What makes our democracy work?
Consider the following thought pieces written by Bob McAdams, president of CCPJ, to get the conversation going. Then attend the event at the Free Speech Wall on the Downtown Mall, Charlottesville, on Saturday, Sept. 16, from 2 to 4 p.m. At our table, you are invited to add your own thoughts to the questions posed.
We the People
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
In the Preamble to the Constitution, the authors started with “We the People” and established a direct connection between the people, from whom the authority of government comes, and the nation of the United States of America. The definition of “We the People” has changed over the 236 years since the Constitution was written. Amendments to the Constitution ended slavery, defined who is a citizen, and eventually extended the vote to all citizens regardless of race or color or sex and eighteen years old or older.
In America, we the people come in all different sizes and shapes, colors and ages, ancestries, each with a unique life experience, and we are spread along a spectrum of gender presentations. We differ in many ways, but we all share a common humanity. We all are equally entitled to the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We all need and have a right to safe space to be ourselves. As a matter of common, human decency, we need to treat each other with respect. We need this respect to allow us to talk with each other without fear of harm. Talking in safety does not end disagreement, but allows agreement and opens the possibility of learning from each other. We, ourselves, as the people are called to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty. We can only do so, if we and our elected representatives can discuss openly the practical actions that we need to take in order to fulfill those responsibilities. At our best, we Americans have celebrated our diversity. Treating each other with respect is basic to making our democracy work. Efforts through government and through social movements to demonize groups of people for simply being who they are, are morally wrong and antithetical to the basic principles of our democracy.
Freedom of Religion
U. S. Constitution – Article VI: “…The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”
Amendment I: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
These two strong statements separate the power of government from any establishment of religion and forbid the interference by government in the free exercise of religion within the limits of civil law. The authors of the Constitution brought their own experiences with state religion and a knowledge of history of the new and old worlds to these declarations. The recognition of natural rights that led up to independence also led to the Virginia Declaration of Rights enacted in June of 1776. This Declaration states that “all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience…”. Before independence from Great Britain, Americans all paid taxes to support the Church of England before supporting their own religion. When in 1785 a bill was proposed in the Virginia House of Delegates to establish a three-cent tax for a “Provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion”, James Madison wrote a “Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments.” Madison saw America as “an asylum to the persecuted and oppressed of every nation and religion” and the current bill as the first step in the career of intolerance with the last step being the Inquisition. The bill did not pass. The “Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom” written by Thomas Jefferson and enacted in 1786 prohibited government support of or interference in the practice of religion. These precursors resulted in the very first right stated in the 1st Amendment to the Constitution.
Freedom of religion led to the great diversity of religious beliefs and religious institutions we see in the United States. To protect that diversity, we need to maintain the separation of government from any establishment of religion. We also need to respect the decisions by conscience that people make regarding their own religious beliefs. This makes our democracy work.
Freedom of Speech, the Press, and Assembly
U. S. Constitution – Amendment I: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
With independence each former colony wrote a new constitution often including a bill of rights that regularly included freedom of religion, speech, and the press. The U.S. constitution written in the Federal Convention of 1787 did not include a Bill of Rights. At state conventions to ratify the Constitution, some representatives objected to this omission. They believed that a free exchange of ideas and opinions was necessary to make the democratic-republic work. In a January 1787 letter, Thomas Jefferson wrote in favor of “the good sense of the people” and the need to give them full information through the “public papers”, the press. Article I, section 8 of the Constitution authorizes Congress “to establish post offices and post roads”, in order to facilitate the distribution of information. In its first session, Congress passed the amendments that became the Bill of Rights.
The Bill of Rights protects against government encroachment, but does not address abuse of those rights. In his comments when he introduced the amendments to the House of Representatives, James Madison noted the danger outside of government “in the body of the people, operating by the majority against the minority.” In 1789 Ben Franklin satirized the free press as the most Supreme Court of Judicature, where a good citizen could be accused, judged, and condemned as a villain all in the same morning.
There is power in the words that people speak and write, especially when those words are distributed and repeated widely. People who knowingly spread false information abuse the freedom of speech and freedom of the press. We have a responsibility to discern to the best of our ability the actual truth of our words and to admit error when we are wrong. Fulfilling that responsibility in our spoken and written words is an essential part of making our democracy work.
Checks and Balances to Prevent Abuse of Power
In May of 1787 delegates from the states met in convention in Philadelphia. Their task was to fix many problems with the Articles of Confederation that had been revealed since the Articles had come into effect in 1781. The delegates closed the doors and debated in secret. The most detailed records of the debates come from notes that James Madison kept. On September 17th, 1787, delegates signed the Constitution of the United States and adjourned. Congress sent the Constitution to each state to hold conventions for ratification, yes or no, with no amendments allowed.
Madison’s notes reveal the strong competing interests behind the difficult decisions facing the convention. Arguments about the sovereignty of the states and the power of a national government pitted small states against large states. Most delegates recognized the need to separate the legislative, executive, and judicial functions into separate bodies, but arguments over their relative power, manner of selection, and term of office reflected the various interests of the delegates and their fears of abuse of power. Madison pointed out that a majority can always dominate the minority, even when the margin between the two is small. Delegates noted the competing interests of creditors versus debtors, merchants and manufacturers versus land owners and farmers, the rich versus the poor, and the few versus the many. The result was our Constitution with a bi-cameral Congress, a single President, a Supreme court plus inferior courts. Veto power, veto over-ride, actions requiring the consent of the Senate, impeachment, judicial review and other checks served to balance the powers of the branches.
The same competing interests still struggle for power today. The past decade has shown that the checks and balances in our government are effective only when people in power respect the duties, responsibilities, and the limits of their office. We need to elect people who respect the office they seek and the government itself. Our active, informed participation in the election process is essential to making our democracy work.
We Are Our Government
We are our government. The words “We the people of the United States of America” in themselves establish the most basic principle of our government, that the authority of government comes from the consent of the people and that government’s purpose is to serve the people. We are the electors. Those who serve in government are from among us. We all benefit from government and we all are subject to the laws of our government. All of this is by our consent. When government succeeds or fails, it is our success and our failure.
We are our government – but what does this mean in our lives, in anyone’s real life? How do we get from principle to practice? For an answer, we can look back to the great “what now?” days after our Constitution was ratified.
Members of the first Congress and the first president, George Washington, learned quickly that our Constitution is a structure, a form, a framework awaiting content. They needed to create that content as they faced one problem after another. The same reality is true for us now as for the first members of Congress. Government at any level is a decision-making machine, but it is the people in government who make the decisions.
We are our government. By these words, by this principle we the people have the authority that empowers government, but we also have the responsibility to make our government work. We have this responsibility because we are here, living in this place, citizens of this nation. We cannot abdicate or avoid this role. We have this responsibility and the only question is whether we will do a good job or a poor job fulfilling it.
There are many specific principles and actions that make our democracy work, but the simple, basic answer to the question “What makes our democracy work?” is that we make our democracy work. By our words and actions we can support the principles of honest, democratic government. Doing so is our responsibility to the past and to the future.