Jefferson Got It Wrong; The Relationship Between The Majority And The Minority In A Democracy

Harry Jaffa has an interesting discussion in Opinion Journal on the relationship between the majority and minority in a Democracy, especially in relationship to our efforts to help Democracy bloom in Iraq. It raises the question of what rights a minority has in a Democracy? Do the rights of the minority supercede the rights of the majority? If a minority finds certain words, emblems, actions or deeds to be offensive, does the majority have the obligation to cease those words, emblems, actions or deeds? What are the responsibilities of the majority to the minority in a Democracy?

I always thought that Jefferson got it wrong when he wrote America’s Declaration of Independence, prior to the American Revolutionary War. He wrote, “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Jefferson knew better; he was a slaveholder, and was well aware that all men are not created equal. He probably never entertained the notion at all that women might be equal. I do not know how he felt about Indians, but I am quite sure he did not consider them to be the equal of Europeans.

What he should have written was “we hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equally endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights….” Every man has these rights, even though they are not born equally endowed with skills, intelligence or the access to resources that might help them.

Of course, the problem revolves around who is considered ‘man,’ and what those ‘inherent rights’ are. Certainly, in the 18th century, no African or Indian was considered in that definition of who has inalienable rights; the reason why it was so easy to kill Indians and enslave blacks and women was because they were not considered to be ‘human.’ Their religion was wrong, their technology was lacking and there were serious questions about their level of intelligence…thus, the word ‘man’ was very defined. Only white males, especially landowners, were endowed with unalienable rights; everyone else needed to be taken care of,

Today, we have gone in the opposite direction. Everyone has rights…even illegal aliens have all the rights of the Constitution. Some jurisdictions are considering giving illegals the right to vote and the right to a driver’s license

Along with this has come a regular industry of lawyers and organizations, such as the ACLU, which fight for the rights of the underdog. Well-known is the furor over Indian mascots and names of sports teams, both professional and college, fights for the right to smoke cigarettes in public places, etc, etc.

In the Federalist Papers, no. 51, James Madison suggests that the rights of the minority are not threatened in a democracy. The minority cannot be oppressed in a Democracy, because there are not centers of power to oppress minorities; power is dispersed throughout the electorate. ” In a single republic, all the power surrendered by the people is submitted to the administration of a single government; and the usurpations are guarded against by a division of the government into distinct and separate departments. In the compound republic of America, the power surrendered by the people is first divided between two distinct governments, and then the portion allotted to each subdivided among distinct and separate departments. Hence a double security arises to the rights of the people. The different governments will control each other, at the same time that each will be controlled by itself”

The argument against this, of course, is the situation of Indians, Africans and women at the time of the signing of the Constitution, and decades afterwards. These groups certainly did not have rights, nor did they have protection. In fact, they could not even count on living, as all three groups were subject to be killed at the whim of those who did have rights, more often than not with impunity….and this is the point which relates to Iraq. What guarantees can we give to the Sunnis that they will be protected by the majority, in a Democracy, especially as we have not had such a sterling record ourselves in protecting minorities?

The answer is obvious; the plight of women, Africans and Indians in the United States is FAR better than it was in the 19th century. It took us close to a hundred years, but the situations, which were in existence at the founding of our nation, have been resolved…because a Democracy cannot exist with a totalitarian segment in society. Social status’ have to, eventually, be reconciled. In other words, if the Democracy survives, rights will follow.

This does not happen immediately. Sometimes it takes a generation or ten for the society, as a whole, to adjust to changes that need to be made…which is, of course not at all helpful for the people alive at the time, but change does take time.

The problem with those who want instant solutions to social problems is that they lack faith in people and in Democracy. They are totalitarians, who want totalitarian solutions to problems, in their mold…they do see the long view, but want change made now. Rarely are such instant solutions lasting solutions. One must take a long view of history and, when one does, many of the eternal questions we continuously debate wither away like snow in the spring.

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