The Constitutional Convention

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Explain the origin and development of constitutional democracy in the US.

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The origins of constitutional democracy in the United States was in many ways a direct outgrowth of the Enlightenment movement. By the 16th century, much of the older feudalistic model of European governments was crumbling or adapting to new times. Humanistic notions of personal worth and potential that were born...

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The origins of constitutional democracy in the United States was in many ways a direct outgrowth of the Enlightenment movement. By the 16th century, much of the older feudalistic model of European governments was crumbling or adapting to new times. Humanistic notions of personal worth and potential that were born in the Renaissance were taking form. A number of philosophers and statesmen were reexamining the true source of political power. Great thinkers, like John Locke, Voltaire, Cesare Beccaria, and Montesquieu had gained popularity among many of the intelligentsia in England and North America.

Enlightenment notions of self-determination were at the forefront of the minds of the Founding Fathers. They had just fought a revolution to rid themselves of what they saw as despotic rule. They wanted to set up a new nation where the source of power was the popular will. The problem was that they had no contemporary model for this. The ideas of the Enlightenment philosophers mentioned above had not been tested.

The founders of the United States had to look at past models for their democracy. They were inspired by the democracy of 5th Century BCE Athens. However, they recognized that the type of direct democracy practiced in Pericles' day would not work in a large country like the United States. However, they took the main theme of democracy and adapted it to form a representative democracy more along the lines of the Roman Republic.

The founders also looked at other past documents. They saw further inspiration in the Magna Carta and the English Bill of Rights. These documents listed and defined the rights of English citizens. The founders took this idea of enumerated rights and built that into the US Constitution in the form of the first 10 Amendments, aka the Bill of Rights.

Since the United States was to be a republic and not a monarchy, it needed a governing document to spell out exactly how the government was to be organized and what the rights of the people are. This would protect the democratic institutions from being subverted. There was a fear that giving all the rights of rule to the people could be chaotic, if not outright dangerous. Some felt that people, in general, were ill-equipped for self-rule. They feared what was called the "tyranny of the mob." Therefore, the document that they created, the US Constitution, serves to define the governing principles of the nation and lays out the framework by which it can function.

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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.

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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.

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