Chris Christie Endorses the Popular Tyranny Founding Fathers Feared

Last updated on February 8th, 2013 at 12:17 pm

Republicans have proven they will do anything they can to deprive those of whom they don’t approve of their civil rights. The list is along one, and includes atheists (whom even the relatively moderate President Bush Sr. didn’t consider American citizens), Muslims, gays and lesbians, Pagans, women in general but especially the uppity feminist type who don’t know their place (in other words, refuse to say “thank you” when raped), and of course, all those icky brown-skinned people who keep their lawns and are sometimes kept as indentured servants.

There are various ways of keeping these undesirables in their place. We’ve seen the methods of blunt-force trauma exercised in the case of the Occupy movement. That rabble should be included in the above list; they fail to say thank you when economically raped. Who do they think they are? But there are other methods, including voting disenfranchisement (an ever popular one in Republican circles), and there is also the referendum, a method growing in popularity, behind which lies the idea that we can simply vote on who has rights and who doesn’t (California Proposition 8 is a prominent example of this tactic put to use). This last method is the one appealed to by Governor Chris Christie recently.

It is also one that terrified the breeches off the Founding Fathers, who were well versed in ancient Greek history: popular tyranny. The Founding Fathers discovered, rather to their surprise, that a legislature down the street can as easily deprive a person of their rights as a king three thousand miles away. De Tocqueville observed this, writing that “ in the United States the majority…frequently displays the tastes and the propensities of a despot.”[1] Or, as Jefferson put it in 1785, “173 despots would surely be as oppressive as one.”[2]

On Tuesday, Christie came down on the side of popular tyranny, referencing a proposal to put Marriage Equality on the ballot in November instead of dealing with it via the legislative process. His problem? The legislative process is going to have, as it often does, the correct result: The same-sex marriage bill he opposes, the Marriage Equality and Religious Exemption Act, is expected to be passed by the state legislature (he has promised to veto it). He figures he will have better luck getting his way by appealing to a majority popular vote. He even tried to justify this idea by an appeal to civil rights history and of course, as Republicans so often do, got it all wrong:

“The fact of the matter is, I think people would have been happy to have a referendum on civil rights rather than fighting and dying in the streets in the South.”

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If Republicans are “careless” with historical facts, Democrats are not. As the sponsor of the bill Christie opposes said in response, history has demonstrated that, on the contrary, civil rights are usually achieved through legislation. And assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) said Christie needed a “history lesson.” Of course, which Republican doesn’t?

Oliver said:

“Governor — people were fighting and dying in the streets of the South for a reason. They were fighting and dying in the streets of the South because the majority refused to grant minorities equal rights by any method. It took legislative action to bring justice to all Americans, just as legislative action is the right way to bring marriage equality to all New Jerseyans.”

Christie, missing the point entirely, defended his position, saying,

“My point is, they’re trying to say the only way to deal with a civil rights issue is through legislation, and my point is that in a state like this, the fact of the matter is their own polling belies that position.”

Here is the point at which Christie needs to have some things explained to him. The idea that a majority can simply vote away the rights of a minority group – any minority, be it religious, ethnic, or otherwise – stands against the very premise of the U.S. Constitution, that all of us are equal before the law and that our rights are protected.

To simply vote away the rights of a group you don’t approve of is about as un-American as you can possibly get. Obviously, the majority will always be able to deprive the minority of rights, taking away rights previously possessed, refusing to grant rights never held.

This brings us back to the Founding Fathers. As Gordon S. Wood has noted of early American democracy, “Americans became so thoroughly democratic that much of the period’s political activity, beginning with the Constitution, was devoted to finding means and devices to tame that democracy.” [3] James Madison was one of those who realized that the Constitution was the solution needed for the “excesses of democracy”[4] then being experienced, especially the injustices of the very same state legislation now being appealed to by Governor Christie.

Madison said that the abuses of state legislatures were “so frequent and so flagrant as to alarm the most stedfast friends of Republicanism” and told Jefferson they “contributed more to that uneasiness which produced the Convention, and prepared the public mind for a general reform than those which accrued to our national character and interest from the inadequacy of the Confederation to its immediate objects.”[5] In Madison’s words, a “spirit of locality” was destroying “the aggregate interests of the community”[6]:

The appointment of Senators by districts seems to be objectionable. A spirit of locality is inseparable from that mode. The evil is fully displayed in the County representations; the members of which are every where observed to lose sight of the aggregate interests of the Community, and even to sacrifice them to the interests or prejudices of their respective constituents.

Prejudices indeed. Madison observed that “these abuses of individual rights were backed by the bulk of the electorates in each state. In the 1770s,” Wood tells us, “the Revolutionaries had not conceived of the possibility of the people becoming tyrannical.”[7] John Adams had dismissed the idea as a  contradiction in terms. As Wood explains:

But by the 1780s many leaders had come to realize that the Revolution had unleashed social and political forces that they had not anticipated and that the ‘excesses of democracy’ threatened the very essence of their republican revolution. The behavior of the state legislatures, in the despairing words of Madison, had called ‘into question the fundamental principle of republican Government, that the majority who rule in such governments are the safest Guardians both of Public Good and private rights.’[8]

In Madison’s own words:

11. Injustice of the laws of States.

If the multiplicity and mutability of laws prove a want of wisdom, their injustice betrays a defect still more alarming: more alarming not merely because it is a greater evil in itself, but because it brings more into question the fundamental principle of republican Government, that the majority who rule in such Governments, are the safest Guardians both of public Good and of private rights. To what causes is this evil to be ascribed?[9]

Almost certainly Governor Christie doesn’t care what either James Madison or Thomas Jefferson thought. Few Republicans do.  He will no more be affected by a reminder than will his constituents because what we are seeing played out before us is not only a failure to learn from history but a continuing refusal by interests of locality to subordinate their wishes to the good of the whole, the whole being not only the United States but the American people in whom power is vested, an American people who have, by Constitutional guarantee, equal rights.


[1] Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Chapter 16.

[2] Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. William Peden (Chapel Hill, 1955), 120.

[3] Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (Oxford, 2009). See especially chapter 1.

[4] Madison Debates, May 31, 1787, in the words of Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, who did not sign because he opposed the document’s lack of a Bill of Rights. See Denise Kiernan and Joseph D’Agnese, Signing Their Rights Away: The Fame and Misfortune of the Men Who Signed the United States Constitution (Quirk Books, 2011), 242.

[5] Wood (2009).  James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, 24 October 1787, Papers of Jefferson, 12:276.

[7] Wood (2009)

[8] Wood (2009).

Hrafnkell Haraldsson, a social liberal with leanings toward centrist politics has degrees in history and philosophy. His interests include, besides history and philosophy, human rights issues, freedom of choice, religion, and the precarious dichotomy of freedom of speech and intolerance. He brings a slightly different perspective to his writing, being that he is neither a follower of an Abrahamic faith nor an atheist but a polytheist, a modern-day Heathen who follows the customs and traditions of his Norse ancestors. He maintains his own blog, A Heathen's Day, which deals with Heathen and Pagan matters, and Mos Maiorum Foundation, dedicated to ethnic religion. He has also contributed to NewsJunkiePost, GodsOwnParty and Pagan+Politics.

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