Democracy in its most basic meaning refers to people ruling themselves. The forms democracy may take are varied, and run from simple, direct town meetings of a few dozen people to elaborate schemes of popular representation for millions. A democracy may take the form of a republic or of a limited monarchy, and the ways in which the people's voices are heard and their will carried out are numerous.
For Americans, democracy is not only government, as Abraham Lincoln put it, "of the people, by the people, and for the people," but it also involves limits on majoritarian rule. Because the Unites States was founded by settlers coming from other nations, because these men and women had different political, social, religious and economic beliefs, the country, in order to become a nation, did something no other society had ever done -- it recognized pluralism not as a curse but as a blessing, and set up elaborate safeguards to ensure that the majority did not become a tyrant by force of numbers. This is the ideal, that out of many will emerge one, and that the ideal has not always been met. Instead of being tolerant, Americans have at times been hostile to people who had differently colored skins, different religious beliefs and different cultural backgrounds. But to see only the good, or only the evil, is to see only part of the portrait. It is to miss the essential idea of American democracy, that of many peoples seeking to find common ground.
This book consists of documents, or readings, relating to that search, and the notion of what constitutes a "document" is broadly interpreted. There are a number of traditional documents -- court decisions, legislative acts and presidential decrees -- and these are important. Documents such as the Declaration of Independence and Constitution are the bedrock of American political democracy.
But there are also letters, essays, surrender speeches and even poems. These are also "documents," in that they chart America's search for itself, a process that has continued for almost four centuries. It is a search that has had its moments of despair, its dark sides, acts that Americans remember with shame. But is has also appealed to the nation's higher ideals. If one is saddened by the way America has at times treated its minorities, one can also rejoice in the nation's efforts, even if not always successful, at redressing those ills.
To look at American democracy then, is to look at a country in process, in a search, and that is a process that many believe can never stop. Democracy is not so much the end, but the way a nation and a people seek that end.
In 1778, the French statesman Turgot wrote:
This people is the hope of the human race. It may become the model. It ought to show the world by facts that men can be free and yet peaceful, and may dispense with the chains in which tyrants and knaves of every color have presumed to bind them, under pretext of the public good. The Americans should be an example of political, religious, commercial and industrial liberty. The asylum they offer to the oppressed of every nation, the avenue of escape they open, will compel governments to be just and enlightened; and the rest of the world in due time will see through the empty illusions in which policy is conceived. But to obtain these ends for us, America must secure them to herself; and must not become, as so many of your ministerial writers have predicted, a mass of divided powers, contending for territory and trade, cementing the slavery of peoples by their own blood.
Had Turgot lived long enough, he would have marveled at both the successes and the failures of the American people. Yet both the failures and the successes are part of the democratic story, a story told by these readings.
Melvin I. Urofsky Professor of Constitutional History Virginia Commonwealth University Richmond, Virginia
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