There are four reasons why democracy developed early in America. The first is to be found in the conditions of pioneer life in the colonies. The selected character of the colonists is a second reason for the rise of democracy in America. It should be remembered, thirdly, that the English colonists brought with them very definite ideas as to the rights of man. The concessions granted by the Magna Charta were made an essential part of their political philosophy. A fourth explanation of the rise of democracy in America is that, left to themselves, the settlers came to feel that self-government was morally right.
Largely removed from the traditions of monarchy, they soon realized the elemental significance of government. Seeing government as a device to help people get along together, they concluded that that government is best which most helps the masses of the people. The existence of a British monarch was a small factor in the everyday life of the early settlers, and from this it was a short step to asserting that his control over them was unjust.
It has often been said that for a considerable period prior to the American Revolution, the thirteen colonies were in reality self-governing states. For most practical purposes they were independent, indeed, some American patriots insisted that they were only nominally subject to England. In each colony there was an assembly chosen by a restricted number of voters. This popular assembly championed the cause of the colonists against the governor, who in most of the colonies was primarily an agent of the Crown. After the middle of the eighteenth century, the struggles between assembly and governor increased in number and in intensity, and victory rested more and more often with the assembly.
Democracy, at first weak and ill diffused, had been spreading steadily during the preceding century, and when at last the break with England came, it found the states trained in self- government and able to conduct their own affairs. In many cases the Revolution simply erased the name of the king from documents and institutions already American in spirit and character. The states either retained their old charters as constitutions or framed new constitutions based upon the experience of colonial government. The popular legislative assembly was everywhere retained. The common law of England continued in force, and the system of courts was retained in practically its pre-Revolution form. The basis of state government had been laid long before the Revolution, the new states simply accepting the basic political principles with which they, as colonies, had long been familiar. The defeat of English claims was only an incident in the irresistible progress of American democracy.
The outbreak of the American Revolution proved that the colonies were so deeply attached to democracy that they were willing to fight for it. But the spirit which animated the Revolution was local, rather than national. The colonial protests which in 1776 reached their climax in the Declaration of Independence had to do almost entirely with the rights of the colonies as individual states, and with the determination of those states to defend the principle of self-government.
The form of government established by the Constitution of 1787 is known as a republic. A republic may be defined as a representative democracy, or, in the popular sense of the term, simply as a democracy. Now, to point out that a government is democratic does not necessarily mean that it is a sound government. Granting that self-government is morally right, the fate of a democracy will depend, partly upon the character of the people, and partly upon the nature of the governmental machinery through which that people expresses its will. The proof of democracy is in its workings.
The government established by the Articles of Confederation had a number of grave defects. The fundamental difficulty was that the central government had no real authority or power. The Congress of the Confederation could reach individuals only through the action of the state governments, and these it could not coerce. Thus the Congress could declare war, and make requisitions upon the states for troops, but it could not enlist a single soldier. It could make laws, but had no power to enforce them. It could make treaties with foreign governments, but could not oblige the states to respect those agreements. The central government could not levy taxes, but was obliged to accept whatever sums the states chose to contribute. The Confederation government could not even protect itself, or the states, against violence. It lacked force, and without the ability to exert force, a government is a government in name only.
Not only did the central government fail to enlist the respect and support of the states, but it could not induce the states to respect or support one another. Congress had no power to regulate either foreign or domestic commerce, each state being free to control the commercial activities of its citizens as it saw fit. In many cases the states engaged in trade wars, that is, they levied heavy duties upon the commerce of one another, or even refused to allow their citizens to buy goods from, or sell goods to, persons in neighboring states. Matters calling for unity of action and friendly cooperation, such as roads and canals, were ignored or neglected because of interstate jealousy. Whereas they should have united against the grave dangers of the period immediately following the war, the states often wasted time and energy in controversy and strife.
The failure of the Articles of Confederation is one of the most discouraging chapters in the development of American democracy. And yet it is an indispensable chapter, for it demonstrated, far more convincingly than could any theoretical argument, that there must be one great American nation rather than thirteen or more unrelated republics. Six years of practical experience with the Articles of Confederation taught the absolute necessity of a strong central government. The weaknesses of the Confederation government constituted the most spectacular of the forces favoring union in 1787, and yet these forces were negative in character: the states accepted the Constitution of 1787 not so much because they were attracted by it, as because they saw little chance of getting along without it. It should be noted, on the other hand, that for a long period previous to the adoption of the Constitution of 1787, certain positive forces were impelling the states toward union. In their Old World homes most of the settlers had occupied somewhat the same social position, and had been used to somewhat the same economic conditions. This common background constituted, in their New World homes, a unifying force of great importance.
In spite of the numerous jealousies and rivalries among the various sections of the country, there were at work forces which tended to break down the spirit of localism or provincialism. Though the Revolution established thirteen separate states, the war had encouraged the Americans to feel that they were a single people with a common destiny. The soldiers of various sections had rubbed elbows with one another during the French and Indian wars, and during the Revolution. This had served to encourage a feeling of comradeship between the inhabitants of different communities. The population of the country was doubling every twenty years, and groups previously isolated were coming into contact with one another. Interstate cooperation was not only more necessary than ever before, but it was less difficult to bring about. Highways were being improved, and the postal service gradually extended, with the result that a more wholesome social life was made possible.
The states technically abandoned state sovereignty when they accepted the Constitution of 1787, but not until the Civil War had been won was permanent union assured. Most important of all, American democracy was in 1787 only a political concept. There was at that time no suspicion that democracy was later to be expanded into a philosophy of life, applicable not only to purely governmental affairs, but to the individual in his economic and social relations as well.
In many of the ancient republics the powers of government were so unequally and so indefinitely divided that republican government degenerated either to despotism or to anarchy. Within the last century many Latin-American republics have modeled their governments after US, and yet some of these republics are constantly threatened by either revolution or despotism. The explanation of this, according to Elihu Root, is that these republics have adapted US check and balance system so carelessly that they find it difficult, if not impossible, to maintain a really stable government.
The separation of Federal and state functions is not always clear, but such matters as contracts, property rights, crime, and education are probably best administered by the state. There is, similarly, no sharp dividing line between the functions of state and local governments, but at present it appears that the local authorities are the most efficient administrators of roads and bridges, water and paving, the elementary schools, and similar concerns. The essential economy of this threefold division of functions is that each of the three sets of officials tends to concern itself with those matters with which it is best acquainted, and which are most advantageously administered by it.
The earlier European critics of US government declared that the division of powers between Federal and state governments would encourage civil strife. It is true that this division of powers has resulted in a decentralized rather than in a centralized form of government. It is equally true that the quarrel over states' rights was the fundamental cause of the Civil War. But that war settled the question of states' rights once and for all and there has never again been any serious question as to the proper status of states and Union. American democracy has been found compatible with unity.
(Adapted from The Project Gutenberg EBook of Problems in American Democracy by Thames Ross Williamson)