Introduction to Congress 5

The following is an extract from Lesson 2 of An Introduction to the U.S. Congress. You can get the whole thing here:

Under representative democracy, only elected representatives of the people can make laws. Laws may not be made by kings, presidents (elected or not), judges (elected or not), military officers, private militia, or drug lords. (See our course America: Republic or Democracy to learn more.)

Representative democracy was a major improvement over the British parliament which did not represent the American people and was not accountable to them. The very idea of representation was one of the central reasons for the American Revolution.

No taxation without representation” is a slogan from the American Revolution. It expressed one of the main complaints of the American colonists against Great Britain: they believed taxes imposed by the British were not legitimate because the colonists were not represented in the British parliament. Representative democracy in the national government was also a big change from the Articles of Confederation that preceded our Constitution. Under the Articles of Confederation, representation was limited to state governments, not the people themselves. Each state government had one vote in the Confederation Congress, and state delegations to the Congress (from all but two states) were chosen by their state legislatures.

Did you know? The framers thought of representative government as the major requirement for republics. For example, in Federalist 39, Madison defines a republic this way, “we may define a republic to be, or at least may bestow that name on, a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people, and is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure, for a limited period, or during good behavior.”

He went on to add, “It is ESSENTIAL to such a government that it be derived from the great body of the society, not from an inconsiderable proportion, or a favored class of it; otherwise a handful of tyrannical nobles, exercising their oppressions by a delegation of their powers, might aspire to the rank of republicans, and claim for their government the honorable title of republic.”

Note: The framers relied on representative democracy not only to create accountability to the people but also to avoid the problems of direct democracy.Nowhere in the new government were the people to participate directly.

Exactly how to make the change to representative democracy was a much-debated topic during the Constitutional Convention. There were three main issues, each drawn from the tensions we listed in Lesson 1:

  • Should Congress derive its power from the people or from the state governments?
  • Should large states be balanced against small states?
  • Should enslaved people be counted towards a state’s population?

We will explore those topics next week.

6 thoughts on “Introduction to Congress 5”

    1. Sure, but what do you want to do with that knowledge? At this point in history, 98% of all citizen of age have a legal right to vote. This outcome is foreshadowed in Madison’s quote … “not from an inconsiderable proportion, or a favored class of it …” We hope to direct your focus to the benefits of representation and accountability. If the reality doesn’t match the ideal, and it does not for many folks, then let’s keep working on it together.

      1. Hi Ernest, thank you for prompting me to double check my work. The answer I get, using 2020 data is 98.6% of the voting age population is eligible to vote. We have come a long way since the time of the framers. Isn’t that something to celebrate – even while we continue to try to do even better?

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