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The Founding Fathers, Social Media and the Democratization of Communication

Posted Jan 23 2012 9:00am

It has been fascinating to me, as a former student of American Government and political science instructor, to witness the rise of social media within our society. For some time now I’ve wanted to write a blog post about how the Founding Fathers would have viewed this dramatic change in the way people communicate. An understanding of American politics and the political philosophy of the Founders makes the popularization of social media that much more amazing. This is particularly interesting to me given the Founding Father’s distrust of the masses. Below is a quote from Alexander Hamilton, one of the leading political thinkers of the time:

“The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct, permanent share in the government. They will check the unsteadiness of the second, and as they cannot receive any advantage by a change, they therefore will ever maintain good government.“ (Source: Alexander Hamilton, Farrand’s Records of the Federal Convention, v. 1, p. 299.)

James Madison, in Federalist #10, expressed a similar perspective:

“The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.” (Source: James Madison, Federalist #10)

Today, in our nation’s third century, there is a communications revolution taking place that may well have stunned our founders. In the 1700s, America’s Founding Fathers worked laboriously to develop a system of government that was insulated from the passions and opinions of the masses. According to James Madison, in Federalist #10, “So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.” The democratic republic was designed to be slow and deliberate, protecting against rapid changes that might occur in response to the passions and impulses of the common people, entrusting decision-making to “first-class” citizens, those educated and holding property. They would speak for the masses and protect our society from the potential negative effects of true democracy.

“In keeping with their desire to contain the majority, the founders inserted “auxiliary precautions” designed to fragment power without democratizing it. By separating the executive, legislative, and judicial functions and then providing a system of checks and balances among the various branches, including staggering elections, executive veto, Senate confirmation of appointments and ratification of treaties, and a bicameral legislature, they hoped to dilute the impact of popular sentiments.” (Michael Parenti, Democracy for the Few, p.67)

According to Merrill Jensen in The New Nation, the decision-makers of the revolutionary era were an affluent elite. At that time in our nation’s history, these “first-class citizens” were the people with a voice:

“Their power was born of place, position, and fortune. They were located at or near the seats of government and they were in direct contact with legislatures and government offices. They influenced and often dominated the local newspapers which voiced the ideas and interests of commerce and identified them with the good of the whole people, the state, and the nation. The published writings of the leaders of the period are almost without exception those of merchants, of their lawyers, or of politicians sympathetic with them.”

Imagine the Founding Fathers’ reaction to the rise of social media. After working so hard to suppress the opinions of the masses, technology has led to a situation where anyone with Internet access now has a voice and any number of methods for disseminating his or her opinions. Americans today live in the age of the democratization of communication. Certainly one could argue that these new technologies represent an expansion of freedom of expression, but the founders might ask: At what cost?

“It has been observed that a pure democracy if it were practicable would be the most perfect government. Experience has proved that no position is more false than this. The ancient democracies in which the people themselves deliberated never possessed one good feature of government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure deformity. “ ( Source: Alexander Hamilton, Speech in New York, urging ratification of the U.S. Constitution)

If the Founding Fathers were alive today, my guess is they would be congratulating one another for the decisions they made when it came to the design of our government. In an age where the populace has the ability to openly vent its frustration with government policy, our slow and deliberate form of government, with all of its checks and balances, means that dramatic change will not take place over night. And although social media allows the most abhorrent opinions to be expressed, I do believe the Founders would stand behind the individual’s right to freedom of expression. The quote below from Thomas Jefferson speaks directly to the belief that our constitution allows for the expression unpopular points of view, even those directly challenging our form of government.

“If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” (Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Address, Washington, D.C., Wednesday, March 4, 1801)

Although social media will be abused and misappropriated, like all forms of communication, my belief is that the Founders would have seen this form of communication as a democratic tool to be protected. If they had technology like this back in the 1700s, some of them may have ended up early adopters, embracing the platform and using it to support their political agenda. Somebody like Thomas Jefferson would probably have been the first in line at the Apple store to get his new electronic device. What do you think? I welcome your thoughts on the subject.


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