We can’t read the newspaper or watch the news these days without hearing about the desperate struggle of Egyptian people to get a government that will rule democratically. Americans are inclined to be a little smug about the way we set about separating from England and establishing our own democracy. After all, we had those enlightened gentlemen in elegant clothes sitting decorously at a table and writing a document that would stand for centuries as the cornerstone of a stable democracy.
A closer look back at our revolutionary leaders gives us a better grasp of reality. I’ve been reading a biography of Mercy Otis Warren, who, like her good friend Abigail Adams, influenced many of the men who fought in the Revolution. Mercy and John Warren’s home became a meeting place for leaders who organized the Boston Tea Party and fought for the rights of the colonies to organize their own governments. Even though women were not encouraged to participate in public life, Mercy Warren began writing pamphlets and satirical verses and dramas that supported the Revolutionary cause.
At leisure then may G[eor]ge his reign review,
And bid to empire and to crown adieu.
For lordly mandates and despotic kings
Are obsolete like other quondam things. (1775)
The years following the Revolution brought little peace to Mercy Warren and her husband as they disagreed with many of the decisions of the Federalists who controlled the government. James Warren, who had been a leading figure in the war for independence, was shut out of government service and his sons struggled to find posts.
When a new constitution was drafted and presented to the states, Mercy Warren opposed its ratification. She wrote a pamphlet “Observations on the New Constitution…” in which she urged the states to reject the draft. One of her major objections was the lack of a bill of rights “There is no provision by a bill of rights to guard against the dangerous encroachments of power” she wrote. She was also concerned about the six-year terms given to senators. “A Senate chosen for six years will, in most instances, be an appointment for life…” (Well, she was right about that, wasn’t she? Many Senate terms have lasted for a generation or more.) She worried that there were no defined limits to judiciary powers and that the executive and legislative branches were dangerously blended together. The Constitution certainly did not seem a sacred document to her.
As we all know, the Constitution was ratified and has become the basis of American law. Some of Mercy Warren’s concerns were addressed very early. The passage of the Bill of Rights can be attributed in part to her demands. Other aspects of government continue to be addressed such as the power struggle between the Legislative and Executive branches. But the Constitution survives and so does the country.
Reading about the early struggles for democracy in America can give us some hope for the several countries around the world that today are moving down the same path. Perhaps they too will eventually find a way of building a democracy. Revolution is never easy, and it never solves all of a society’s problems, but we can’t give up hope that eventually most citizens will join together to build a livable country.
If you want to read more about Mercy Otis Warren, there is information about her in Cokie Roberts’s book Founding Mothers. For a complete biography, I highly recommend Muse of the Revolution: the Secret Pen of Mercy Otis Warren by Nancy Rubin Stuart.