The Growth of Democracy in Post-Revolutionary America


The political leaders of the thirteen colonies that won their independence from Great Britain were, by almost any definition, members of an elite class. They were “gentlemen” – a word that then meant something much more specific than it does today. In the 18th century a gentleman, most fundamentally, was a man who did not have to work for a living, and who therefore had the time and resources to acquire a broad education and to devote himself at least periodically to public service. Gentlemen were aware of their privileged position in society, and most of them believed strongly that with their privilege came a corresponding duty to serve that society in any way they could.

From British Colonies to Independent States

At the end of the Revolutionary War, the newly independent American states consisted of thirteen separate republics, each with its own constitution and leadership, bound together in a loose confederation for their mutual benefit. The term “United States” was understood in a plural sense, and the citizens of those states referred to them collectively as their “countries” or their “republics” – they did not yet see themselves as citizens of a single “nation.”

Explosive Population Growth and an Expanded Franchise

On the eve of the Revolution, the population of the thirteen colonies was about two million; by the end of the War of 1812 four decades later, it stood at nearly ten million – a fivefold increase in barely two generations. As the population grew, so did the number of voters; and it was no longer only “gentlemen” who could meet the property qualifications for voting – rapid commercial growth had enabled many of the “middling sort” such as merchants and tradesmen to be enfranchised as well.

Democracy as a Threat to the Republics

The Enlightenment ideal of republican government assumed that the states would be led by “disinterested” gentlemen – that is, men not beholden to any local or special interests, but who were capable of seeing the greater good on behalf of all the people. Increasingly, however, the state legislatures were being dominated by men of “interests” – men with particular objectives that did not necessarily contribute to the common good. Ezra Stiles, the president of Yale College, complained that whenever a bill was introduced in the legislature, each representative’s first thought was how it would affect his constituents, rather than the state as a whole – to say nothing of the other “united” states.

The Changing Meaning of Property

With the entrance of the “middling sort” into politics – indeed, their domination of politics in the state legislatures – there developed a new sense of what constituted “property.” For the gentry, property was the basis of their income: it was what enabled them to produce goods and services and to lend out money at interest. But with the growth of the new commercialism, and with the states more than willing to print paper money, property became a commodity, used to borrow money rather than to lend it, and for speculation rather than for production.

Jefferson’s Prediction Realized

In 1781, in his Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson had written: “From the conclusion of this war we shall be going down hill. It will not then be necessary to resort every moment to the people for support. They will be forgotten, therefore, and their rights disregarded. They will forget themselves, but in the sole faculty of making money….” A mere half-decade later, many of the Founders saw this happening, and attributed the change to what they called the “excesses of democracy.” Their republican ideal of leadership by the privileged few for the benefit of all was being threatened by what they saw as the “abuses” of the common people who were now in positions of leadership and who did not have either the inclination or the ability to govern “disinterestedly.”