Skip to main content

Democratic Theory and Practice

ISSUE:  Spring 1943

A mericans have never quite made up their minds regarding Thomas Jefferson. In times of national danger they have instinctively turned to him for inspiration and renewed faith in democratic principles. His own supreme confidence in common men and in their capacity to govern themselves wisely seems to justify all of the inefficient blundering which has produced the trouble and to prove American ways the most practical and most pleasant for all mankind. At such times they view Jefferson as a wise and far-seeing statesman.

But periods of danger have been few, and they have usually passed without grave national injury. American skies have been remarkably fair; her outside enemies weak or absent. Most of the time her citizens have wanted only to be left alone that they might pursue happiness according to their own conceptions. Where democratic ideals have not interfered they have been tacitly accepted. Where they have run counter to popular interests they have been ignored or openly renounced. At such times, Thomas Jefferson has gone into eclipse. He has had a place on the Fourth of July and in academic halls, but when by some chance his bold assertions regarding the sacredness of personality, the necessity for frequent revolutions or the crime of one age binding another, have come to notice, good citizens have drawn back and bold spirits have labeled his words “glittering generalities” or sentiments “both false and foolish.” A few, like Theodore Roosevelt, have dared to express their undying hatred for the man.

The reasons for this uncertainty and vacillation have not always been understood. Historians have commented on the tendency to pay lip-service to Jefferson while practice has followed his most bitter enemy, Alexander Hamilton. They have not, however, explained the reason for such conduct. The cynical have inferred that it was the product of hypocrisy and sham. They know that high-sounding words make a splendid covering for greed. They expect the farce to end abruptly one of these days. Others, more generous, have assumed that ideals are hard to realize and that a certain amount of shortcoming is to be expected in human affairs. They are confident that the masses are sound and true. Only the few have betrayed the great national trust.


The answer to the problem is found, I think, in the fact that American democracy as it has evolved through the years is not the product of theory but primarily of circumstances. It has been an experience, not an idea. The forces that produced the American Revolution had already done their work before a justification for independence was necessary. Jefferson himself came to the presidency on the crest of an agrarian revolt fostered by hard times. Jackson represented western impatience with eastern rule and Bryan and his populists expressed the long accumulating bitterness of the rural midwest against a new urban-industrial dominance. These leaders turned to democratic dogma for arguments and authority, but found their real strength in the fact that most Americans had always lived in an atmosphere where opportunity in an expanding social-economic order made men free and reasonably equal and where a dislike for privilege had always existed for the same reason. Theory and practice seldom conflicted in normal times, and if they did no one cared. Only on rare occasion was it necessary for some disgruntled group to attempt an alignment of the two —a step which invariably brought a blunt repudiation of Jefferson’s whole philosophy by those who were satisfied with the status quo. Most of the conflicts in American political life have been of this sort.

The basis for these recurring conflicts becomes clear only when we examine and compare the Jeffersonian theories and the American way of democratic life. Jefferson based his doctrines on certain fundamental assumptions. He believed that the end of all life is individual happiness and that the purpose of government is to secure and increase that happiness. He also assumed that man is a rational creature capable of clarifying his ideas by inquiry and discussion and is so well disposed towards his fellow men that he is willing to curtail his own selfish desires in the interests of the larger common good. With this much assumed, then freedom for the individual is possible with no more of government than is required for police duty. The greater need is always for agencies of information and education. A republican form of government with frequent elections and balanced departments best serves a democratic order but mere political forms do not insure either happiness or security.

American life as it evolved on a great open continent only thinly occupied by a primitive people approximated Jefferson’s ideal in many ways and made many of the same assumptions without reasoning about it. There was much of freedom for men, freedom from tradition, from law, and from want and fear. A surprising degree of equality on a rather meager basis existed and those who achieved place and power did so by their own inherent qualities. Out of the enormous physical tasks to be performed in crossing a continent and transforming it from frontier simplicity to modern complexity came a firm belief in the necessity and virtue of human toil and a conviction that every man should earn the bread which he ate. A sweaty people had little use for speculators and manipulators who lived by wit and not by muscle. They had as little use for the man who sought privilege and refused to play the game of accumulation fairly.

Where men were scarce they were valued, and where interdependence meant life or death they came to be trusted. Individualism of a rude yet virile sort developed and in time produced the idea that every man was capable of performing most of the functions necessary for general well-being, including the holding of political office. This confidence in man and his abilities led to an unusual emphasis on freedom. Where natural resources were abundant and rich, the individual asked only to be free. Equality would take care of itself. That government was best which gave largest access to raw materials and checked accepted practices only as public opinion came to disapprove. But where free individuals failed to prosper enough or rapidly enough, government might widen its action to any degree necessary for improvement. It should, moreover, provide each and every individual with the education which enabled him to start the quest for good things on an equal basis with all others.

At first glance all of this seems to be in accord with Jefferson’s ideas and perhaps the product of them. The American people seemed to be demonstrating the practical character of his theories. A little thought, however, shows that neither the practices nor the forces back of them were the result of conscious efforts to apply a theory. They were only earlier habits and values enlarged and adjusted to the new and more simple American environment. They were Jeffersonian only in so far as his own ideas were drawn from the same great heritage that came out of Europe and became native by adoption. They bluntly departed from him wherever he entered the field of abstraction. This is most apparent in the matter of individual motivation. Instead of being absorbed by the passion to make democratic society work by yielding selfish ends to the larger common good, the American pioneer was primarily absorbed in getting ahead. He was impelled by what has been harshly called “the acquisitive drive.” He accepted human slavery to advance his cotton fields. He wasted and plundered the great natural resources of a continent without thought of generations yet unborn. He squatted on public lands, corrupted government officials where necessary and permitted the devil to take the hindmost as willingly as was done elsewhere. He turned democratic freedom into laissez faire and so completely failed with government by discussion that civil war ultimately resulted.

The complete breakdown and abandonment of democratic procedure in 1861 was the first tragic evidence of the dangers inherent in the conflict between democratic theory and American democratic practice. Up to that time circumstances had emphasized likenesses, not differences. There had, of course, been some conflicts where New England shipping interests had been forced to accept the War of 1812 and where the new West had felt its interests neglected because of eastern dominance. But peace and the coming of industry had quieted New England and the election of Jackson and a widened franchise had given the West even more than it asked. Not until the abolitionists seriously took up the Declaration of Independence and asked how slavery fitted into its ringing phrases did trouble threaten. Backed by the great humanitarian forces that swept out of western Europe and became thoroughly American in transcendentalism, temperance, women’s rights, prison reform, missionary effort, and a dozen other moves to rid American society of injustice and inequality, the abolitionist set about attempting to free the slave and make southern society over according to New England patterns. That threw Thomas Jefferson back squarely into southern hands. Theory and the status quo had to be squared.

John C. Calhoun, splendidly equipped to assume the role of realist, accepted the challenge. With clear insight into human nature and sound logic to present findings, he set about to re-examine the basis of democratic society. Jefferson had been entirely wrong. Men were emotional, not rational. They were so constituted as to feel what affected them directly more than what affected them indirectly through others. Individual affections were stronger than sympathies or social feelings and men regarded their own safety and happiness more than that of others. Neither a broad franchise nor a government of checks and balances could give peace and security. Only by giving every selfish interest in society a check on the acts of government could democracy survive.

With equal skill other southerners justified a stratified society in which the few lifted their heads into the atmosphere of culture and refinement by standing on human “mud-sills” below. Men were everywhere consuming the toil of others, they said, living by their wits while the many toiled. How much better was a slave society in which the workers were assured of care in sickness and old age than a free society in which the fears of unemployment and the disgrace of public charity awaited those who toiled! Neither freedom nor equality could be justified in a sound social order.

At last open warfare marked the end of all efforts at government by discussion and reason. The first phase of the democratic experiment had failed, and failed largely because one part of the people insisted that democratic theory and democratic practice should be in accord in the other part. That they themselves did not accept the theory, save in so far as it agreed with selfish practice, made little difference in the zeal with which they lauded democracy and even its great spokesman, Thomas Jefferson.


The bitter fight to preserve government “of the people, by the people, for the people” did not alter the democratic problem in any way. The victory of a section, moving rapidly towards urban-industrial dominance, only gave a new Interest the chance for undisputed development. Behind protective tariff walls, high enough to serve all the needs of wartime, the manufacturers continued, for two generations, to monopolize earth’s most profitable markets. Foreign emigrants poured in by the millions to give a labor supply as abundant and nearly as docile as the slaves who had builded the now defunct Cotton Kingdom. A homestead act, followed by coal and timber acts, desert land acts, and others, flung settlers out to the farthest edges of profitable cultivation areas and turned over to private ownership the world’s richest resources of coal and iron and oil for development and exploitation. Where favors were not forthcoming, corruption of government served equally well. It was a glorious age. Millionaires and multi-millionaires increased with startling rapidity. “Masters of capital,” “captains of industry,” and builders of “big business” held the stage and expressed the nation’s social philosophy. Only the workers in eastern factories and the farmers in southern and western fields had reasons to doubt that the golden age of human history had dawned.

These two groups had somehow failed to share equally in good things with those at the top. American farm crops competed in world markets where all was not well. The factory workers still accepted rural hours and pay, and too often bargained as individuals with concerns that were everywhere changing from individual and partnership effort to the status of corporations and trusts. Rapidity of growth in factory and town forced men to work and live under crowded and unsanitary conditions. Depression and crop failures brought actual suffering. The matchless freedom which business men enjoyed under American democratic practice was putting an end to what little equality was left from pioneer days. It was time again to turn back to Thomas Jefferson and his Declaration of Independence.

The conflict which developed in the eighties and nineties of the last century was again one between theory and practice. The protest group fell to talking about man’s “God given rights” to liberty and equality while those who liked the status quo as quickly adopted the cry of “un-American.” Beginning in 1877 and running well into the nineties, a series of bitter strikes marked labor’s efforts to organize for better conditions. Conservative employers and newspapers drew back at both the violence manifested and at the assertion of rights made. The New York Herald insisted that “There is no abuse which may not be remedied here by the ballot in everyman’s hand and the Bible in everyman’s heart.” It denounced the workers for acting on the “presumption that they had a moral, if not legal, right to a living . . ., an entirely un-American presumption.” The New York Times echoed these sentiments by saying that strikes were “un-American . . . and show that those who employ them have no real conception of what American citizenship is or implies.” The Independent was in favor of meeting the exigency promptly “with bullets and bayonets.” Even the courts held that it was “un-American” to pass legislation forcing capitalists to pay their workers in stated ways. “It tends to degrade them as citizens by impeaching their ability to take care of themselves,” said an Indiana judge.

Southern and western farmers, meanwhile, in the Grange and in the Populist party, asserted their rights, as Americans, to a more equal share in the nation’s wealth and political control. “This is no longer a country governed by the people,” roared James B. Weaver of Iowa. “The millionaires and paupers cannot here long dwell together in peace and it is idle to attempt to patch up a truce between them.” He wanted to know how democratic doctrines lined up with the fact that the few dwelt in luxury while those who toiled were deprived even of homes. Unconsciously he was raising the same question that Henry George, Edward Bellamy, and Henry Lloyd had raised about the place of equality in the democratic doctrine. He was preparing the way for William Jennings Bryan and his “cross of gold.”

Conservatives viewed all this as something bordering on revolution. The New York Herald called Bryan’s great speech “a shot as dangerous and treasonable as that fired on Sumter in ‘61” and referred to his followers as “the Jacobins of the west and south.” It charged him with being “a puppet in the blood-imbued hands of Altgeld, the anarchist, Debs, the revolutionist, and other desperadoes of that stripe.” Bryan was, in fact, waging “a campaign against the Ten Commandments.” He, in turn, spoke of himself as the disciple of Thomas Jefferson.

The significant thing about all of the movements which climaxed in the presidential campaign of 1896 was the realization that the century-old emphasis on freedom as the most important manifestation of democracy was no longer valid, Slowly common men had learned that in a complex industrial society the individual cannot always freely choose his own course nor can he always protect himself. The Chicago Tribune might glibly assert that labor’s only right was to quit a job when wages were not satisfactory and the courts might bemoan the loss of dignity to the individual when he required the protection of legislation, but the facts were that equality between employer and employee was no longer possible. Newspapers in industrial centers might rail at the farmer for his demands on government, yet it was all too apparent that agriculture had not kept pace in America and its workers seemed to be headed toward the same peasantry to which the farmers of other lands had already sunk. If American life was longer even to approximate the theories of democracy, something drastic had to be done.

Unusual conditions, ending with participation in world war Number One, postponed the honest facing of the issue, The depression of the nineteen-thirties, however, brought it forward again with renewed force. This time the conservative saw what were called “New Deal policies” as simply the efforts of a group of young Brain-Trusters to engraft reform onto recovery. Their opponents, on the other hand, insisted that democratic practice in America had degenerated into little more than economic individualism which was about to destroy the very democratic theory under which it had developed. Economic absolutism, they said, was taking the place of the once despised political absolutism against which democracy had been the first great protest. They turned again to Jefferson.


To the student of American history all this has a familiar ring. To him it suggests the simple fact that democratic practice and theory in an industrial age have at last grown so far apart that only a conscious and positive effort to shift the emphasis from freedom to equality can longer maintain the democratic order. Something of socialism must be mixed with democracy if it is to survive the passing of agricultural dominance. Democracy, like everything else, has come to maturity in the United States. If the power of the state once had to be curbed by the will of the majority, how much greater, under modern complexity, is the need for the same check on the vastly greater power of wealth in an industrial order I Personal freedom and legal equality can now be kept alive only if men understand that conditions in society no longer favor or produce democratic practice but quite the opposite. A working democracy is now something to be achieved by men intent on putting a theory to work and paying the price to make it work. And at such a task Americans have had little more experience than most of the other peoples of the earth. Those who now so impatiently demand that every phase of American life be made thoroughly democratic should remember that fact. They should also remember that the task of defending democracy both as a theory and as a way of life has been assumed by the United States in a world at war over the relative value of political and social systems.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading