That opportunity was not exclusive to the people of New York. The document drafted by the Constitutional Convention was submitted not to the Continental Congress and the state legislatures as the Convention had been instructed to do, but to “a Convention of Delegates, chosen in each State by the People thereof.” The understanding was that the Constitution would enjoy legitimacy only if the people themselves supported, that is, chose it. And that choice would be legitimate only if it was reasoned, only if it was realized through genuine reflection.
The deliberative spirit was not universal. Rhode Island refused to call a ratifying convention and instead held a popular referendum on the matter. By a vote of 2,711 to 243, the Constitution was rejected. In Pennsylvania, unwilling legislators were dragged to the State House to provide the quorum needed to call the ratifying convention. But these instances were exceptions. In conventions across the states, delegates met to discuss the proposed Constitution, article by article, section by section. Debates were protracted and oftentimes acrimonious, but the virtues of the deliberative approach were undisputed. The Constitution’s proponents and opponents alike understood that human judgment was fallible, but corrigible, and that the surest way to determine the verity of an argument was through collective deliberation.
The sentiment expressed by John Jay at the New York convention was one that would have been shared by many of his compatriots:
We did not come here to carry points. If the gentlemen will convince me I am wrong, I will submit. I mean to give my ideas frankly upon the subject. If my reasoning is not good, let them show me the folly of it. It is from this reciprocal interchange of ideas that the truth must come out.
This deliberative spirit did not arise spontaneously out of the constitutional moment, but was woven into the fabric of American civil society, most notably in the township governments that so captivated Alexis de Tocqueville. It not only preceded the convention debates, but survived them as well, a phenomenon the young Frenchman readily descried.
What one understands by republic in the United State is the slow and tranquil action of society on itself. It is a regular state really founded on the enlightened will of the people. It is a conciliating government, in which resolutions ripen for a long time, are discussed slowly, -and executed only when mature.
Tocqueville was no idealist. Even if this portrayal was embellished, its basis in reality was plain. No one who applied this picture to America today could contend the same.
In the present context, it would be unreasonable to count the 2012 election as a watershed moment. The deliberative spirit in American democracy has been ebbing for some time. Nor would it be judicious to ascribe to Obama more responsibility than he actually merits. His triumph was the effect of a system already in decline, not the cause of that decline. Moreover, one cannot overlook the other parties whose participation, or non-participation, made such a denouement possible, namely a sycophantic media and an uninformed citizenry.
But the recent election should serve as a dim reminder of what the state of democracy in America is today: when leaders are eager to obviate debate, the press is bent on skewing it, and the people are happier not to have it, there is little hope to be gleaned in the future of American democracy.