Our Founders' Warning: “Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves are its only safe depositories.” (Thomas Jefferson)

Why Didn’t the Founding Fathers Include Initiatives?

The Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution in 1787, a hundred years before the discovery of Aristotle’s key texts describing the ancient Athenian experiences with democracy and include initiatives. Texts that they had quoted Greeks who were critical of democracy—especially Socrates who advocated a republic led by philosophers. Despite 140 years of direct democracy in New England town meetings starting as early as the 1640’s, there was no evidence that these small democracies could be scaled up for nationwide benefit. To the Founding Fathers, it seemed necessary that in a democracy all voters should assemble at a single location. The methodology of a statistical random sample of the People for polling or to select candidate initiatives developed over the period 1850-1930. Consequently, based on the available information, the Founding Fathers omitted any reference to democracy from the Constitution, but they did not explicitly forbid it.

The Founding Fathers apparently were not aware that the ancient Athenians considered their city, with thirty to sixty thousand citizens, too large to assemble in one place. Their key democratic IQA—The Council of Five Hundred—and juries were chosen by random selection of citizens. The Council of Five Hundred managed everyday affairs and set the agenda for much larger meetings of the citizens. (It seems extraordinary that the Athenians intuitively chose exactly the right statistical minimum number for a good random sample!) This solution to the problem of size is explained in Aristotle’s “Constitution of Athens, but this text had been lost in the 7th Century and not rediscovered until 1880-1891.

Starting with South Dakota in 1898 (less than 10 years after Aristotle’s text became available), all State constitutions include some degree of direct democracy—though Delaware is an exception in permitting constitutional changes by legislature rather than by referendum. Initiatives began as grassroots efforts to fight government corruption and big-business influence. 24 of the States now include initiatives. Many States were brought into effect through approval of their State constitutions by direct democracy votes of their people. Moreover, many nations today include some degree of direct democracy.

It is reasonable to suppose that, if Aristotle’s text and other information about Athenian democracy’s success had been known to the Founding Fathers prior to 1787, the Constitution might have included some reference to direct democracy. Though, by omitting the word democracy from the Constitution, they did not deny it. However, a nationwide referendum on the U.S. Constitution along the lines adopted now by the States would have been impractical under the circumstances of 1787. The Founding Fathers were pragmatic and did what they had to do.