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Democratic ideals of US government

LOR‑1.A.1 (EK)
Ideas of natural rights, social contract, popular sovereignty, limited government and republicanism and their influence on the foundation of the United States of America.

Video transcript

- [Instructor] What we're gonna do in this video is discuss some of the foundational ideas for the United States of America. And we could start at the most foundational of ideas and that's the notion of natural rights. John Locke, one of the significant Enlightenment thinkers describes rights like life, liberty and you might expect me to say pursuit of happiness, which is what we see in the Declaration of Independence, but John Locke refers to life, liberty and property. But even though his version is a little bit different than what ends up in the Declaration of Independence, most historians believe that Thomas Jefferson was heavily influenced by John Locke's idea of natural rights when Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. And the idea here is that these are rights that people should be born with, that should never be taken away from them. And in the video on social contract, we talk about the idea of why someone would form a government. They would form a government, they would give some rights to a government in order to protect these basic rights, things like life, liberty, property, the pursuit of happiness. And so you might have some other rights that one would say in a state of nature people might have, the right to do physical harm on others, the right to imprison others, the right to tax others. But in a social contract, we decide, hey, instead of everyone trying to figure out things on their own, let's give these rights to a government and in exchange, the government should protect all of these rights for the individuals. And, once again, this is review from the social contract video. This is a notion of a social contract. Now the next question is, all right, so if we are willing to engage in the social contract with a government, what type of a government should it be? And throughout most of human history, governments have been things like monarchies, where you have a single individual, maybe a king or queen, an emperor some type of a conqueror, who is the sovereign, who rules over the state. But you could have, you could instead of having one, you could have a small group, which would be an oligarchy, or you could go to the other extreme, where the people are sovereign. And the word for that, and this is a key idea for the United States, is popular, popular sovereignty, the people are sovereign. The government is accountable to the people. Sometimes this could be referred to as democracy. Now the Founding Fathers of the United States were a little bit suspicious of pure democracy or direct popular sovereignty. They were afraid that if you start having factions and a majority faction were to come to power, if you have a straight democracy, then they might use that power to strip some of the natural rights of say their political enemies or people that they just don't agree with. And so you have this other idea of limited government. Limited government. And some of the key things that limit the government, you could just say generally the rule of law, things like the Constitution, including how the government is structured, the checks and balances in it. The Bill of Rights, clearly is a check on government. And you don't just have limited government when you have a democracy, you could have a limited government even in a monarchy. The United Kingdom is officially a constitutional monarchy, where you have a monarch who's sovereign, has very limited powers because of things like the rule of law. Now the last idea, that we're gonna talk about in this video, is the notion of a republic, or the idea of republicanism. Because the Founding Fathers didn't actually like calling the United States a democracy. Instead, they favored calling it a republic. And the word republic can mean different things to different people today, depending on what context you use. To some folks, today, it means any form of government that's not a monarchy. To other folks it means, okay, you have a democracy, you have popular sovereignty, but you have limited government. You still have rights that protect minorities, rights that make sure that even if people are not in the majority, they are protected. To the Founding Fathers, they had a version of this notion of republic. They did view a republic as something that would prevent the passions of an unfettered pure democracy. But they thought it came mainly by having a representative democracy, that if you had a smaller group of elected representatives, as opposed to everyone getting involved in every issue, that they could calm the passions of the crowds, so to speak. They also thought it was logistically more practical. Sure, ancient Athens could have something closer to a pure democracy, but that was just a small city state. Well, here, even the 13 colonies were significantly more vast, and obviously the United States would become even more vast than that. And to appreciate this notion of republic, right over here is a quote from James Madison in The Federalist Papers, Number 10. And just for some context on the what The Federalist Papers even were, as we mentioned, shortly after the Declaration of Independence, the Founding Fathers start drafting the Articles of Confederation. They go into effect in 1781. But this is really a loose confederation of states that each, individually, think of themselves as sovereign states. And it's really a pact that they'll engage in war together, diplomacy together, free trade. But you have Shays's Rebellion, and it's very clear, and we'll talk about this in other videos, that the Articles of Confederation are not powerful enough. And so you have a constitutional convention in mid 1787, in which James Madison is a central figure. Some people discuss him as the Father of the US Constitution. They draft what is today the Constitution, but then they have to sell it to the states in order for it to be ratified. Alexander Hamilton has the idea of, "Hey, why don't we publish a series of papers?' And they eventually publish 85 papers, which will collectively be known as The Federalist Papers. And Hamilton writes most of them, but he also recruits James Madison and John Jay. And Federalist Papers, Number 10, which is perhaps the most famous, is James Madison's discussion of how do you avoid factions taking over the government and doing things that are not in the interest of the people. And I encourage you to read all of Federalist Papers, Number 10. But I have a very small quote here. And this is James Madisons' notion of what a republic was, and he thought the United States should be republic. "The two great points of difference "between a democracy and a republic are: "First, the delegation of government in the latter," so he's talking about a republic, "to a small number of citizens elected by the rest." So he's really talking about representative democracy. But he thought this was a key component of being a republic. "Secondly, the greater number of citizens "and greater sphere of country "over which the latter may be extended." That only through a representative government could you actually govern over 13 colonies, or even beyond 13 colonies. And that's why, today, obviously you might've had something closer to a pure democracy in ancient Athens, which was a city state. But, today, almost any democracy is some form of representative democracy, which James Madison would consider to be a republic. But if you wanted to classify the United States today, a fair term might be it is a democratic republic. You definitely have popular sovereignty, the people are considered sovereign, but they don't rule directly, they rule through representatives, which by Madison's definition would make it a republic. So now that you're armed with some of these basic ideas, I encourage you to engage even more with some of the founding documents for the United States. And on top of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution, I encourage you to read as many of the Federalist Papers as possible, because it's really an explanation of the ideas behind the US Constitution. And you should start with Federalist Papers, Number 10. As you'll see, James Madison is quite insightful. He predicts how factions might form, how parties might form, and not always do things in the interest of its people. But I'll leave you decide whether he was right, whether forming a republic helps this notion of factionalism. And look at the world that we are in today and think about whether James Madison would be happy, or maybe he would be a little bit uncertain about how things turned out.