In 1814, Gouverneur Morris, one of the primary authors of the Constitution, said: “And thou, too, democracy! savage and wild. Thou who wouldst bring down the virtuous and wise to thy level of folly and guilt.”
For those especially conversant with Plato’s Republic (like Michael), this seems eerily similar to Plato’s description of democracy. Plato calls democracy “a delightful form of government, anarchic and motley, assigning a kind of equality indiscriminately to equals and unequals alike!”
Back in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it was common to “borrow” language from previous authors. Much of the Declaration of Independence is borrowed from John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government. In this case, Gouverneur Morris is clearly borrowing from Plato. Plato’s “anarchic and motley” quite easily became “savage and wild.” In fact, Gouverneur Morris may have had a translation that used those words or he could have been reading the Republic in Latin, which he knew, and translated it himself.
What is interesting here is that both Plato and Morris point out that democracy brings people down to the lowest common denominator: For Plato democracy is “assigning a kind of equality indiscriminately to equals and unequals alike” and for Morris democracy “wouldst bring down the virtuous and wise to thy level of folly and guilt.”
This distrust of democracy was not unique to Morris among the Founders. Even the enigma, Madison, the man credited as the father of the Constitution and later for getting the anti-Federalist motivated Bill of Rights ratified, was leery of “popular government.” He is quite clear on this point in Federalist No. 10:
A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths. Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of government, have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions.
In more modern parlance: “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for dinner.” 1 Madison goes on to explain that a republic serves to ameliorate these problems:
… by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose.
What many today fail to realize is that the Founders, while shaped by their experience as self-sufficient colonists, were standing on the shoulders of giants, and they knew it. They were students of history and philosophy and searched for wisdom to guide their efforts.
1Attributed to libertarian writer James Bovard