Is democracy a natural state of mankind?
Maybe Alexander Hamilton, not Thomas Jefferson, was right after all.
Sixteen years ago in this newspaper, I tried to answer a perennial question about American politics. Does the United States look more like the country predicted by Thomas Jefferson, or by his rival, Alexander Hamilton?Skip to next paragraph
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Jefferson asserted that ordinary people with sufficient education and virtue can govern themselves wisely, that liberty is the natural desire of all mankind, and that the world's monarchs and dictators will ultimately be overthrown. Hamilton, on the other hand, claimed Jefferson's view was folly, based on wishful thinking, because human nature itself precludes the kind of wisdom necessary for self-government.
In short, Jefferson speaks to our hopes; Hamilton speaks to our fears.
Back in 1992, I concluded that America, and the world, reflected features of both men's views – their great philosophical fight lay unresolved. Today, Hamilton clearly has the upper hand.
Before the Constitutional Convention met in 1787, Hamilton observed the activities of a few state legislatures and concluded: "The inquiry [of legislators] constantly is what will please, not what will benefit the people." But he went a step further: It's the people themselves, not the legislators, who are to blame. The people, he said, "murmur at taxes, clamor at their rulers" but then elect demagogues who appeal to our worst instincts.
Over the years, Jefferson became less optimistic about the wisdom of the people, but in the last letter of his long life, he summed up his life's vision: "All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man." He hoped America's experiment with democracy would be "the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition has persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government."
In 1992, it was still possible to believe Jefferson's prediction could one day come true. Many among us thought that the "blessings of freedom and democracy" might ultimately reach all areas of the globe.
But 16 years later, can we still believe this? I think most of us have moved at least slightly toward Hamilton's darker view of human nature. Can we still believe, for example, that Jeffersonian democracy will one day arrive and then survive throughout Africa and the Middle East? The painful failures of the Iraq war have sowed substantial doubts: "Looking back, I felt secure in the knowledge that all who yearn for freedom, once free, would use it well," wrote Danielle Pletka in The New York Times recently. "I was wrong. There is no freedom gene...."
History suggests that culture, not genetics, determines fitness for democracy. And history suggests we can pinpoint what kind of culture is required – a culture of the Enlightenment.
We in the West take the Enlightenment for granted. But it took centuries of brave, stubborn people, beginning in the 16th century, to push back against the ignorance and superstition in which all mankind had lived, to bring forth in isolated centers of learning a world based on reason and logic.