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The Founders and the Question of Representative Government

What does it mean for a government to be truly representative? Professor Keith Whittington discusses the Founders' experience with Parliament, which claimed to represent the interests of the colonists. When the Founders designed their own legislature, they wanted it to be more accountable to the people and attuned to the needs of the local communities it governed. https://youtube.com/watch?v=DO0J3fYdieI


Part of the argument over whether or not a parliament could tax the colonists is this claim of does Parliament adequately represent the interest of the colonists? The colonists are not voting for anyone in the English Parliament. No one in the English Parliament directly represents the American colonists, but nonetheless, the Parliament claims that it virtually represents the American colonists just like it virtually represents various other constituencies in England itself. And part of what that leads the Americans to do, that claim that Parliament can virtually represent Americans, is really to think more carefully about the nature of elections, the nature of representation, the nature of accountability. Part of the argument they develop is that a representative assembly, a legislature that claims to represent your interest and legislate on the basis of it, has to be accountable to you so that you can ensure that they actually pay attention to your interests, that they know what your interests are and are trying to fight for it. And if you can't control the members of that legislature through elections, then eventually that legislature, no matter how much lip service they may pay to representing your interests, will not in fact represent your interests very well. And that's a revolutionary idea about how representative assemblies ought to work and it leads to a modification of what the English system looks like as they're trying to design their own legislatures after the American revolution, both at the state level, ultimately at the federal level as well. Part of their concern is that these representative institutions have to actually represent people. Those representatives have to actually be accountable to the people. The people will have to be able to vote for them so that their interests are going to be adequately reflected in those legislatures. And they see that as ultimately crucial. Not only make sure that their interests in terms of policymaking is being adequately represented, but also that their liberties are going to be adequately protected. That you want to hold legislators accountable so that they will look out for the people's interest, including protecting the people's liberties. They will not become oppressive if the people will feel it if a government becomes oppressive and if they can hold the government accountable, the hope is then they can nip that kind of oppression in the bud and turn the government in a more free direction. So trying to modify exactly how these political institutions are going to work in order to better secure liberty than what they had experienced in the colonial system, and what they increasingly thought was true about the way the English system operated more generally became crucial for them in trying to innovate and design what they thought would be a better constitutional system that would better secure the kinds of liberties they'd been promised, the kinds of liberties the Englishmen had been fighting for, but they thought had not been adequately guaranteed within the English system more generally.

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