The Articles of Confederation of 1777 established a federation of states that essentially preserved the self-government of the thirteen states and the democratic structures established by their recently written or modified constitutions (Shalhope 1990:84-85; see “The US popular movement of 1775-77” 11/1/2013). But the democratic structures established by the state constitutions were a threat to the privileges of the educated gentry, a class of large landholders and educated men. As Shalhope explains:
Members of the gentry had welcomed their poorer countrymen’s support in opposition to the British aristocracy but expressed shock and dismay upon hearing, shortly after the outbreak of the Revolution, their cries that ‘we have not cast off a British aristocracy to be saddled with an American one.” In many colonies groups of individuals demanded “no guvernair but the guvernair of the univarse’ and pressed for state constitutions eliminating governors and upper houses, as well as supporting annually elected lower houses based upon universal male suffrage. Worse, in the minds of the gentry, the people insisted on electing representatives who were not gentlemen, but men who would represent the local interests of their constituents. The whole fabric of social hierarchy seemed to be coming under concerted attack (1990: 92).
The Constitution provoked a reaction from the popular democratic movement. Ordinary farmers, traders, artisans, and workers formed associations and published pamphlets and newspapers. These popular organizations were developed to promote the interests of the popular classes, and their participants were generally referred to as anti-Federalists. In reaction to repression by the government, the popular organizations advocated freedom of speech, press, and association. They were able to force the adoption of ten amendments to the Constitution that came to be known as the Bill of Rights, although even this apparent guardian of the people’s liberties contained ambiguities. And they were able to elect Thomas Jefferson as president in 1800. As the most radical member of the upper class ruling elite and the author of the stirring words of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson was identified with the popular cause (Foner 1998:42-43; Shalhope 1990:105, 150, 164; Zinn 2005:90-102).
But the Constitution had established the legal and political foundation for a political process that favors elite control. It represented the victory of an elite counterrevolution that reversed the gains of the popular democratic revolution of 1775-77, a phenomenon that is nearly erased from our national consciousness.
In addition to recognizing that the Constitution was the product of a victorious elite counterrevolution, we also should be aware that the theory and practice of American democracy were formed in a particular historical and social context. The structures of competing political parties emerged in the context of a social conflict between the elite and the popular classes. And the emphasis on freedom of speech and association emerged in the context of repression of the popular movement. And we should understand that the American historical and social context is not universal. Revolutionary processes developing in different historical and social contexts will forge different understandings and practices of democracy, appropriate for their particular situations. We should avoid the ethnocentric error of assuming that the American theory and practice of democracy is the universal standard for humanity.
Foner, Eric. 1998. The Story of American Freedom. New York: W.W. Norton.
Shalhope, Robert E. 1990. The Roots of Democracy: American Thought and Culture, 1760-1800. Boston: Twayne Publishers.
Zinn, Howard. 2005. A People’s History of the United States: 1492 – Present. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Harper Perennial Modern Classics
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