The US Constitution was undoubtedly an epochal document, the first written constitution in the history of humankind. Adopted in time when most of the world was dominated by the monarchical form of government, the Constitution was the of thorough and comprehensive work of the most prominent thinkers. For its time, it was certainly an outstanding document as it enshrined the formation of a sovereign federal state, resulting from the liberation struggle of the people against the British crown, proclaimed the principle of popular sovereignty, defined democratic principles of statehood such as people's representation, federalism, republican form of government, and separation of powers. However, analyzing the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights from the point of view of an ideal democracy, one may state that those documents in some aspects contradict democratic principles of equality, guaranty of suffrage rights, and treatment of people as the only source of power. As the degree of democracy of any constitution is determined, above all, by the volume the rights and freedoms of citizens set out therein, the US Constitution of 1791 may be considered a moderately democratic document.
For the purposes of this study, a working definition of democracy should be outlined. In general, democracy can be understood as the rule of people; it is a political regime in which people are recognized as the only legitimate source of power in the state, whose rule can be carried either directly or through representatives appointed through fair and competitive elections. The basic principles of democracy, therefore, include competition for political power, inclusive participation in the selection of leaders, and ensuring political and civil rights of people for them to be able to select their leaders. According to Dahl, among the key points liberal democracy should satisfy are: political control of government decisions; elected positions are filled in accordance with the regular, fair, equal and open elections, in which violence is unacceptable; all adult citizens can participate in the elections and almost all of them can stand in elections; individuals enjoy the full scope of rights and freedoms and are protected by the rule of law; citizens have the right to talk about political issues and seek relevant information without fearing to be punished for it; citizens have the right to form independent associations including political parties and interest groups.
Referring to the US Constitution of 1791, one may see that the Founding Fathers were creating not a democracy in its modern meaning but a republic. They did not believe in the wisdom of the American people and their ability to make informed decisions. As Beard reasonably notices, the members of the 1787 Constitutional Convention “were not seeking to realize any fine notions about democracy and equality but were striving…to set up a system of government that would be stable and efficient, safeguarded on one hand against the possibilities of despotism and on the other against the onslaught of majorities”, in particular, in the issues of private property. The Founders evidently disliked the monarchical form of government associated with the British colonial oppression and tyranny. Nevertheless, they did not identify a republic with the concept of democracy as the rule of the masses. The Founders considered that the state could only be governed by educated people, the property owners, who had achieved a high position in society through their work, and not by virtue of aristocratic origin. Under the republican form of government, they meant a responsible government which was to be changed in a timely manner. Masses were not to be directly involved in this change but only could take a limited part in the election of the government and had limited influence on the activities of this government. Therefore, the creators of the US Constitution aimed to create an elite republic, in which the election of authorities and formally proclaimed rights and freedoms encouraged the split of society into rulers and ruled, which runs contrary to the principles of liberal democracy.
Perhaps, the most controversial point of the US Constitutions was the process of presidential elections within the newly established principle of separation of powers. The system of higher political authorities was divided into three branches: the executive branch headed by the President, the legislative represented by the Congress, and the judiciary branch led by the Supreme Court. All of these elements were interconnected, and the power remained centralized. However, the new system was obviously subordinated to the interests of large owners, which made it similar to an elective aristocracy. The President was defined as the supreme bearer of the executive power, which was extremely broad. The Constitution gave the president the right to approve decisions of the Congress and to veto them if, upon reconsideration, the Congress did not confirm its original decision by 2/3 of the votes. The president was the commander in chief, had the right to grant pardon, to conclude treaties with foreign powers, to appoint cabinet members, senior diplomatic representatives, as well as members of the Supreme Court. However, the treaties concluded and the appointment of officials could be made effective only after approval by the Congress.
All this could be considered normal, especially for the emerging democracy, if it were not for the indirect presidential election. The Founding Fathers might have done so because they believed that if the authorities were elected directly by the people, a majority would belong to unenlightened masses, which in the end will hurt democracy. Indirect voting for president through the Electoral College containing representatives from each state, perhaps, was reasonable in the XVIII century when there were no political parties and mass media, but in the modern reality, this process creates ground for inequality and distortions. The indirect voting may cause a situation where the candidate who receives the majority of electoral votes would be loose if the votes of separate individuals were considered at the national level. Moreover, nowadays the decisive factor of the candidates’ success is their ability to present themselves in press, to create the image. In addition, the repetition of the election procedure in each state exhausts the candidate, and gradually begins to annoy the voters. Possible electoral reform suggests replacing the Electoral Committee and holding primaries only once on the same day and at the same time across the country.
Another issue of concern in the US Constitution of 1791 was the election of senators and the sweeping powers of the judiciary branch. The Senate represented the interests of large landowners, and Madison grounded the need to establish as a means of countering the egalitarian spirit. Luckily, it was decided that senators would not be elected for life, as proposed by Hamilton, but for a six years’ term. However, a disproportion between the representation of privileged and deprived minorities remained, as it was decided that states should send two senators irrespective of the population of a given state. Moreover, the Constitution did not provide for the direct election of senators, and they were appointed by the state parliaments. As to the judiciary branch, the US Constitution has established the unconstitutional principle of the judiciary power. In particular, judges were entitled to declare unconstitutional any decision of the authorities or any law enacted by the legislature, even if the decision was signed by the president, and the law was passed by the Congress’s vote. Judges in the US are appointed for life and are completely independent. Such practice may devalue the legitimate decisions of the executive and legislative branches of government.
As it was already mentioned, ensuring the full scope of rights and freedoms is among the primary indicators of democracy. Given that no word in the 1791 Constitution is said about the abolishment of slavery, which undermines the very essence of liberal democracy, the document may be undoubtedly considered undemocratic. As to the rights and freedoms of citizens who unlike slaves were covered by the Constitution, these rights and freedoms were mainly embodied in the first ten amendments or the Bill of Rights. It secured the freedom of religion, speech, press, right to send a petition to the government, inviolability of house and identity, the right to bear arms, the right of ownership, the right to a public trial, the prohibition of secondary charges in the same case. The nature of those rights and freedoms indicates that they refer only to political and personal categories, while the socio-economic rights and freedoms are almost entirely absent. Furthermore, the primary right of equal suffrage was not established in the US Constitution of 1791. The fundamental democratic principle of one vote from one citizen can be found nowhere in the text. Due to that the Constitution had not initially determined which of the US citizens may have the right to vote, for a long time only a small part of the American citizens participated in the elections – those were exclusively white men who owned property.
Therefore, it can be seen that the 1791 US Constitution was not a perfect document; indirect presidential and Congress elections, unlimited scope of powers of the judiciary, implied acceptation of slavery, property restrictions on the right to vote determined the conservative nature of the Constitution and at significantly curtailed the political and social rights of the general working population. Bearing in mind the Declaration of Independence, it may seem that the delegates to the Constitutional Convention believed that there existed the rights, without which people would not be able to maintain a full-fledged existence, that all people are equal from birth and are equally endowed with unalienable natural rights. Nevertheless, this belief did not prevent them from acquiescing to slavery and encouraging inequality between the US states; despite being reformators of their time, the Convention members expressed interest of the well-to-do’s of the American society. The US Constitution, with a fixed set of legal views in it, was not the embodiment of centuries-old aspirations of humanity to such ideals as freedom, equality and the right to happiness. It was designed to protect the interests and rights of the property owners.
However, despite all the above-mentioned drawbacks, the 1791 US Constitution remains a notable historical document and should be assessed from the standpoint of historicism. In the end XVIII, when liberal democracies were only emerging, it might have been difficult enough to apply the direct democratic character of the Constitution. On the basis of the principles enshrined in the Constitution, a new powerful state structure was formed; it was acting on the basis of certain legal regulations rather than on some divine conduct. It was a practical document, which has played a significant role in the formation of the new state and the consolidation of the American nation. Moreover, in many ways, the Constitution of 1791 itself laid down mechanisms of self-improvement, further development, and expansion of democratic rights and freedoms.