It is widely known that the U.S. political system today is dominated by a relatively small group of extremely wealthy individuals, who further their own interests at the expense of the vast majority of the population. But I believe it is a mistake to say that this situation has arisen because the original system has been “corrupted”, and that we just need to go back to the “good old days” when the founding fathers were in charge of the country and the Constitution was the law of the land …
The Constitution was designed by rich and powerful men to serve their own minority interests
Who were the Founding Fathers, and what did they intend to create at the Constitutional Convention? The story we’re told in our high-school history books is that this group, composed of the wealthiest and most influential men in post-Revolutionary America, had temporarily set aside their own economic interests (including their ownership of slaves and war debt) and together designed a brilliant democratic political system that guaranteed “liberty and justice for all”. This system is enshrined in the most holy of US political documents, the United States Constitution.
Of course, today, if I were to suggest that a bunch of billionaires should be allowed to call a secret meeting and design a system of government, without consulting the public, and that they could be trusted to set aside their own interests while doing so, I would be considered naive at best. Yet for some reason, people happily accept that this is what happened at the Constitutional Convention.
In reality these slave-owning aristocrats were facing a nationwide upsurge of democratic “leveling” sentiment that aimed to redistribute wealth and political power, and felt that the Articles of Confederation weren’t doing an adequate job at combating this tendency. Thus they came together to design a system that they felt would better protect their position of privilege. If you doubt that this was their intention, take a look at what the Founding Fathers themselves were saying:
“All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and well born, the other the mass of the people. The voice of the people has been said to be the voice of God; and however generally this maxim has been quoted and believed, it is not true in fact. The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct, permanent share in the government. They will check the unsteadiness of the second, and as they cannot receive any advantage by a change, they therefore will ever maintain good government. Can a democratic assembly, who annually revolve in the mass of the people, be supposed steadily to pursue the public good? Nothing but a permanent body can check the imprudence of democracy. Their turbulent and uncontroling disposition requires checks.”
“The man who is possessed of wealth, who lolls on his sofa or rolls in his carriage, cannot judge the wants or feelings of the day-laborer. … In England, at this day, if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of landed proprietors would be insecure. An agrarian law would soon take place. If these observations be just, our government ought to secure the permanent interests of the country against innovation. Landholders ought to have a share in the government, to support these invaluable interests, and to balance and check the other. They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.”
” It ought finally to occur to a people deliberating on a Government for themselves, that as different interests necessarily result from the liberty meant to be secured, the major interest might under sudden impulses be tempted to commit injustice on the minority. In all civilized Countries the people fall into different classes having a real or supposed difference of interests. There will be creditors & debtors, farmers, merchants & manufacturers. There will be particularly the distinction of rich & poor. … In framing a system which we wish to last for ages, we should not lose sight of the changes which ages will produce. An increase of population will of necessity increase the proportion of those who will labour under all the hardships of life, & secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of its blessings. These may in time outnumber those who are placed above the feelings of indigence. According to the equal laws of suffrage, the power will slide into the hands of the former. No agrarian attempts have yet been made in in this Country, but symtoms, of a leveling spirit, as we have understood, have sufficiently appeared in a certain quarters to give notice of the future danger. How is this danger to be guarded against on republican principles? How is the danger in all cases of interested coalitions to oppress the minority to be guarded against?”
“Our chief danger arises from the democratic parts of our constitutions. It is a maxim which I hold incontrovertible, that the powers of government exercised by the people swallows up the other branches. None of the constitutions have provided sufficient checks against the democracy.”
Or, most succinctly, John Jay:
“The people who own the country ought to govern it.”
This type of anti-democratic, oligarchic sentiment permeated the Convention. Unwilling to accept what the majority of the population wanted — democracy and economic equality — they decided instead to design a system of government which would enable the “minority of the opulent” to impose their wishes upon the people — exactly the type of system we live under today.