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Historical Analysis: Building on American Institutions and Values

Carrying on the Unfinished Work of the Founding Fathers

From ancient times through the present, these and similar beliefs have been proclaimed by many great theorists of democracy, including founding fathers of the United States of America, such as Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, and the indigenous Americans who influenced them[note: Iroquois]. [ These beliefs have subsequently been proclaimed by great American statesmen, religious leaders, philosophers, poets, architects and historians such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Abraham Lincoln, John Dewey, W.E.D. Dubois, Mary Parker Follett, Lewis Mumford, Hannah Arendt, Christopher Alexander and many others. Many people from all walks of life who are looking to renew community and democracy in our country continue to give them new voice. ]

The noble, stated purpose of the U.S. Founding Fathers -- as it has been celebrated by generations of people in countries all around the globe -- was to create institutions of governance that would safeguard democratic principles and values for future generations, and serve as a model to the world. Many leading Americans who have supported this high purpose, Thomas Jefferson among them, have pointed to a crucial, tragic oversight that the Founders made and that has since undermined their stated goal: the Founders failed to carry their work all the way to ordinary citizens in the communities where they live.

As Jefferson realized several decades after the U.S. Constitution had been put into effect, the Founders had focused on creating a representative democracy linking the many states into one nation. They created a representative system on top of existing communities, but failed to go one step further, to consider how to keep democratic participation alive and vibrant at the level of the people [in a way that would support and undergird that representative democracy, and keep it on a true course]. Jefferson became deeply concerned that the state and federal constitutions had delegated political power to elected representatives alone. If ordinary citizens in their communities didn’t come together regularly in their own persons to practice democracy, but were merely asked to vote once a year, how would they come to know the meaning of political freedom? How would citizens be able to keep their elected representatives accountable to the community? How would America cultivate that public spirit and “political virtue” in its citizens that the Founders, from Washington to Franklin, thought necessary to preserve democracy and prevent the corruption of representative government? Jefferson regretted that a golden opportunity had passed. He predicted that, as a consequence of the Founders’ oversight, American citizens would gradually withdraw from public life into their private lives, and government would eventually be taken over by special interests. Jefferson’s prediction has regrettably come true.  [Yet in his last years, as we shall soon discuss, Jefferson also proposed a simple solution that, until recently, has been mostly forgotten and that today has received new attention and relevance.]

John Adams once stated that it was the uniqueness of America’s local communities that gave rise to American democratic values: as he put it, the real American Revolution had already taken place before the War of Independence even began. It may be that, in their concern to preserve democratic liberty, the Founders took the persistence of those local communities for granted. After all, who could have anticipated how much local communities would change in the decades and centuries following the Revolutionary era, after the work of the Founders had been completed?