The Constitution of the United States is supposedly the supreme document; the piece of parchment that every freedom loving person should want governing their life. It has led to 225 year reign of relative prosperity and unprecedented freedoms, providing the base for a strong country. Our Founding Fathers, those men who met in Philadelphia in 1787 to create a new government however, had motives that reached beyond the desire to build a nation. They gathered to create a government that served their interests, truly believing, perhaps correctly, that it would be the best system to provide for the well-being of a strong nation. Consequently, the resultant document turned out less democratic than the American people have grown to believe, putting the goal of a prosperous nation before the goal of a totally powerful populace.
The Founding Fathers convened in 1787 with the goal of creating a government that would be able to bind together the states that had previously only been loosely bound by the Articles of Confederation. The nature of such a government was a subject of heated debate between Federalists, who believed that a strong central government with more authority than individual states was necessary, and Anti-federalists who believed the opposite. Although the delegates belonged to two distinctly different schools of thought, the differences among them in regard to class and stature were minimal. The constitutional convention was, as Georgetown University professor Gary Wasserman puts it, "[not a debate] between the ‘haves' and the ‘have-nots,' but between the ‘haves' and the ‘haves' over their regional interests."
This disconnect between the delegates and the mass of citizens of the confederation, as it always has in politics, led to a government better suited to meet the needs of those who founded it than everyone else. For example, as Michael Parenti points out in his book Democracy for the Few, the confederation had issued inflated paper scrip to pay soldiers and small suppliers. Many wealthy early Americans, including some of the delegates, had speculated in that inflated scrip, buying it off of the holders for a small amount. In order to make the profit that they had invested in, the wealthy needed a strong government that would be able to tax and repay its debts.
However, Parenti concedes that, despite certain rules that were developed for the benefit of the privileged, the Founders did make some "democratic concessions" that were progressive for their time, including not requiring any property or religious qualifications for federal officeholders. The Constitution was also ratified at a very similar time as the Bill of Rights which gave some unheard of rights to the citizens of the United States, including freedom of religion and speech, and the requirement of a trial by a jury of peers. Also, while it is less purely democratic, the system of checks and balances that the federal government operates in provides for a much more stable and consistent government that changes dramatically based on a real shift in public sentiment rather than ephemeral, sweeping populist movements.
The Constitution that ended up governing our nation has, despite its rather exclusive origins, worked out to form the basis of a government that has existed for 225 years and is constantly tracing a path toward true fairness and equality. The best feature of the Constitution is its ability to change. Based on our leadership, America shifts. That is why we have seen such radical shifts in today's political landscape: our political leaders have an extreme difference in the extent of their empathy. George W. Bush and Mitt Romney, both the products of privilege, empathize, as many of the delegates of the Constitutional Convention did, with the more affluent. President Obama, a product of middle class grandparents, empathizes more with the middle class and the poor. This gap has led to the majority of the large policy differences in the current election. However, the mere fact that those policy differences exist is a testament to, not the supreme democracy of the original Constitution, but its democratic potential.
Sam Gartenstein is a senior at Brattleboro Union High School.