What Did Our Founders Intend For Our Democracy? A reflection by Addie Greene, Ashland, Oregon

What the Founders Intended: Weathering the Greatest Constitutional Crisis Our Country Has Faced Since the Civil War.

For more than 230 years the United States has struggled with the issue of federal control versus states’ rights. In order to secure the agreement of Southern delegates to the Constitution, Northerners accepted Article I, Section 9, allowing the importation of slaves until 1808, and Article I, Section 2, counting slaves as 3/5 of a person, thus giving Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia 29 out of the 65 original members of the House of Representatives. Article IV, Section 2 forbids the harboring of escaped slaves. And Article V, which provides for amendment of the Constitution, prohibits amendment to Article I, Section 9 before 1808

Compromise was key to the Founders’ success. But compromise did not paper over the essential differences in attitude between them. Americans have struggled with these differences ever since.

Ratification by nine of the 13 original colonies was by no means a done deal. Proponents of “confederacies” of the northern, middle, and southern states made a strong case that regional similarities would bond them more tightly than a union of all 13 would.

To counteract this “confederacy” movement, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison wrote 85 essays, later called The Federalist Papers, directed to “The People of the State of New York” and printed in The Independent Journal and The New York Packet. They signed their essays “Publius,” a Roman given name used by the Emperor Hadrian and the poet Virgil and meaning “public.” If these three Federalists had not devoted seven months convincing New Yorkers to vote for union, we might not have a United States today—New York ratified the Constitution with only two votes to spare. What seems a given in 2017 was very much an issue in the balance in 1787-88.

“The principal purposes to be answered by union are these—the common defense of the members; the preservation of the public peace as well against internal convulsions as external attacks; the regulation of commerce with other nations and between the States; the superintendence of our intercourse, political and commercial, with foreign countries,” Hamilton summed up in Federalist No. 23.

Security from attack was the Federalists’ strongest argument in favor of union: The individual states, or proposed state “confederacies,” could be picked off by one of the stronger European powers, and dissension among the states could cause mayhem. America, after all, had no navy, and George Washington’s army became state militias following the end of the Revolutionary War.

As Hamilton pointed out in Federalist No. 7, “We have a vast tract of unsettled territory within the boundaries of the United States. There still are discordant and undecided claims between several of them, and the dissolution of the Union would lay a foundation for similar claims between them all.”

Indeed, the unsettled land west of the Appalachian Mountains all the way to the Mississippi River was deemed to belong to Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. The area north of the Ohio River later became the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota.

Tiny Delaware, larger only than Rhode Island, well understood this need for security and was the first state, on a unanimous vote on December 7, 1787, to ratify the Constitution. New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Connecticut followed. The Massachusetts delegation, torn, ratified with only 10 votes to spare in February of 1788. When Maryland and South Carolina followed  that spring, and New Hampshire in June, the union, with nine of 13 votes, was assured.

However, the Founders knew that the union would be imperiled if the important states of New York and Virginia did not join. Virginia was the first and largest colony, had the largest land area (before the splitting off of West Virginia in 1863), and in many ways was the heartland of the country. Virginia gave us four of our first six presidents. Although George Washington never joined the Federalist Party, he supported many of its policies, including Hamilton’s insistence that the federal government pay off all debts and establish a national bank. Madison also was a Federalist. Anti-Federalists Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe opposed the new Constitution, and it was only Washington’s enormous influence that convinced Virginia to ratify.

North Carolina, a bastion of Anti-Federalists, entered the union in November of 1789, and Rhode Island was the last of the 13 colonies to come on board in the spring of 1790. It may seem strange that Rhode Island, the smallest of the 13 (and now 50) states, would be the last to ratify rather than the first. But although the state may have had concerns about security, its primary driving force was its fierce adherence to religious freedom. The colony was founded by Roger Williams in 1636 after he fled Puritan Massachusetts, on pain of being imprisoned in England, for spreading “new and dangerous ideas” to his congregants. He was the founder of the First Baptist Church, was one of the first abolitionists, and is recognized as the first proponent of separation of church and state. It was because of this history that Rhode Islanders feared the power of the central state.

Supporting the New Nation

Hamilton’s next major concern was how to support the nascent democracy. The federal government and the states together owed a war debt of $80 million, the equivalent of more than $2.2 trillion today. By way of reference, total estimated revenue for fiscal 2016 is $3.2 trillion.

Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury, proposed repaying all of this debt. Otherwise, he said, the young country would have no credit and would not be able to borrow in the future. Congress agreed that the United States should repay the $12 million it owed to France, the Netherlands, and Spain. The $44 million the Continental Congress had borrowed from American citizens was a different matter. And Hamilton proposed that the remaining $24 million the states had borrowed from American citizens be absorbed by the federal government, which caused a violent dispute. That quarrel was not settled until the cohort led by Thomas Jefferson agreed to support the Assumption Bill only if the nation’s capital was moved to the banks of the Potomac River on land donated by Virginia and Maryland.


As learned and wise as the Founders were, they had no model for a democracy except ancient Athens, whose adult male citizens voted directly (as in the New England town hall). The Founders knew this was impractical: The largest states of Georgia, New York, and North Carolina alone contained three times the land area of all of Greece, let alone the polis of Athens. Direct democracy probably would have worked in tiny Rhode Island (1544 square miles) and Delaware (2488 square miles), but not in the 13 states as a whole. So the Founders proposed a republican democracy in which the citizens elected representatives to vote for them. Their only other source of design was the French philosophes Voltaire, Montesquieu, Diderot, and Rousseau, who learned from Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Isaac Newton, members of the English Enlightenment. Their ideas were just that—they had not been tried in real life. The English Parliament under George III had no teeth. It wasn’t until two years after the U.S. Constitution was born that France tried its own experiment in democracy, which began with high ideals but degenerated into the Terror four years later.

Hamilton, Jay, and Madison lived at a time when printed newspapers, magazines, and books were the only source of information other than word of mouth. As prescient as they were, they could not have anticipated the telegraph, the telephone, movies, radio, television, and the Internet. Within one generation the world has transformed itself into a planet of total connectedness. None of us, as individuals or as governments, has been prepared to deal with so swift a change. And it has allowed people with money and power to manipulate communications in a way the Founders could not have imagined.

According to Sue Halpern in the June 8 issue of the New York Review of Books, a company called Cambridge Analytica used Facebook data combined with information purchased from data-mining companies to profile the psychological makeup of every voter in the American electorate. The story was broken by the Swiss weekly Das Magazin’s reporters Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Krogerus and reprinted online in English by Vice. As Cambridge Analytica’s CEO Alexander Nix explained, up until 2016 election campaigns had been built upon demographics. “A really ridiculous idea,” Nix said in the summer of 2016 after being hired by the Donald Trump campaign. “The idea that all women should receive the same message because of their gender—or all African Americans because of their race.” What Nix meant is that Cambridge Analytica was using psychometrics rather than demographics.

“Anyone who has not spent the last five years living on another planet will be familiar with the term Big Data,” an online article in Motherboard declared. “Big Data means, in essence, that everything we do, both on and offline, leaves digital traces. Every purchase we make with our cards, every search we type into Google, every movement we make when our mobile phone is in our pocket, every ‘like’ is stored.”

How It Started

Back in 2008, Michael Kosinski was admitted to Cambridge University’s Psychometrics Center. He and fellow graduate student David Stillwell used a Facebook MyPersonality app enabling users to fill out psychometric questionnaires from the “Big Five.” These are: openness (how open you are to new experiences?), conscientiousness (how much of a perfectionist are you?), extroversion (how sociable are you?), agreeableness (how considerate and cooperative are you?) and neuroticism (are you easily upset?), an acronym known as OCEAN. Kosinski and Stillwell expected only a handful of friends to respond, but before long millions of people had filled in the questionnaire. The two graduate students found themselves in possession of the largest dataset combining psychometric scores with Facebook profiles ever collected.

“Kosinski and his team tirelessly refined their models,” Motherboard explained. “In 2012, Kosinski proved that on the basis of an average of 68 Facebook “likes” by a user, it was possible to predict their skin color (with 95 percent accuracy), their sexual orientation (88 percent accuracy), and their affiliation to the Democratic or Republican party (85 percent).” With 300 “likes,” Kosinski knew as much about a person as that person’s partner.

In 2014 Kosinski was approached by a representative of Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL) with the offer of a large amount of money in exchange for Kosinski’s data-mining techniques. (Cambridge Analytica is part of the SCL corporate structure.) After investigating, and finding SCL was involved in tampering with elections, Kosinski declined. “He began to add warnings to most of his scientific work,” Motherboard said. “His approach, he warned, ‘could pose a threat to an individual’s well-being, freedom, or even life.’ But no one seemed to grasp what he meant.”

“Not only can psychological profiles be created from your data,” Motherboard explained,  “but your data can also be used the other way round to search for specific profiles: all anxious fathers, all angry introverts, for example—or maybe even all undecided Democrats? Essentially, what Kosinski had invented was sort of a people search engine.”

According to CEO Nix, Cambridge Analytica’s marketing is based on a combination of three elements: behavioral science using the OCEAN Model, Big Data analysis, and ad targeting. Ad targeting is personalized advertising, aligned as accurately as possible to the personality of an individual consumer. It was instrumental in the Brexit campaign, supporting Nigel Farage’s Leave.EU.

Cambridge Analytica became involved in the U.S. election, according to Motherboard, initially as a consultant for Ben Carson and Ted Cruz, later switching to aid Donald Trump when his two adversaries dropped out of the campaign. Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, who reportedly gave the Trump campaign $25 million, are said to be the largest investors in Cambridge Analytica. Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, serves on the company’s board.

Cambridge Analytica divided the US population into 32 personality types, and focused on just 17 states, according to Motherboard. The company discovered that potential Trump voters preferred U.S.-made cars. Findings like this showed the Trump campaign which messages worked best and where. The decision to focus on Michigan and Wisconsin in the final weeks of the campaign was made on the basis of data analysis.

So where does this leave us? “Of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants,” Hamilton warned in Federalist No. 1. We should heed his warning and

  • Protect the right of all registered voters to exercise that right
  • Secure all polling places in all 435 Congressional districts from outside interference
  • Fight all gerrymandering, no matter which group benefits
  • Restrict campaign donations to $2500 and outlaw donations from corporations
  • Create laws governing the use of Big Data in elections

Fortunately for us, the Founders were wise and good men who crafted a Declaration of Independence and a Constitution that have withstood the weathering of 230 years. We must build on that foundation, using the tools the modern world has given us, to help us weather the greatest constitutional crisis our country has faced since the Civil War.

Addie Greene

Ashland, Oregon