- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 4, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

On July 4, 1776, our forefathers set about creating conditions by which every American has a chance to better himself, to determine his own fate, to pursue happiness on his own terms or, most importantly, simply to be left alone. Ah, but did they create a democracy? Certainly, we tend to equate America with democracy, but we don’t often truly understand its historical meaning. We also say that America is a republic, again without much thought as to what that means. So, what do these terms mean? Which are we and does it really matter?

In ancient Greece, democracy meant a form of government by which the people would vote on issues affecting the city-state where they lived. According to what we’ve learned from Aristotle, this system also involved civil service of some form or another (be it holding office, participating in general assemblies or even simple jury duty).

We gather from the writings of Plato, however, that democracy was considered one of the worst forms of government, thought little better than anarchy and mob rule. Socrates belittled it as a “charming form of government, full of variety and disorder.” For a long while the common belief was that people could not be trusted to follow anything but their own selfish interests. The fear of anarchy remained a serious impediment to government by the people, of the people and for the people.

Few, if anyone, believed in individual, “self-evident” rights. Therefore, the best form of government was one where the best man — or “philosopher-king,” to use Plato’s term — governed.

Small-r republicanism, regarded as a better alternative to democracy, was the prevailing philosophy at the time of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1789. In their debates, the Founding Fathers hesitated to use the word “democracy” in describing the system of government they were establishing. Thomas Jefferson himself used the word only when applying it to small communities such as New England town meetings. He never applied it to the country as a whole. Jefferson was not alone. Most people in the original 13 states shunned the word.

In the attempt to have the Constitution accepted and ratified, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison wrote a series of letters, known as the Federalist Papers, expounding on the virtues of union and the new form of government being attempted by the former Colonies. While he never actually used the word “democracy,” Hamilton made clear his trust in the wisdom of the people. In the Federalist No. 15, he stated, “we must extend the authority of the Union to the persons of the citizens — the only proper objects of government.”

Abraham Lincoln, who also expressed great faith in government by the people, rarely used the word “democracy” in public addresses. Teddy Roosevelt was one of his few predecessors who did, speaking of our “democratic republic” in his inaugural address of 1905. Yet it was not until Woodrow Wilson led us into the First World War that the idea truly began to catch on that America is a democracy — we must make the world “safe for democracy,” he said at the time.

Except that the word “democracy” never appears in the Constitution. The word “republic” does — the Constitution guarantees to each state a “republican” form of government — but the document does not define the term “republican.”

Nor is there any law that strictly declares us to be one or the other. The truth is, while our nation may have been initially intended to be a “democratic republic” at a time when majority opinion favored a more republican form of government, over the years we have been steadily moving toward a much more democratic system than was initially envisioned.

Changes to the Constitution have increased enfranchisement of the electorate (every citizen, upon reaching the age of 18, is granted the right to vote, regardless of color, class, education, ethnicity or other superficiality in the eyes of the law) and have granted us greater authority in choosing our leaders (for instance, the 17th Amendment allows senators to be chosen directly by the people of their respective states).

It is this history and coveted freedom that Americans should commemorate as they exalt their country this July Fourth — a day to celebrate the generations of men and women who have sacrificed their time, energy and often their lives in order to build a better country. This is an opportunity to reflect upon the deeds of our Founding Fathers and to consider the means by which we might continue to guard those essential freedoms that we associate with happiness. So, where do we find the greatness today? We see it in the brave soldiers who risk everything to secure freedom abroad. But we also see it in those everyday Americans who revel in the everyday joys and responsibilities of raising a family.

French writer and politician Alexis de Tocqueville noted over a century ago: “I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers, and it was not there; in the fertile fields and boundless prairies, and it was not there; in her rich mines and her vast world commerce, and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because America is good — and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”

As we continually witness the constant struggles of many countries, and with due respect to our allies and enemies, the United States of America is still the most successful country.

Armstrong Williams is heard Mondays through Fridays on Sirius/XM Power 169 from 7 p.m.-8 p.m. and 4 a.m.-5 a.m.