Founding Fathers Quotes on Government, Democracy, and Placing Power in the People

Written by Sam Jacobs Subject: Founding Fathers

The views of the Founders on the subject of democracy are complicated and difficult to articulate in sound bites. On the one hand, the Founders championed seating power in the people of the nation rather than an aristocracy or a monarch. On the other hand, they all feared the power of King Mob and the tyranny of the majority over a minority. To that end, the Constitution is filled with a number of measures that prevent the majoritarian rule of simple democracy.

The government was never seen by the Founders as a provider of anything but a very generalized common security. Laws were seen as more important than men. At best, the government was seen as a necessary evil to allow for the continued functioning of a peaceful society. Those who sought power through the government, rather than seeking to serve their countrymen, were implicitly distrusted.

"It has been observed by an honorable gentleman, that a pure democracy, if it were practicable, would be the most perfect government. Experience has proved, that no position in politics is more false than this. The ancient democracies, in which the people themselves deliberated, never possessed one feature of good government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure deformity."

Alexander Hamilton, Speech to Congress, June 21, 1788

"When annual elections end, there slavery begins."

John Adams, Thoughts on Government, 1776

"Great confusion about the words democracy, aristocracy, monarchy...Democracy in my sense, where the whole power of the government in the people, whether exercised by themselves or by representatives, chosen by them either mediately or immediately and legally accountable to them...Consequence, the proposed government a representative democracy...Constitution revocable and alterable by the people. This representative democracy as far as is consistent with its genius has all the features of good government."

Alexander Hamilton, on the Constitution, 1788

"It always has been, and will continue to be, my earnest desire to learn and to comply, as far as is consistent, with the public sentiment; but it is on great occasions only, and after time has been given for cool and deliberate reflection, that the real voice of the people can be known."

George Washington, Letter to Edward Carrington, May 1, 1796

"Democratical States must always feel before they can see: it is this that makes their Governments slow – but the people will be right at last."

George Washington, Letter to Marquis de Lafayette, July 25, 1785

"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education."

Thomas Jefferson, Letter to W. C. Jarvis, September 28, 1820

"The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people."

George Washington, First Inaugural Address, April 30, 1789

"The republican is the only form of government which is not eternally at open or secret war with the rights of mankind."

Thomas Jefferson, Letter to William Hunter, 1790

"A wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government."

Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1801

For more quotes on government check out the complete Founding Fathers quotes collection here.