BY GEORGE HOPKINS
Democracy is not for the faint-hearted. Disappointing stuff happens.
Neither our Founding Fathers nor the Greeks had much use for democracy. An old Greek joke described democracy as a process by which two wolves and one lamb vote on what to have for dinner!
More seriously, Ron Chernow’s 2004 prize-winning biography (and inspiration for current hit musical Hamilton), declares “demagogues spouting populist shibboleths” caused Hamilton’s “besetting fear” that democracy, were it too prominent a feature of the new Constitution taking shape in Philadelphia, would inevitably destabilize the new government and perhaps even hand control back to England, or worse yet–France!
Put simply, our Founding Fathers were not egalitarians, and they had a strong distaste for popular politics. In short, they feared “the people,” their passions, their tendency to vote for rabble-rousers. They preferred a political system which restricted both voting and office-holding to men of substance, property and education. The less democracy the better, but under no circumstances should democracy be allowed beyond the bare necessities of keeping popular order.
“Your people, sir, are a Great Beast!” was a popular aristocratic riposte in many debates over increasing voting rights beyond the propertied class, during the Early National and Jacksonian Periods of American history.
An astoundingly high percentage of the delegates who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 to give us what is today the oldest surviving fundamental governing system in the world were well-educated and they knew Greek and Roman history.
They understood that the “Golden Age” of Athenian Democracy was brief and fragile, lasting only from Solon (ca. 559 BC) until Alexander The Great’s conquest in the late 4th century, BC., undone by foreign and domestic problems similar to those confronting the new American nation in the late 18th century.
The whole revolutionary project in North America might yet fail, they feared. Even counter-revolutionary military action had appeared during Shays’ Rebellion in 1786. Pessimism was warranted!
But the problem that worried our Founding Fathers most was demagoguery and domestic political strife often inspired by religious sectarianism–hence the American aversion (at least until recently!) to mixing religion and politics.
Donald Trump is the very personification of what our Founding Fathers feared. More to the point, because they knew what happened with the rise of a Greek named Pisistratus (605-527 B.C.), our Founders included a last ditch safeguard called The Electoral College to keep people like Trump and Pisistratus from taking over–no matter how much popular support they had.
But who was Pisistratus? Not just any Greek, but rather Solon’s cousin, his blood relative, who rose to power on Solon’s tunic tails and then promptly became Tyrant in Athens, an actual office. Solon died shortly after, but there being no safety net like the College of Electors in Ancient Greece, nothing could be done.
Knowing the story of Pisistratus, our Founding Fathers flung us a safety net. Will we use it? It was intended for emergency use only, should a modern Pisistratus appear. He is described by Thomas Cahill in Sailing the Wine Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter (2003) as “the political grandstander of the vilest variety who presented himself as a populist speaking on behalf of the people.“
Cahill continues, “Simple people knelt along Pisistratus’ parade, raised their arms and gave thanks, but only the most credulous members of the assembly could be counted on to swallow his nonsense enough to assure political victory to an unscrupulous liar who only later when the damage was done do such dodos of democracy regret allowing themselves to be so easily taken in.”
Sound like anyone you know? Maybe at a “Make America Great Again” rally?
“Athens would be saddled with Pisistratus and his progeny for a generation and would reestablish Solonian ideals only after expelling the last Pisistratid,” Cahill writes.
Are we in for a generation of Trump and his progeny? History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.
George Hopkins is professor emeritus of history at Western Illinois University.