On the True Nature of Representative Democracy

Today I had the privilege of watching our state government in action, as a part of my Leadership Putnam class. It was fascinating and exciting; if we could live multiple lives, I would certainly want one of them to be as a statesman. They gave me a copy of the Tennessee Blue Book, a comprehensive guidebook to our state government, history, trivia, etc. If you’d like a copy and live in Cookeville, call Representative Henry Fincher’s office (I’m sure you can google his number), and they should be able to get one for you.

Watching our representatives and senators at work reminded me of this great quote from James Henley Thornwell, a 19th century southern Presbyterian theologian: “[The excellence of the principle of representation] consists in the probability it furnishes that reason only shall sway. The danger of democracy is from the passions and ignorance of the people; the danger of monarchy from the caprices, the tyranny, and the ambition of the king; and the danger of an oligarchy, from the selfishness incident to privileged orders. Reason, whose voice is the will of God, is much more likely to prevail in a deliberative assembly constituted of real representatives of the people. It is a great mistake to suppose that the end of government is to accomplish the will of the people. The state is a divine ordinance, a social institute founded on the principles of justice. It has great moral purposes to subserve. The will of the people should be done only when the people will what is right. The representative principle is a check upon their power, an expedient to restrain what would otherwise be an intolerable despotism. There is no misapprehension more dangerous than that which confounds representative government with the essential principle of pure democracy. It is not because the whole people cannot meet, but because they ought not to meet, that the representative council, in modern times, is preferred to the ancient convocations in the forum or the market-place. Power has a natural tendency to settle into despotism; and the legitimate ends of the state may be as completely defeated by the absolute power of the people as by the absolute power of a single ruler. Absolute power is tyranny, whether in the hands of large masses, or privileged orders, or of single individuals.”

We live in a day when representatives think they need to “do what’s best for their district,” “bring home the bacon.” Thornwell reminds us that representatives need to recall their constituents’ circumstances, but see themselves as representatives of the whole state/nation collectively. What’s best for the state as a whole in light of the role government has been ordained by God to serve? That’s the question a statesman asks, not merely, What’s best for my district? I could never be elected, because I would make no promises of bringing home any bacon. It’s moot anyway, since our state constitution prohibits pastors and atheists from being elected as representatives or Senators: “Whereas ministers of the Gospel are by their profession, dedicated to God and the care of souls, and ought not to be diverted from the great duties of their functions; therefore, no minster of the Gospel, or priest of any denomination whatever, shall be eligible to a seat in either House of the Legislature” (Article IX, Section 1).

The Farmer


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Mom on March 18, 2010 at 9:42 pm

    You would make an honorable statesman and public servant and I, too, wish you could have multiple lives for that very reason….and not just because I am
    your loving mother


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