Monday, March 03, 2014

The Democratic Nature of the U.S. Constitution

The following is an essay submitted for an assignment in the Coursera Constitutional Law class taught by Professor Akhil Reed Amar of Yale University.

The U.S. Constitution opens with the statement “We the People,” announcing the most “democratic deed” in history. The democratic nature of the document is embodied in several aspects, the first of which was the ratification process.

While the document itself only required “Unanimous Consent” by state conventions, 8 of the 13 states lowered property restrictions to allow more people to vote for ratification convention delegates. This allowed for broader participation amongst the people. No other great democracy in history had allowed for such a broad level of participation in their constitution's ratification process. For instance, the Articles of Confederation, the governing document of the states prior to the Constitution, was sent out to be ratified strictly by the state legislatures - no special consideration was given to the citizens of the states. Also, the English constitution, such as it was, was never reduced to a single document on which the British people could vote. Only Massachusetts and New Hampshire had put their state constitutions to a vote by the people of the various townships (examples which set the stage for the U.S. Constitution).

There are also various provisions within the document itself that demonstrate democratic values. For instance, members of one house of the bicameral legislature, the House of Representatives, are elected biennially “by the People of the several States.” The Articles of Confederation, by contrast, had only one house and its members were chosen by the various state legislatures (except for Connecticut and Rhode Island where voters could weigh in on the selection of delegates).

The Constitution also requires the House of Representatives to change in size (initially) and apportionment based upon population growth. This would mean that the lower house would continually reflect the changing demographic shape of the people. This was not, however, a feature of the Articles of Confederation which limited states to between 2 and 7 delegates for its congress, the actual number being determined by the state legislature not by the size of the state's population. (The restriction on the ability of colonial assemblies to adjust in size based upon population shifts was actually one of the grievances against the English Crown listed in the Declaration of Independence.)
Other provisions of the Constitution that reflect its democratic nature concern qualifications for office. For one, no person can be excluded from office based upon his or her religious beliefs. As stated in Article VI, “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” In 1787, many (if not all) state governments required office holders to be Christians.

The Constitution does, however, put age restrictions on those seeking to hold office. House members must be at least 25 years old, senators must be at least 30, and the president must be at least 35. While this requirement seems like it restricts participation, it can be viewed as an egalitarian feature.

In many Old World societies the young scions of aristocracy would have an advantage from an early age because of their family heritage. Putting a minimum age requirement on office seekers levels the playing field for those without such a hereditary advantage by giving them time to make their own mark in society.

One final democratic feature of the Constitution is actually something that does not appear in the document itself. That is, there are no property qualifications for office holders. Men of little or no property could now hold any office within the government, something that was uncommon at the time of the Constitution’s ratification. For instance, the English House of Commons was made up of men of vast estates, and even the old Congress under the Articles of Confederation had members whose states imposed property qualifications on delegate selection.

While the Constitution’s democratic nature was unique at the time of its ratification, it must not be forgotten that many in society were still excluded from participation in the electoral and governing processes. Over time, however, the document has been expanded to better reflect the notion of “We the People.”