4/29/2002

 

Our Historical Aristocratic Attitude

 

This is the 2nd in a series (the first is available at www.tomcantlon.com ). It may not be apparent what this column has to do with the 1st, but by the end of the series I hope to make that clear.

 

I contend that there are people in our country who arenít fully committed to democracy and individual rights. They think they are, they say the right things, but theyíre all too quick to compromise democracy and rights when they are inconvenient, or they conflict with what the inner circle of the powerful want. In short, it is an aristocratic attitude.

 

As evidence, look at our own history. We assume that democracy and basic rights are so fundamental that our founding fathers had them in mind from the beginning, and this is what they were fighting for.

 

In fact the revolution was more about money. Most of the instigators were the landowners and businessmen of the time who were feeling pinched by a greedy king. Oh, they were well read in the liberal philosophers of the time, such as Locke, and these were issues that were important to them. The resulting revolution was remarkable and had wonderful results, but it would never have happened if they werenít feeling financially oppressed. This is not a criticism. I would have rebelled too. Letís just keep a clear picture of what it was that got them fired up.

 

As evidence, look at the debates on what kind of government should be formed after the revolution. There were those who wanted to crown George Washington king. While he was one of the greatest men in history, they certainly werenít thinking about democracy.

 

When they debated democracy, it was only a democracy of white, male, landowners. But even for this limited group there was debate on whether it should be a democracy at all, and if so, how direct. Some thought it should be something more paternalistic; that the aristocrats should make the decisions for the unlearned many. Look at the original election of the Senate, not by the people at all, but second hand by the members of the House.

 

The resulting proposed constitution was mostly about how the federal government would be structured, with almost nothing about individual rights. It was only when the states saw the possibility that they had simply traded one oppressor for another that they insisted on a bill of rights.

 

The point is that for some, democracy was not unquestioned, and individual rights were only an afterthought. There are still people in government today with this same attitude. We need to open our eyes and acknowledge that thatís the case, and observe our leaders with that in mind.

 

Next time, how this mindset manifests itself today.

 

P.S. There have been a couple of criticisms lately based on an inaccurate headline. I welcome criticism; itís part of the dialogue. Keep in mind though that editors, not authors, choose headlines, whether itís for articles, columns, or letters.