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The Undemocratic Nature Of The American Constitution

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Robert A. Dahl in his book “How Democratic is the American Constitution” points out several ‘undemocratic elements in the Framers’ Constitution’ and uses them as justification to question the democratic intents of the fathers of the Constitution. In essence, what Dahl does most of the time is that he uses glasses tinted with present day democratic principles to examine the Constitution when it was written. It is an unfair examination and evaluation and does not do justice to the Constitution that laid down the foundation of democracy.

Dahl argues that since the constitution did not explicitly ruled out slavery nor gave explicit powers to the Congress to ban bringing in of slaves, the constitution was undemocratic. What Dahl does not consider is the background in which the constitution was framed. There was black slavering in North American English colonies for more than 160 years before the drafting of the Constitution took place in 1787. The Northern states had found that slavery was not of much gain to them and so eliminated it by 1804 but the Southern states used slaves in the cotton industry and their economy was linked to slavery. The issue of slavery became a bone of contention between the South and Northern states and any attempt to abolish it in the Constitution would mean that the Northern states would refuse to join the Union (Secession Crisis 2006). It is in this light that the framers of the constitution did not openly disallow slavery. What should be noted was that the word slavery or slave was not used in the Constitution(The U.S. Constitution Online 2006).

Another contention of Dahl is that since the Constitution did not guarantee the right of suffrage, it was not democratic. What Dahl does not take into consideration is that the Constitution opened the door for suffrage. Even though initially, women and African Americans and Native Americans were not given suffrage the process had started and the ninetieth amendment explicitly granted women the rights to vote. What the constitution did was to grant each of the states the rights to frame the rules for voting. This was an important first step in enfranchisement. Even though it did not bring immediate suffrage to all, the Constitution started the process. There were states that did not allow every one to vote. For example, the New York state required that a man own a lot of wealth to be allowed to vote. He must be a taxpayer and own property of 20 pounds or more or pay annual rent of 2 pounds (The City University Of New York 2004). At the time the constitution came into force, there were at least 13 states that had property restrictions on the right to vote. It would have been disastrous to overnight abolish all restrictions (The City University Of New York 2004).

Dahl debates that the Constitutional requirement that the senators be chosen not by the people but by the state legislatures means that the constitution was not democratic. Dahl presupposes that this arrangement would make the legislatures more responsive to the needs of property holders. This is not necessarily true. Even in case of Representatives, the rules of 13 states required them to be elected by persons who had property and paid taxes! Simply, the existence of popular elections does not mean that democracy is ensured (LeftJustified Publiks 1996). That apart, the number of the Senators was far smaller than that of the Representatives. In 1789, the Senate tried to adopt a protocol for interaction between the two houses that would show the superiority of the Senators. The house rejected this. Dahl’s contention is not supported by evidence.

Dahl disputes the fact that the Constitution allows equal representations to the states. That each state has the same number of senators is construed by Dahl to be undemocratic. He feels that this arrangement did not protect the rights of the minorities and some privileged minority groups managed to wrest excessive power over the policies of the government. What Dahl presumes that had there been a representation in the Senate on the basis of number, the Constitution would have been democratic! This is not adequately substantiated. In fact even if the representatives are chosen on the basis of the number of States, the Senators hold office in the name of the people and are accountable to the people (Black D 2003). “How such officials are elected can vary enormously. On the national level, for example, legislators can be chosen from districts that each elect a single representative. Alternatively, under a system of proportional representation, each political party is represented in the legislature according to its percentage of the total vote nationwide. Provincial and local elections can mirror these national models, or choose their representatives more informally through group consensus instead of elections. Whatever the method used, public officials in a representative democracy hold office in the name of the people and remain accountable to the people for their actions.” (USINFO.STATE.GOV 2006)

Dahl argues that the power of the judiciary to declare laws as unconstitutional as democratic. He feels that those laws that have been passed by the Congress and signed by the president cannot be declared unconstitutional by the judiciary. What Dahl does not include in the discussion is that fact that the president and the Congress may actually pass laws that are unconstitutional. They may be under the influence of a powerful bloc or may simply have been prevailed upon by circumstances to pass laws that are unconstitutional and undemocratic (msn. Encarta 2006). Dahl makes a supposition that since the Congress is democratically elected the laws passed by the Congress will necessarily represent the wishes of the people and be constitutional (Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia 2006). By giving the judiciary the power to declare laws as unconstitutional, the Constitution has created an excellent and vigilant watchdog.

Dahl feels that since the Constitution did not give explicit economic powers to the Congress including the power to tax incomes it is undemocratic. He goes on to site other regulatory actions that were not explicitly sanctioned by the government, like the actions over railroad rates, air safety, food and drugs, banking and minimum wages and claims that the lack of these explicit sanctions makes the Constitution undemocratic(V.Lex.US 2006). Where Dahl errs is that he has used later problems to judge the Constitution and declare it undemocratic. Issues relating to drugs and air safety were difficult to envisage at the time the constitution was written. We are not undermining the prescience of the Constitution fathers, what we are contending is that it is unfair to use today’s yardstick to judge the Constitution framers and then declare them undemocratic!

Dahl presupposes that since the first ten amendments to the Constitution were accepted in 1789-90 by eleven states the original Constitution was not democratic! This argument pertains to the Bill of Rights and never considers the fact that two states Georgia and Connecticut actually accepted the Bill of Rights in the year 1939. The fact that ten amendments were passed in 1789 so close to the date on which the Constitution was adapted does not mean that the Constitution was undemocratic.

One of the most outrageous assumptions made by Dahl is that since the US Constitution has not been adopted by any other country, the Constitution is not democratic!. He argues on this point using even more suppositions. First the Americans believe that their constitution is a model for the rest of the democratic world. Second, if other countries have not adopted the American constitutional system, they have rejected it. These contentions are not supported by credible evidence. He is misinterpreting legitimate American patriotism and is evaluating other countries’ lack of action to suit his own purposes. For, example a country may have its traditional constitution that is suited to its own culture. Even though the country may recognize the US Constitution as a pillar of democracy in the USA, the country may not hasten to adopt the US constitution.

To sum, Dahl uses a series of assumptions about democracy, leadership, the people of America and the Constitution to establish that the Framer’s Constitution was undemocratic. These assumptions are not adequately supported lead to incorrect conclusions about the framers of the original Constitution.


Black D (2003) A New Senate for America. Retrieved from: http://www.daveblackonline.com/a_new_senate_for_america.htm on October 2, 2006.

Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia (2006) Constitution of the United States Retrieved from http://ap.grolier.com/article?assetid=0070870-0&templatename=/article/articl…  On October 2, 2006.

LeftJustified Publiks (1996) The Constitution Of The United States Of America. Retrieved from: http://www.leftjustified.com/leftjust/lib/sc/ht/const/caa1.html on October 2, 2006.

msn. Encarta (2006) United States Senate. Retrieved from http://encarta.msn.com/encnet/refpages/RefArticle.aspx?refid=761586759  on October 2, 2006.

Secession Crisis (2006) Constitution on Slavery  “Clearly Sanctioned”. Retrieved from: http://civilwar.bluegrass.net/secessioncrisis/constitutiononslavery.html on October 2, 2006.

The City University Of New York (2004) The Constitution and Suffrage.

The U.S. Constitution Online (2006) The United States Constitution. Retrieved from: http://www.usconstitution.net/const.html on October 2, 2006.

USINFO.STATE.GOV (2006a) Defining Democracy. Retrieved from: http://usinfo.state.gov/products/pubs/whatsdem/whatdm2.htm  on October 2, 2006.

USINFO.STATE.GOV (2006 b) Outline of the US Government Retrieved from: http://usinfo.state.gov/products/pubs/outusgov/ch4.htm

V.Lex.US (2006) Section 3: The Senate. Retrived from: http://www.vlex.us/constitution/Constitution-of-the-United-States-Annotated/Section-3-The-Senate/2100-295491,01.html on October 2, 2006.

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