Democracy then and now

By Harry C. Boyte

Today is the 220th anniversary of the Bill of Rights. Proposed by
Congress on September 25, 1789, the Bill of Rights – otherwise known
as the first Ten Amendments to the Constitution — went into effect
after its ratification by Virginia, on December 15, 1891.

The Bill emerged from a fierce debate between “Federalists” and
“Anti-Federalists” about whether to ratify the Constitution itself,
which the historian Pauline Meier described as a national “dialogue
between power and liberty.”  The dialogue continues in today’s
tempestuous arguments about the role of government, the dangers of
centralized power —  and how to develop the authority and capacities
of the citizenry.

Supporters of the Constitution like Benjamin Franklin argued that
while “there are several parts of this Constitution which I do not
approve,” its adoption was necessary if the nation were to survive. It
seemed unlikely that anyone would be “able to make a better
Constitution.” Opponents warned of the dangers of centralized power,
citing examples through history.  Brutus (most likely Robert Yates)
cautioned of the tendencies of government to produce “an absolute
state of vassalage.”

The Bill of Rights broke the impasse. It embodied civic agency in
content and process.

In the first instance, the amendments not only limit the powers of
government, but also,  positively, enumerate and protect methods
through which citizens express and develop their civic capacities –
freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of worship, freedom of
association, and freedom of the press, among others.  These freedoms
also allow powerless groups like African Americans, the poor, women
and others to challenge the severe exclusions built into original
understandings of “citizen.”

In the second,  the debate itself, taking place in taverns, homes and
congregations, schools, colleges, local governments and local media,
created a wide  experience of ownership in the fledgling nation.
Discussions gave substance to the Constitution’s Preamble, which had
declared that “we the people” establish government as the instrument
of  common labors and common purposes.

In the Information Age, colleges, universities, schools and
educational groups of all kinds have crucial roles to play as civic
centers in the life of communities. They are schools for citizenship
through which people develop the knowledge, dispositions, skills and
habits necessary for a flourishing democratic society while tackling
real world problems and making a common life.

The American Commonwealth Partnership, like the debates which produced
the Bill of Rights, puts citizens on center stage.  It aims to
strengthen the capacities of education to help create a democracy “of
the people and by the people,” not only “for” the people.

ACP continues the dialogue between power and liberty.

 

Harry C. Boyte, Director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College and a Senior Fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, is director of the American Commonwealth Partnership.

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