The personal finances of the Founders aside, the biggest fact undermining Beard and his disciples has lain in plain sight all along: The Constitution was put to a vote. This is the obvious meaning of the subject, object, and verbs of the document’s dramatic opening sentence: “We the People of the United States … do ordain and establish this Constitution.” And what a vote it was. The breadth and depth of inclusion were stunning—unprecedented and, in hindsight, transformative.
George Thomas: ‘America is a republic, not a democracy’ is a dangerous—and wrong—argument
Before 1788, only a few democracies had existed in world history. Across most of the planet most of the time, most humans were ruled by princes and priests. None of the democratic or quasi-democratic regimes that had preexisted the American Revolution—various ancient Greek Republics, pre-imperial Rome, the post-feudal British and Swiss nations—had ever promulgated written constitutions that had been put to any sort of special popular vote. In 1776, America’s Declaration of Independence did not undergo a special vote, nor did any of the Revolutionary state constitutions born that year. In 1781, a continental legal blueprint, the Articles of Confederation, likewise launched without a special popular vote.
By contrast, in 1788, ordinary folk across the continent weighed in on the proposed Constitution with both voices and votes. In eight of the 13 states, the usual property qualifications were lowered or eliminated; nowhere were they raised. In New York, all free, adult male citizens could vote—no race tests, religious tests, literacy tests, or property qualifications. These were not the ordinary rules for ordinary New York elections, but all of America understood the need for a special democratic mandate for the bold plan proposed by Washington and company. Never before had so many people played so direct a role in deciding their collective fate.
Beard and his disciples downplayed the astonishing extent of popular deliberation and newspaper discourse that accompanied the vote. Although the Constitution’s draftsmen initially met behind closed doors, secrecy lapsed when the proposed Constitution was unveiled in September 1787. Immediately, the delegates chattered like magpies about what had transpired in the conclave, and why.
Not everyone in the ratification process supported the proposal, but skeptics said their piece and newspapers covered almost every word. Americans conversed but did not combat. No one died from political violence in an entire year of intense debate, and apart from a few fisticuffs here and there, no one was even seriously injured. Critics were not bullied or ostracized. Rather, several eventually became presidents, vice presidents, and Supreme Court justices. The best criticisms of the Philadelphia draft were quickly incorporated into a set of amendments—the Bill of Rights—that championed the very rights of speech, press, petition, and assembly so prominently on display in 1788.