The following is a chapter of “Your American Yardstick” by Hamilton A Long. It is out of copyright and in the public domain. I regard his work as seminal and extremely important for every American to understand. This entry deals with the eleventh principle of traditional American philosophy. We need to know these things. There are many quotations and other sections in the book. You may view an online copy at Hathitrust.
A Principle of the Traditional American Philosophy
- THE MAJORITY—LIMITED FOR LIBERTY
“. . . this sacred principle . . .” [Majority must respect Minority’s rightsl
(President Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address; see below)
The traditional American philosophy teaches that The Majority must be strictly limited in power, and in the operation of government, for the protection of The Individual’s God-given, unalienable rights proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence and, therefore, of the rights of The Minority—of all minorities.
A Restricted Mechanic of Government
Self-government’s system of rule by majority vote is based on necessity. Rule by majority vote is a necessary mechanic of any government of the popular type, featuring rule by the people through free, periodic elections such as, for example, those held in the United States. Under this philosophy, rule by majority vote is always subject to the “sacred principle” defined in President Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address, quoted below.
“This Sacred Principle”
“All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.”
A Minority of One Protected
The protection provided by this principle applies fundamentally, of course, in favor of a minority of one: The Individual. No majority, however great—even all of the people but one Individual—may properly infringe, or possess the power to infringe, the rights of any minority, however small—even a minority of a lone Individual.
America a Republic—Not a Democracy— In Form of Government
So As to Limit Effectively The Majority To Protect The Individual
Therein lies the reason why the American leaders who framed and ratified the United States Constitution in 1787-1788 chose, for America’s form of government, that of a Republic and not a Democracy. (The then existing Confederation was merely a treaty arrangement between completely independent and separate State governments, by agreement of their legislatures only and not by consent of the people, with no real central government—with only a legislative body—and with no power over those governments or over individual citizens; so it provided no protection for the rights of The Individual or The Minority against tyranny by The Majority in any State—later remedied, as to certain rights, by prohibitions in the original Constitution expressly made applicable against the States.) A Republic is a constitutionally limited government of the representative type, created by a written Constitution—adopted by the people and changeable (from its original meaning) by them only by its amendment—with its powers divided between three separate Branches: Executive, Legislative and Judicial. In a Republic, the whole system is designed primarily to protect The Individual’s unalienable rights—therefore The Minority, all minorities—against any violation by government or by others. As the Declaration of Independence expresses this American goal of safeguarding these rights, the people form their governments “to secure these rights”—to make and keep them secure.
The Majority Omnipotent in Any Democracy
This is not the case under a Democracy, speaking of it as a form of government and not merely in the more general sense of its meaning a popular type of government. In a Democracy, The Majority is omnipotent, whether it be a Representative Democracy or a Direct Democracy. In the Representative type, the people function governmentally through an elected legislature, which selects and controls the head of the Executive Department, as in Great Britain where “the authority of the parliament is transcendent and uncontrolable” (as stated in The Federalist number 53, by Madison)—where in fact the House of Commons alone has by law become supreme. In the Direct type, all of the electorate (those entitled to vote) assemble as a single group to debate and decide directly and conclusively all governmental questions. This is suitable only for a very small number of people—as in a New England town with a town-meeting system of government, or in a situation like that of the small city-states of ancient Greece. (Decisions of a New England town-meeting are, of course, subject to the State and United States Constitutions which protect the rights of The Individual and The Minority, so such a town-meeting government is not a true Democracy featuring The Majority Omnipotent.)
In a Democracy, The Individual Is Subservient and
Must Be Submissive to The Omnipotent Majority
Any Democracy, either Representative or Direct, does not even recognize the existence of any unqualified rights of The Individual, much less his possessing God-given, unalienable rights as conceived by the American philosophy. A Democracy in America, as a form of government, would therefore provide no protection for these rights. Under a Democracy, Man is considered to have only qualified privileges permitted by The Majority in control of government and revocable by it at any time. This spells Rule by Omnipotent Majority, with The Individual and The Minority as well as all minorities victimized at the pleasure of The Majority, without limit and without any legal basis for objection or practical remedy. The idea of such unlimited rule, as if by “divine right of The Majority,” is as abhorrent in the eyes of the traditional American philosophy as is the idea of rule by “divine right of kings.”
The Uniquely American Principle Was Thoroughly Understood in 1776
The traditional American philosophy requires a Republic’s constitutionally limited form of government for the security of Man’s unalienable rights against violation by The Majority, by government, as well as by others. This philosophy was well understood in America in 1776 but was imperfectly practiced by the States in the post-17 76 period, during which rights were violated. This correct understanding was exemplified by the previously noted (Par. 8, Principle 2) town-meeting petition of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, addressed to the legislature of Massachusetts in May, 1776. It urged the adoption by the people—as “the fountain of power”—of a Constitution as their fundamental law, to fill the void created by the end of royal rule, as “the first step to be taken” by the people in order to guard against despotism—against “the wanton exercise of power”—and it asserted that the only safeguard is “the formation of a fundamental constitution” by the people. Their aim was to safeguard their liberties. This was accomplished by the people of Massachusetts in 1780, by their creating the first true Constitution and Republic in the world. They utilized successfully, for the first time in history, a constitutional convention—which is America’s great, if not greatest, contribution to the mechanics of self-government through constitutional government. (Earlier Acts of Legislatures of other States were erroneously classified as “constitutions;” while some countries’ governments throughout history had generally been erroneously classified as “republics”—a much-misunderstood and loosely used term. See the correct definition of a Republic in Paragraph 4, above.)
Principle Violated by “Elective Despotism” after 1776
The post-1776 period witnessed gross violations by State Legislatures of the unalienable rights of victimized Individuals. In Virginia, for example, Jefferson protested vigorously against the Legislature’s acts of tyranny by The Majority, stating: “An elective despotism was not the government we fought for . . .” (“Notes on The State of Virginia,” 1782; emphasis Jefferson’s). Misconduct in this period by The Omnipotent Majority in the legislatures of a number of the States was in reaction against the earlier oppressive rule by the king and his royal governors and judges. At that time, except in Massachusetts under its Constitution of 1780, there were no real State Constitutions to restrain the legislatures, which made sure that the governors and judges were without power to prohibit legislative enactments (by which the violations of unalienable rights were effected). The New Hampshire Constitution, based on this pattern, was not adopted until 1784 after a Constitutional Convention was successful in framing one acceptable to the people—several earlier conventions having been unsuccessful. Other States did not follow suit for a number of years, some not for decades.
“The Excesses of Democracy”
This type of tyranny, by Omnipotent Majority, is always possible under any Democracy as a form of government. This is what The Framers and Ratifiers of the Constitution and their fellow- American leaders meant when, in the 1787-1788 debates with regard to the framing and adoption of the Constitution, they denounced the “excesses of democracy.” They were, of course, not criticizing popular government as such—for instance as it exists under the Republic of the United States featuring constitutionally limited government, as limited by the Constitution. They were, therefore, not condemning democracy in the general sense of the term—meaning merely a popular type of government. They were speaking in support of America’s being a Republic, not a Democracy, as a form of government. The more general meaning of Democracy—popular government—also applies to America; but this use of the term is only confusing in any discussion, as here, of the characteristics of different forms of popular government: a Republic in contrast to a Democracy.
Federal and State Republics
The foregoing explains why the traditional American philosophy requires that the central (Federal) government and the State governments be Republics. (See Pars. 6-7 of Principle 5.) Each State is guaranteed the form of government of a Republic by the United States Constitution (Art. IV, Sec. 4). The foregoing also makes clear why this philosophy requires that The Majority, at any time in temporary charge of government, administer its affairs in keeping with the Constitution’s limitations and for the benefit of all Individuals composing the people as a whole, meaning The Minority and all minorities as well as The Majority—not merely for the benefit of those constituting only The Majority of the moment.
The traditional American philosophy demands that the power of The Majority be limited for the protection of The Individual’s unalienable rights, for the security of Man’s Liberty against Government-over-Man, in keeping with the American formula: The Majority —Limited for Liberty.