DJ: You begin the book with a quote from Edmund Randolph, General Washington’s aide-de-camp and the country’s first Attorney General, speaking to the Constitutional Convention: “Our chief danger arises from the democratic parts of our [state] constitutions.” It should be no surprise to those well-read in American history that our founders were critics of democracy. But you argue that “democracy” in that context means something much more than what we commonly understand. What did Randolph mean by that statement?
WH: When we note, as you just did quite rightly, that the founding fathers were wary of the excesses of democracy, we take it to mean something that’s only partially true—it’s not a full description of what they feared. We think they worried that too much input from too many people might lead to a sort of general instability, possibly mob rule, and so forth. The part we tend to leave out, I think, is the financial and economic dimension. When Randolph was calling the convention to order and saying that what we need to do is form a national government, he was speaking in a specific context of economic and financial turmoil, and everyone else in the room would have known what he was talking about. He meant that the state governments were too weak in resisting the onslaught of democratic approaches to finance, in which the lending classes’ investments would be devalued, laws would be passed by state legislatures to provide what the founders would have seen as excessive debt relief to ordinary people, and a host of other democratic financial policies that the elites of the time, for perfectly cogent reasons, felt would destabilize all good policy. Most people don’t discuss Randolph’s remarks at the constitutional convention, because those remarks are distressing to those who believe in democracy today and wish to connect democratic ideals to the founders.