OUPblog > History > America > Once again, “the people” prepare to elect an American president

Once again, “the people” prepare to elect an American president

By Louis René Beres


Apart from their obvious differences, all of  the candidates, both Democrat (President Obama) and Republican, have one overriding chant in common. For each aspirant, every pitch is prefaced by sanctimonious appeals to “the people.”  Whether openly, or with a quiet nod to a presumably more subtle strategy, “I want to be the people’s president” is always their conspicuously shared mantra.

This is not hard to understand. To suggest otherwise, in fact, would be more than foolish.  It would be blasphemy.

Certainly, political appeals to “the people” are not novel in America.  But neither have such appeals always been distinctly fashionable. Quite the contrary. Surprisingly, the early history of the United States actually reveals very substantial and open contempt for general publics and popular rule.

True, the men who drew up the Constitution in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787 had created a document that was stirringly republican, but, just as surely, they did not believe in democracy.  Rather, imbued with the philosophy of Hobbes, and the religion of Calvin, they expressed firmly anti-popular sentiments at every turn.

For Edmund Randolph, the evils from which the new country was suffering had plainly originated in the “turbulence and follies of democracy.”  Elbridge Gerry spoke unhesitatingly of democracy as “the worst of all political evils,” and Roger Sherman frankly hoped that “the people…have as little to do as may be about the government.”

Alexander Hamilton charged that the “turbulent and changing” masses “seldom judge or determine right,” and even recommended a permanently constituted public authority to “check the imprudence of democracy.” George Washington, the presiding officer, cherry tree and all, sternly urged the delegates not to produce a document “to please the people.”

Today, we try to forget that the Founding Fathers displayed a very deep distrust of ordinary folk, and, as corollary, an abundant fear of democratic governance.  With no more than a half-dozen exceptions, the men of the Philadelphia Convention were scions of wealth and privilege, utterly disdaining the people as a vile and contemptible “mob.” Any serious thought by the general population was something that always had to be vigorously discouraged.  Said the young Governeur Morris:  “The mob begin to think and reason, Poor reptiles . . . They bask in the sun, and ere noon they will bite, depend on it.”

These patrician metaphors were unhidden and unvarnished. Even Benjamin Franklin, whose faith in the people was discernibly stronger than that of his colleagues, remarked candidly that any capacity for purposeful citizenship remained undemonstrated.  In a similar vein, President Washington, in his first annual message to the Congress, revealed distinct apprehensions about any public participation in government. The American people, he warned,  “…must learn to distinguish between oppression and the necessary exercise of lawful authority . . .to discriminate the spirit of liberty from that of licentiousness.”

Looking back, the Founding Fathers were largely correct in their expressed reservations about American democratic governance, but for all the wrong reasons.  Unexpectedly, We the people have displayed an extraordinary capacity for compliance; for deference to lawful authority.  At the same time, perhaps with similar surprise, we have shown a persistent unwillingness or incapacity to care for ourselves as persons, as true individual members of the American Commonwealth.  The mob does reign supreme in America, clearly not the same mob originally feared by Hamilton, Sherman and Morris, but a dangerous mob nonetheless.

Who are the present members of this American mob?   They are drawn from every corner of the nation, from every nook and cranny of these United States.  They are rich and poor, black and white, easterner and westerner, educated and uneducated, young and old, male and female, Jew and Christian and Muslim and Hindu and Buddhist and atheist.  It is, as so many of the Founding Fathers had feared, a democratic mob, but its most distinguishing and portentous feature is not poverty or lack of schooling or  shameless vulgarity. It is, rather, the clear and far-reaching absence of any individuality, courage, or (even in our finest universities) serious thought.

Ironically, we Americans inhabit the one society that could have been different. Once, notwithstanding  early aristocratic dismissals of  ”the people,” we somehow managed to nurture a critical potential to become more than a crowd. Ralph Waldo Emerson, after all, had once described this young nation as one motivated by industry, meaning and self-reliance, not by a dreadful conformance, mimicry, and “trembling.”

Where, now, is the individual American citizen, the authentic Single One who does not draw sustaining comfort from the suffocating warmth of mass society?  For the most part, he or she no longer even exists as a genuine person, but only as a member.  For present-day America, it does not really matter if the people is noisome, obscene or sublime, so long as all the multitude are able to fit in and belong.  In these United States, demos is not a preferred path to virtue, but an endlessly deep valley of imitation, mediocrity and eventual despair.

To be sure, we Americans have come a long way from the ancient Greek belief that each person must be honored for individual and unique worth.  In the words of the Athenian statesman Pericles:  “Each single one of our citizens, in all the manifold aspects of life, is able to show himself the rightful lord and owner of his own person, and do this, moreover, with exceptional grace and exceptional versatility.”  In America, today, the citizen – male or female – who proclaims proudly as the rightful “lord and owner” of a real personhood is quickly judged either a fool or a sociopath.

It is as all-too-willing members of mass society that we Americans have chosen to define and defile our life as a nation. Our product-driven society, depending upon hyper-consumption, bristles with demeaning jingles, ubiquitous hucksterism, humiliating allusions, and endless equivocations. Somehow, almost effortlessly, we have managed to thoroughly deform the Republic and ourselves at the same time.

Oddly, the people so loudly praised and adored by all presidential candidates generally have very little to commend themselves, either as individual persons, or as citizens of a still-promising larger society.  Before this intolerable condition can change, and before the assorted aspirants can ever make good on their ritualistic adorations, it will first be necessary for us to take our Selves seriously.

Soon, unless we finally start to honor the American people as individuals, the coming presidential election will miss the point.

Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is Professor of Political Science at Purdue University. He is author of many books and articles dealing with international relations and international law. Read his previous OUPblog posts here.

For further reading, we recommend Of the People: A Concise History of the United States.
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One Response to “Once again, “the people” prepare to elect an American president”
  1. It was my unfortunate experience to have my best class [AP U.S.History seated at the front of the auditorium during the presentation of the American Citizenship award medal. The class did not stand or salute for the flag pledge. I was embarassed; and when we go back to class I asked WHY? "Because", they all agreed, "the pledge does not describe actual fact." I responded that they misunderstood what pledge meant. It is our hope for the future, not a description of the present. Even the Nazis with the"seig Heil" hoped they would conquer all, but did not believe that the had the prize yet. I told them I will recite the flag every day with the hope that we will come ever closer to the ideal; but knowing, like "infinity" that one never reaches the goal itself. However, I told the class, no one should be compelled to take an oath -- that should always be a voluntary act. I am going to turn my back on this class and pledge my allegiance in this vein. No one will ever be discriminated against in my classes for not following suit. All I ask is a moment of respectful silence for my heartfelt feelings. As I began I heard a silent suffle as the class stood, then slowly a volume of increasing voices joining me. What you have written is abundantly true; but it does point to a future we have come close to reaching [excluding a few bumps along the road].
    Murray

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