Explain the origin and development of constitutional democracy in the U.S.

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In examining the origins of Constitutional democracy in the United States, I think that one has to examine its intellectual beginnings.  The Framers did a great job of being able to adapt European theoretical principles into the modern construction of the United States Constitution.  The Framers were extensive students of thinkers like John Locke and Baron de Montesquieu.  In John Locke, the origins of a government that can only operate from "the consent of the governed" is seen.  Locke's notion of the social contract as an agreement that exists between government and its citizens was precisely the opposite of the relationship that the Colonists had with England, thereby leading to the American Revolution.  This became one of the reasons why Locke's thinking found its way in the origins of American constitutional democracy.  The origins of how the structure of constitutional democracy was to look in the new nation came from Baron de Montesquieu.  His idea of a divided government in which separation of powers ensured that political power would be equally portioned out through different branches enabled the framers to see a government that avoided abuses from a centralized authority.  Once again, the framers saw an intellectual origin that was the opposite of England with King George II and his perceived abuses on the Colonists.  In embracing its intellectual origins, the framers of constitutional democracy in the United States looked to something opposite of what they were fighting in England.

The origins being intellectual, the development of constitutional democracy in America was actually highly practical.  In this duality between theory and practice, one sees how not only constitutional democracy was born, but a significant element of American character.  The Constitutional Convention was convened as a way to draft out the Constitution.  Understanding that the only way to guarantee a functioning constitutional democracy involved the uncomfortably aspect of public discourse, the delegates met in Philadelphia to argue out how constitutional democracy should develop.  The results of the Convention were a plan to incorporate states with large populations and states with small ones through a bicameral legislative branch, as well as compromises on slavery that ensured voices of both slave owning states and states where slavery was not permitted would be heard.  Finally, the most important development on the trajectory of constitutional democracy in the United States came in the adoption of the Bill of Rights.  This ensured that while government would possess power to be able to enforce the tenets of nation building and consensus, it would not do so at the cost of individual liberty and personal freedoms.  It was in this development that constitutional democracy in the United States became something that would form the envy of the world in both its support of national government and the sacred rights of every individual within it.

thetall eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In a democracy, the people are recognized as the sovereign, and the citizens are accorded an opportunity to participate in governance. Authority in such a government is vested in the citizenry. However, vesting ultimate authority in the citizens presents some challenges because of the diverse nature of people in general. Citizens are entitled to hold divergent opinions, and it is expected that on some issues 100% consensus will not be achieved. Thus, the decision will be split between the majority and the minority. Although the majority will have their way most of the time, it is important to ensure the minorities are protected and respected in their participation.

A legal framework is essential in ensuring that the minority is treated fairly, and this is achieved through a constitution. A constitutional democracy based on the descriptions provided suggests a system where authority is vested in the people but where the will of the majority is checked by legally binding frameworks/a constitution to ensure the minority is respected.

In the United States, constitutional democracy can be traced to the American Revolution where the colonists campaigned for self-determination. The Founding Fathers and their supporters wanted to elect their leaders and manage their affairs, including international relations. Based on the social contract, the citizens have a right to change the government if it failed in its mandate to protect the peoples’ rights. This provision was not available under British administrations, forcing the colonists to declare their independence and draft a constitution to guide the state.