Yet while dependent on the people, the Constitution did not embrace simple majoritarian democracy. The states, with unequal populations, got equal representation in the Senate. The Electoral College also gave the states weight as states in selecting the president. But the centrality of states, a concession to political reality, was balanced by the House of Representatives, where the principle of representation by population prevailed, and which would make up the overwhelming number of electoral votes when selecting a president.

But none of this justified minority rule, which was at odds with the “republican principle.” Madison’s design remained one of popular government precisely because it would require the building of political majorities over time. As Madison argued in “Federalist No. 63,” “The cool and deliberate sense of the community ought, in all governments, and actually will, in all free governments, ultimately prevail over the views of its rulers.”

Alexander Hamilton, one of Madison’s co-authors of The Federalist Papers, echoed this argument. Hamilton made the case for popular government and even called it democracy: “A representative democracy, where the right of election is well secured and regulated & the exercise of the legislative, executive and judiciary authorities, is vested in select persons, chosen really and not nominally by the people, will in my opinion be most likely to be happy, regular and durable.”

The American experiment, as advanced by Hamilton and Madison, sought to redeem the cause of popular government against its checkered history. Given the success of the experiment by the standards of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, we would come to use the term democracy as a stand-in for representative democracy, as distinct from direct democracy.  

Consider that President Abraham Lincoln, facing a civil war, which he termed the great test of popular government, used constitutional republic and democracy synonymously, eloquently casting the American experiment as government of the people, by the people, and for the people. And whatever the complexities of American constitutional design, Lincoln insisted, “the rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible.” Indeed, Lincoln offered a definition of popular government that can guide our understanding of a democracy—or a republic—today: “A majority, held in restraint by constitutional checks, and limitations, and always changing easily, with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people.”

The greatest shortcoming of the American experiment was its limited vision of the people, which excluded Black people, women, and others from meaningful citizenship, diminishing popular government’s cause. According to Lincoln, extending meaningful citizenship so that “all should have an equal chance” was the basis on which the country could be “saved.” The expansion of we the people was behind the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments ratified in the wake of the Civil War. The Fourteenth recognized that all persons born in the U.S. were citizens of the country and entitled to the privileges and immunities of citizenship. The Fifteenth secured the vote for Black men. Subsequent amendments, the Nineteenth, Twenty-Fourth, and Twenty-Sixth, granted women the right to vote, prohibited poll taxes in national elections, and lowered the voting age to 18. Progress has been slow—and sometimes halted, as is evident from current efforts to limit voting rights—and the country has struggled to become the democratic republic first set in motion two centuries ago. At the same time, it has also sought to find the right republican constraints on the evolving body of citizens, so that majority rule—but not factious tempers—can prevail.

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