What Did the Founders Think They Were Doing?

by Harvey C. Mansfield

Why do we vote, and what do we get for our trouble? 

Here are some thoughts and readings for freshmen (or first-years) who were excited by our just-concluded presidential campaign and are now pondering the outcome. They also apply to the rest of us longtime voters who might care to think about the meaning and the nature of elections. Do we know more than freshmen? “Live and learn” says we do; “it’s never too late to learn” says we don’t. It’s safer to think that we don’t, and that we would profit from taking another look at things we take for granted.

Here I will identify and introduce half a dozen passages on elections in famous books on politics that every educated person, or serious citizen, would reasonably wish to be acquainted with.

To start, we all take for granted that elections are the touchstone of democracy. If a country holds elections, it’s democratic; if not, it isn’t. That’s a rule of thumb, not a universal truth. For though democracies hold elections, not all elections are democratic in the sense that they maintain democracies. Some may be dangerous to democracy, when democracy turns on itself and elects an enemy who puts an end to democracy.


Politics calls into question the assumption that elections are democratic. Democracy stands for living as you please, Aristotle says, which means as you choose. But choosing means taking better over worse, or a respectable life over doing menial tasks, the noble over the necessary. In choosing to have an election—the word for choice also means “election”—you give your support to someone or a party you admire or at any rate think better of. What is this preference but the choice of an aristocracy, literally, the rule of the best, or of the best in this situation?

Therefore, an election is essentially aristocratic, not democratic. Aristotle’s analysis shows that if you begin from democracy, you move into aristocracy as soon as you choose. Of course, if everyone chooses, and chooses from everyone, this is more democratic than if only the few best choose from the few best. Democracy as we have it, with the representation of the people rather than their direct rule, appears to be a mixture of democracy and aristocracy, as we say, a “liberal democracy.” Such a mixture combines elitism (aristocracy) with dislike of elitism (democracy).

Aristotle thinks that every regime combines quality and quantity, the few and the many. An oligarchy (rule of the few) cannot forget the many, and a democracy cannot avoid the few.

You can find these arguments in Aristotle’s Politics, particularly book III, chapter 11; book IV, chapters 7 and 12; and book V, chapter 8.


Suppose, however, that elections are not so much about choosing as about facing necessities. Everyone may want the best, but to get the best you have to act quickly ahead of others. Try to be nice, and see where it gets you: your disappointment, perhaps even your ruin. To be ahead of the competition, you have to play rough and dirty.

This is the necessity that dominates politics, and with it we have departed from the assumption of Aristotle that human beings can choose their lives, and are now in the territory of Machiavelli. Machiavelli tells us that there are two ways to play dirty: by open force when you are clearly stronger and can demand that others obey—or by concealed force, or fraud, in which the weaker party bamboozles the stronger party and somehow persuades it to do his will. An election is the second way, a fraud in which the few, who as such are weaker than the many, find a way to convince the many that the few should rule.

Just try to be nice, says Machiavelli, and see where it gets you: disappointment, maybe even ruin.

Machiavelli believes that human beings are divided into the few who want to rule and the many who do not care to rule themselves but do not want to be ruled by others either. Then those who want to rule must conceal their rule from the many if they wish to succeed. How can they do this? Machiavelli went about conceiving a “new mode of ruling,” a hidden government that puts the people “under a dominion they do not see.” Government is hidden when it appears not to be imposed on you from above but when it comes from you, when it is self-imposed.

Machiavelli recounts a psychological truth about humans: “wounds and other evils that a man does upon himself spontaneously and by choice hurt much less than those that are done to you by someone else.” It sounds crazy to claim that it hurts less when you break your leg yourself than when someone or something else does it. But when you do it yourself, the hurt is less because it doesn’t include resentment against whoever or whatever did it to you.

A further step in the argument: the many, the common people, resent government because of the necessary hurts it imposes—as people say, death and taxes. Government demands sacrifices in return for the peace, comfort, and justice it provides. But government hurts less, and is even hidden from you, when it comes from you—when it comes from an election.

An election is not so much a positive choice, as you might suppose from Aristotle, as the purging of resentment against government and the humbling of the few who run for office. As we saw in the contest between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, an election forces the rulers to seek our approval, our vote. It enables us to choose one, and perhaps more important, to deny the other. Partisanship often shows itself less in having your side win than in having the other side lose.

In this way, an election allows people to think that their government comes from them, when in fact it remains pretty much the same whether it’s Obama or Romney. The particular candidate may win or lose, but the class of “politicians” that we decry, the few who desire to rule, always wins. For their part, the people indulge in the luxury of throwing out the losing candidate, expressing their resentment against being governed, while (almost) incidentally electing the winner, who then governs in their name with their consent.

In all this, necessity is paramount: the people necessarily resent government, but must necessarily be made to accept that government is necessary, while necessarily not noticing its necessity. The idea that election is a choice is fraudulent.

These arguments will be found in Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy, book I, chapters 34 and 37; book II, chapter 21; and in The Prince, chapters 9 and 10. Of course, Machiavelli leaves it to you to put them together.


Today we hear of elections that were won by fraud, but we do not believe that elections are necessarily fraudulent. We believe that fair elections are possible, even to be expected. We hold this belief under the influence especially of John Locke, who, on this point, opposed Machiavelli’s penetrating exposure of the hidden government that has been cleverly constructed for us—to fool us for our benefit. Locke thinks that popular government, government by consent, can be open and just. His doctrine of how this can be done has prevailed in our time and has been driven into our minds, emerging as the assumptions we make in how we think and how we live.

To Locke, elections are just because they prevent the tyranny of the few, and open because they let citizens criticize the government.

Locke does not begin, as Aristotle and Machiavelli do, by looking at politics as we see it. Or maybe he does look, and does not like the frantic and bigoted partisanship that he sees. Instead of analyzing the nature of politics from the politics visible to us, he imagines an extreme case where there is no government, and calls that abstraction the state of nature—borrowing from Thomas Hobbes, its inventor.

The result is to make government itself the problem, somewhat like Machiavelli, but in such a way as to make all men equal. For in the state of nature, no one has the security he needs to live as he might wish. Locke can thus forget the difference between the many and the few, at least as regards the fundamental principle of government. Since all are equal, the principle is that no one can or should be governed without his consent.

It’s quite likely that as long as liberalism lasts, it will be taunted by critics who side with Rousseau. With him, they cry “sellout.”

Locke establishes government by consent, and not only in the social contract at the beginning, but afterward too, in elections by which the few who govern are held accountable by the many. We see that the few/many difference returns, in the form of those elected as against those who elect. But now, the few cannot dominate the many as with Machiavelli; they have to cater to them so as to gain their consent—the tables are turned. The many now have fundamental rights that are derived from the equality of all men, rights they can understand.

Government may try to use electoral tricks to fool the people, but the people have a sense of their rights and a constitution that protects them. Elections are just because they prevent the tyranny of the few, and open because they expose the government to criticism through freedom of speech. The few can be satisfied as well. They may content themselves with constitutional offices and powers, no longer dominating the people and threatening their freedom.

And with a secure right of private property, they have an enhanced opportunity to gain wealth for themselves while improving the standard of living for all. Having more money becomes a safer and more peaceable substitute for having more honor and power. Actually, since there is enough honor in being rich, an ambitious man need no longer seek to hold mastery over others like a Machiavellian prince.

Locke’s thoughts on elections are available in his Second Treatise of Government, chapters 1, 2, 7, and 13 (especially section 154).


Jean-Jacques Rousseau presents himself as a critic of Locke and of Locke’s proposed bargain between the few and the many. In his On the Social Contract, one finds a famous protest against “free” elections: “The English people thinks it is free. It greatly deceives itself; it is free only during the election of members of Parliament. As soon as they are elected, it is a slave; it is nothing.”

Rousseau says the people needs to think of itself not merely as a collection of particular wills, as Locke has it, but as a community with a general will. The modern man that Locke created has a split personality between his public character, when he votes to elect the government, and his private life when he lives as a “slave” under the laws that not he, but rather his representatives, have made. Freedom requires laws that restrict freedom, it is true, but Rousseau insists that these laws be created by the people who live under them, not by others acting in their name.

The use of elections is, for Rousseau, not the exercise of freedom but the surrender of freedom; elections stand for the democratic abdication of democracy. The people must make their own laws, acting under the general will that unites them and creates them as a people. When they live under laws made by others they become slaves to their particular wills, the particular necessities they believe they face.

In this way, Rousseau can be said to overcome the objection of Aristotle that an election is inherently aristocratic. Election becomes democratic when it extends to making the laws that one lives under. In that case one is not obeying an outside force but freely obeying oneself. Locke had thought this to be true of representative government, but Rousseau claims that one cannot be free after giving or transferring sovereignty to someone else.

This is a mere sliver of Rousseau’s political philosophy, taken out of the context of the whole, which shows better how to judge the import of his criticism of Locke. Clearly he proposes a model for a small, homogeneous, virtuous state that is perhaps impossible to achieve and which has rarely or never existed. It would have to have a legislator of “superior intelligence” to found it, Rousseau argues, particularly to establish the mores, the laws of the heart, that dispose men to live freely together. The legislator would have to feel that he is “capable of changing human nature, so to speak.”

Moreover, there would have to be a government to execute the laws made by the people, one with an aristocracy of merit and virtue sufficient to perform that function with both competence and fidelity. Pure democracy undiluted by representatives and elections is the requirement for the legitimacy of republican government, but a democratic government (understood as the executive of the general will) is suited only to “a people of gods.”

Rousseau has no direct influence on politics now; the Jacobins cited him in the French Revolution, but no party today claims him as its founder or forebear. He inspired a variety of movements, from conservative romanticism to radical socialism and anarchism, and is read today principally for his criticism of bourgeois liberalism.

It’s quite likely that as long as liberalism lasts, it will be taunted by critics or opponents who agree with Rousseau that it lacks both personal authenticity and community spirit. They will say, not altogether wrongly, that elections are a sellout of freedom and justice in which the people give over their government rather than exercise it.

Rousseau’s criticism of elections is mainly in his On the Social Contract, book I, chapter 6; book II, chapters 7 and 12; and book III, chapters 1, 4, 5, and 15.


The Federalist, authored by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, published under the name of Publius, was written to advocate the ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1787–88. It is not a work of political philosophy, but it shows the influence of political philosophy in the thinking of the American founders.

As against Rousseau and the opposing party of the Anti-Federalists, it argues in favor of a large republic with a diverse population inspired by the spirit of individual liberty (though not indifferent to virtue). It endorses the Lockean principle of representative government, together with the institution of periodic elections to hold that government accountable to the people. But it differs from Locke by insisting that the government be “wholly popular” in that every branch of it be derived from the people, either by election (Congress and the presidency) or through appointment by elected officials (the judiciary).

Moreover, The Federalist, while assuming that Americans are republican in spirit, lays particular stress on the defects of republican government. Having chosen a form of government, one must be attentive to its problems rather than merely vaunt its advantages. The main problem in republican government does not arise from the attempts of the few to usurp popular government but misrule by the people themselves; this is the problem of majority faction.

The people may be carried by sudden bursts of passion away from sound government into the violation of the rights of minorities and actions against the interest of the whole. This problem cannot be cured entirely by making the government responsible to the people through elections, however, because it is just in elections that their passions may take hold of them. So what is needed in addition to elections are auxiliary precautions, as Madison calls them. These are to form the government so as to make it difficult to compose a majority and to ensure that a majority, once made, will be extensive rather than concentrated—and hence more likely to be moderate.

Having chosen a form of government—the republican form—the American founders realized that one must pay attention to its problems, not just its advantages.

Two forms besides elections are used in the Constitution to counter majority faction: the separation of powers and the creation of a system of federalism where the state and federal governments share, and to some extent compete, in the government. If we return to the distinction between the few and the many, one sees that by these formal institutions, the few are divided into rival groups competing against one another for the people’s favor—the two systems of state and federal government and the three branches within each system.

“Let ambition counteract ambition” is Madison’s succinct statement of the principle at work in the Constitution. The bane of republican government throughout its history had been demagoguery, the incitement of the many against their own interest or against the few by a single clever speaker.

The Federalist, with its auxiliary precautions, offers a remedy against demagogues that uses the few—perhaps other demagogues—to curtail them. They thus act one against the ambition of the other and, as a whole, on behalf of the true interest of the many. This is also a remedy for the inadequacy of elections.

Federalist 10 and 51 are the most famous papers in the collection, but one should be aware that the whole book is a treasury of wisdom for those who wish to understand American politics.


Last, we must not pass over Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, which contains a host of valuable reflections on democratic elections, positive and negative. For Tocqueville, writing in 1835, democracy in America had become an accomplished fact.

He is a philosopher, but a modest one who reasons to the “image” of democracy from its actual existence in America rather than working from an imaginary ideal. He does not try to distinguish a democracy from a republic, as does Madison in Federalist 10, and he does not think that the sovereignty of the people can be set in the background of politics so that it does not intervene. In a democracy the people will have its way, Tocqueville says, despite the forms of auxiliary precautions that The Federalist sets against its direct rule.

Democratic elections will install democratic officials, many of whom Tocqueville does not hesitate to describe as “vulgar men.” Elections are the typical method through which democratic public opinion, that of the mediocre mass, holds sway. The American founders were a temporary aristocracy that America was very fortunate to have at its origin, when making its Constitution, but that is not the type that the Constitution actually puts in power. More typical of democratic America is Andrew Jackson, the president when Tocqueville was writing his book, of whom he thought little.

On the other hand, one must consider elections in the light of the danger in democracy that Tocqueville most feared. This was the menace of democratic despotism from the “immense being” of a centralized government to which the people might resign their political freedom in exchange for benefits and security.

For Tocqueville, political freedom is best shown and best preserved in elections, particularly local elections. Such elections multiply the occasions for citizens to act together, depending on one another instead of a central administration that acts for them. The election of a local official is a democratic procedure that secures the independence of that official vis-à-vis the central power, analogous to a local noble in a monarchy who, by his hereditary right, has a certain independence from the king.

Tocqueville sees presidential contests putting voters into a feverish state, a crisis of intrigues and agitation. But when “fortune has pronounced,” ardor subsides like a river returning to its bed.

Here, and in general, Tocqueville likes to contrast democracy with aristocracy, and sometimes he uncovers hidden similarities between democratic practices and their aristocratic counterparts. On the whole, he believes that government of the many is distinct from government of the few, and yet, as we have seen with the other modern philosophers, the few are there behind the scenes, acting behind the cover of the many, present in fact and absent in name. Contrary to Rousseau, for Tocqueville elections are not the mere surrender of freedom; they are the prime expression of the crucial freedom, political freedom. Elections, as it were, tend to ensure that democratic monarchy, instead of being assisted and promoted by democratic bureaucracy, is checked by democratic aristocracy.

The number and frequency of elections enliven the nation, keeping it alert and awake rather than passive and inert under the soothing providence of the state. The expression of public spirit enhances rather than overrides the activity of private interest: “It is not the elected magistrate that makes American democracy prosper; but it prospers because the magistrate is elective.”

Tocqueville speaks at some length (and depth) on presidential elections. When they come, they capture the attention of the whole nation, which falls into a feverish state and suffers through a crisis of intrigues and agitation. But when the election is done, and “fortune has pronounced,” the ardor subsides, like a river returning peacefully to its bed after the storm is over. An election is a choice, but in democracies, a choice often made in consequence of some chance circumstance or event. We like to think we govern ourselves, Tocqueville seems to say, but to some extent we are deluded.

Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is a book no educated American should leave unread. The passages referred to are in 1.1.8 (volume 1, book 1, chapter 8), 1.2.5, 2.2.4, and 2.4.7.

Harvey C. Mansfield is the Carol G. Simon Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Government at Harvard University, where he studies and teaches political philosophy.

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