A reader posted a digital comment a couple of weeks ago claiming the nation’s founders wanted citizen legislators, not career politicians, to run the government.
The correspondent was half right. It’s clear the founders would not have appreciated someone working in Washington for 30 or 40 years — their letters are too full of groaning complaints about staying in government too long.
But they would have been shocked at the words “citizen legislator,” at least in the way we mean it: a carpenter or clerk dropping his or her tools to go make laws for a few years.
Almost to a man — they were all men — the founders were wealthy landowners and businessmen, not the common citizens of memory. Most made public affairs a lifetime avocation.
And they were terrified at the idea of popular democracy.
That’s why they designed a government that tried to keep actual people at bay. The president would be picked indirectly, by wise electors. Senators would serve six years and be chosen by state lawmakers. Federal judges could hold their jobs for a lifetime, dodging fickle public opinion.
Only 6 percent of Americans could vote in the first presidential election.
The founders weren’t anti-people. But they feared what they called “faction,” the interparty squabbling common in popularly elected governments.
“A zeal for different opinions (has) divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good,” James Madison wrote, describing his world — and predicting ours with deadly accuracy.
The founders were wrong about suffrage but right about faction, which now defines American politics. Officeholders routinely place party ahead of country, leaving the nation trapped in a bitter stalemate with its challenges unaddressed.
On the Fourth of July we celebrate the words and work of the founders. Perhaps we’ll read Thomas Jefferson’s stirring evocation of self-evident truths like equality and unalienable rights. Maybe we’ll read the list of abuses by the British king.
For me, though, the most significant words of the Declaration of Independence are at the end.
“We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor,” the delegates wrote.
Shortly after signing the document, Benjamin Franklin is said to have chuckled.
“We must all hang together,” he told his colleagues, “or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
That, too, reflected his world, and predicted ours.