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The Tyranny Of The Majority

May 2024
2min read

I was appalled by your article “Taking Another Look at the Constitutional Blueprint.” Only five comments made any sense—those of Dan T. Carter, John Lukacs, Patricia K. Bonomi, Don E. Fehrenbacher, and Herman BeIz. None would add anything to the Constitution. The rest of the comments are extremely parochial.

I was particularly startled by Joyce Appleby of UCLA. She would like to see constitutional amendments enacted by a simple popular majority. I guess it’s to be expected that someone from California would propose that the Constitution—a venerable document precisely because it is unencumbered by specificity—become as trendy and superficial as Hollywood. Ms. Appleby is distressed to realize that America is not actually a democracy. It is a republic, something I thought clearly understood, particularly by those who claim to be historians. There are good reasons for establishing a democratically elected, republican form of government. Permitting 10 percent of the population to stop an amendment in its tracks—which Ms. Appleby finds shocking—prevents what is known as “tyranny of the majority.” What if a white-supremacist notion swept the United States? Couldn’t blacks again be banned from citizenship by the Constitution?

More to the point, however, the Constitution has survived so adroitly precisely because of the checks and balances that Ms. Appleby seems to ignore. It is the contention engendered by the Constitution’s checks and balances that helps ensure that “the common good is seen as incorporating the nurturing of all people whether they be privileged or not,” to quote Ms. Appleby’s idealistic and rather naive motive for democracy. In fact, I believe Ms. Appleby would regret a simple majority rule once she discovered the majority was not as idealistic as she is.

Which brings me to another point made by a majority of the commentators in your piece. They seem to wish to rely on laws to make people responsible. There is a fundamental flaw in their position: A nation of laws is possible only if the citizens of that nation believe in those laws and thereby act responsibly. It is otherwise not much better than anarchy.

It seems to me that we have completely abrogated our responsibility as members of a society. It is not a constitutional issue to have prayer in schools or to balance the budget or to establish that women have the same rights as men or to ensure that we can expose ourselves to obscenity as we choose. Rather, these are issues of responsibility. It is the responsibility of an individual school board—and the people who elect it—to determine whether their school district should permit praying in school or not. It is the responsibility of the President and the Congress to balance the budget. It is the responsibility of individual women to ensure they’re treated equally. It is my responsibility to decide whether I wish to avail myself of obscenity.

I think we need to get something straight. Our rights are not God-given. They are not granted by a beneficent government. They were earned by the blood, the sweat, the pain, the willing deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans. Our rights are not so much inalienable rights ensured by the government as they are privileges that require responsibility. Because I am an American, I am privileged to bear arms. But if I bear arms irresponsibly, do 1 still deserve that privilege? I am privileged to speak freely. But if I speak irresponsibly—by lying, for example—do I still deserve that privilege? I have the privilege of a quick and speedy trial by jury. But if 1 litigate irresponsibly, do I still deserve that privilege? I have the privilege of participating in my government by voting. But if I vote irresponsibly—in effect by not voting—do I still deserve that privilege?

This Constitution of ours outlines a participatory, republican form of democracy. It is a splendid compromise between the Jeffersonian democrats and the Hamiltonian republicans, factions which obviously still exist. I do not think for one minute that those men who battled in our behalf would be pleased with us. Without responsibility on our part, we’re not far removed from the Hobbesian “self-interested man” that the authors of the Constitution fervently wished to overcome. By abdicating our responsibility to our society, I’m afraid we’re letting them down.

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