The American Democrat (Pitfalls of Democracy)

4 Jan


The American Democrat: Or, Hints on the Social and Civic Relations of the United States of America, a political essay written by American republican author James Fenimore Cooper, was published initially in New York State in 1838.

Originally intended as a textbook on the American republican democracy, the work analyzes the social forces that shape, and can ultimately corrupt such a system.

It served as an indictment of public opinion, which he argued had the potential to corrupt public morals and democracy.

The Dangers of Democracy

In his view, the aim of a good government is “to add no unnecessary and artificial aid to the force of its own unavoidable consequences, and to abstain from fortifying and accumulating social inequality as a means of increasing political inequalities.”

Thus, a good democracy should ensure political and civil equality to all, keeping the members of higher classes from getting more than is constitutionally owed to them.

At the time, Cooper argued that there were three factors endangering democracy – public opinion, demagoguery, and the press.

He believed that the corruption of these things made political liberty, equality, rights, and justice more abstract notions rather than true pillars of society.

Public Opinion

In democracies, “the tyranny of majorities is a greater evil than the oppression of minorities in narrow systems.”

In that vein, public opinion could become law, making the system liable to “popular impulses” and prejudice.

(Brexit is an example of this)

The political party system increases the likelihood of this situation because “when a party rules, the people do not rule, but merely such a portion of the people as can manage to get control of the party”.

Cooper claims that

whenever the government of the United States shall break up, it will probably be in consequence of a false direction having been given to publick [sic] opinion.

This is the weak point of our defenses, and the part to which the enemies of the system will direct all their attacks.

Opinion can be so perverted as to cause the false to seem true; the enemy, a friend, and the friend, an enemy; the best interests of the nation to appear insignificant and trifle of moment; in a word, the right the wrong and the wrong the right.

(This is what is happening in our country now, with the Russian fake news stories)

Public opinion is the gateway to the other potential destroyers of democracy – the press and the demagogue– because it can be taken advantage of if the public is not critical.

In the end, he argues,

the habit of seeing the publick [sic] rule, is gradually accustoming the American mind to an interference with private rights that is slowly undermining the individuality of the national character.

There is getting to be so much publick [sic] right, that private right is overshadowed and lost.

A danger exists that the ends of liberty [individuality] will be forgotten altogether in the means.

The Demagogue

In the U.S., Cooper argues that the most dangerous abuse of the government is taking advantage of the citizens to gain or maintain authority.

Consequently, Cooper disparages the demagogue and political manager who pursue their own interest “by affecting a deep devotion to the interests of the people” and by “put[ting] the people before the constitution and the laws in face of the obvious truth that people have paced the laws before themselves.”

The Press

While Cooper acknowledged that without a free press there could be no popular liberty in the nation, he also believed that the press was easily corruptible and able to spread inaccurate information at any time.

In that sense, “licentiousness, neither publick [sic] honesty, justice, nor a proper regard for character” also infringed upon private liberty.

Consequently, it was necessary to hold the press accountable for the information it disseminated.

The current state of the U.S. media was that the press had become an instrument for “the schemes of interested political adventurers.”

It had evolved from a tool for the free flow of constructive ideas to one of the free flow of false information.

The following passage illustrates this perception:

In America, while the contest was for great principles, the press aided in elevating the common character, in improving the common mind, and in maintaining the common interests; but, since the contest has ceased and the struggle has become one purely of selfishness and personal interests, it is employed as a whole, in fast undermining its own work, and in preparing the nation for some terrible reverses, if not in calling down upon it, a just judgment of God.

As the press now exists, it would seem to be expressly devised by the great agent of mischief, to depress and destroy all that is good, and to elevate and advance all that is evil in the nation.

Cooper argued that the effects of this free but corrupted press render “men indifferent to character, and, indeed, render[s] character itself of little avail, besides setting up an irresponsible and unprincipled power that is stronger than the government itself.”

(The above info came from Wikipedia)


One Response to “The American Democrat (Pitfalls of Democracy)”

  1. chiniquy January 4, 2017 at 3:34 pm #

    Reblogged this on chiniquy and commented:

    What he warned against, over 100 years ago has come true


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