FOUR: “DEMOCRATICAL”
At this point, the next rule of government rises: pure democracy. The people rise up and overwhelm the oligarchy by sheer numbers. This is when the State begins to die. Democracies never last. They can’t. Every man does what is right in their own eyes. It’s how kings rise (someone popular enough to mass the people). The national order devolves from unity (“e pluribus unum” or “out of many, one”) into disunity (“e unumus plurib” or “out of one, many”). Democracies are all about inclusivity and tolerance, but only if its beneficial or pleasurable to the majority. Plato wrote, ironically, that “tolerance is the last virtue of a dying society” because it produces the lowest forms of sexual debauchery, violence, profanity and greed.
STAGE FIVE: “TYRANNICAL”
It’s in this social, irreligious and political vacuum that the final stage is set for a true tyrant. This is when the king becomes a lover of power. That’s when the city-state melts into anarchy and chaos. Initially this individual is attractive to the populace. He makes lots of promises. He steals from the rich to give to the poor. He’s kind, benevolent and caring. He dismantles the former “ruling class” (to the pleasure of the people) and creates a clique of one (propped up by mesmerized supporters). He eliminates all political enemies...and that’s when he becomes rapidly “unpopular.”
But by now it does not matter. When the people murmur or protest, he eliminates them too. Eventually he eliminates all undesirables from his kingdom. Power is no longer a means, but the end. Tyrants also keep wars going…so their people always need a leader. Finally, tyrants enslave his own people to service his needs.
Was Plato right? And could he be describing America’s future?
If you review other “republics” throughout history, his insights are telling. The decline and fall of “republics” like Greece and Rome are our best examples…the greatest “republics” ever created by man…until America came along. What made our nation different from former republics is its mild use of “democracy” or “we the people” to keep the ruling class in check. Consequently, we have “separation of powers” in our government (legislative, executive, judicial), all controlled by “we the people.”
If America becomes an oligarchy or democracy or tyrannical, it’s because “we the people” let it happen.
We seeded our own destruction. We caused our own ruin.
When America was in revolution against the British, across the pond France was having it’s own revolution. But unlike the French Revolution, which chose to center it’s new constitution upon a secular state, America did the opposite. It penned a “declaration of independence” and constituted as a “nation under God” with liberties (freedom to speak, assemble, report, “church”), justice and equality for all Americans. Our Founders didn’t get these ideas from Plato or the Enlightenment, but rather from the Bible.
Our Founders knew a moral and virtuous populace was a good thing.
- BENJAMIN FRANKLIN: “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”
- GEORGE WASHINGTON’S: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”
- DR. BENJAMIN RUSH: “The only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid on the foundation of religion. Without this there can no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments…The religion I mean to recommend in this place (America) is that of the New Testament.“
- JOHN ADAMS: “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break through the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net…our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
For most of America’s history, even those of different faiths (other than founding Protestant Christianity) recognized the uniqueness and strength of a “freedom of (not from) religion.”
America was attractive to the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox, the Muslim and the Jew, the Buddhist and Hindu, because it respected their commitments to morality, values and a faith in a “higher power.” All faiths found a space to worship as they pleased in America.
America operated fairly well, although at times with some awkwardness, in navigating the assimilation of different faiths, but in general, always worked it out. What the Founders’ feared, however, finally happened in the 1960s as American took a step toward a new secular state. As atheists, in particular, and other irreligious and nonChristian groups, attacked the foundations of “Christian America,” they did so at the peril of collapsing the very “free” system they desired. The secularist didn’t want to assimilate, but dominate. They didn’t want to tolerate religion but eliminate it. Religion denounced their sexual lifestyles, critiqued their godless habits and prohibited their vile (and illegal) activities. The Founders also knew what would happen when America lost its religious moorings.
On the final day of the Constitutional Convention (September 18, 1787) in Philadelphia, a lady approached the highly-regarded Benjamin Franklin and inquired whether their constitutional meetings had produced a monarchy or a republic.
Franklin famously replied, “A republic…if you can keep it.”
And that’s the question, isn’t it? Can we keep our republic?
It begins by recognizing America was never created as a pure democracy and a republic founded upon “morality, virtue and religion.” At best, we are a “democratic republic” (with the emphasis upon “republic”). But if Plato’s stages are historically valid, America is already an oligarchy, and careening (if politicians of a certain party desire) towards a democracy.
But a pure democracy would be disastrous for America (and it’s unlikely we’d last another 20 years as one, given our state of present social, religious and virtuous decline).
America is too great to lose to a tyrant (either from within or from without).
But that’s coming…unless we change course and return to a more virtuous, moral and religious state. We need to rediscover and restore the America our Founder’s established. And as with any restoration process that will not be easy.
We must change our course or one this is clear: Our current generations will become America’s Final Generation.
The clock is ticking.
- Madison quote: Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, James Madison, The Federalist on the New Constitution (Philadelphia: Benjamin Warner, 1818), p. 53J
- Adams quote: John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, Charles Francis Adams, editor (Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1850), Vol. VI, p. 484, to John Taylor on April 15, 1814.
- Ames quote: Fisher Ames, Works of Fisher Ames (Boston: T. B. Wait & Co., 1809), p. 24, Speech on Biennial Elections, delivered January, 1788; and Ames, Works, p. 384, “The Dangers of American Liberty,” February 1805.
- J.Q. Adams quote: John Quincy Adams, The Jubilee of the Constitution. A Discourse Delivered at the Request of the New York Historical Society, in the City of New York on Tuesday, the 30th of April 1839; Being the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Inauguration of George Washington as President of the United States, on Thursday, the 30th of April, 1789 (New York: Samuel Colman, 1839), p. 53.
- Rush quote: The Letters of Benjamin Rush, L. H. Buttereld, editor (Princeton: Princeton University Press for the American Philosophical Society, 1951), Vol. I, p. 523, to John Adams on July 21, 1789.
- Benjamin Franklin story:“America’s Bill of Rights at 200 Years,” by former Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, printed in Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. XXI, No. 3, Summer 1991, p. 457.