05/02/2008 12:32 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

It Wasn't About Democracy, Stupid!

All this talk about bitter, rural voters getting their guns takes me back to another moment in America when the farmers were raising less corn and more Hell. It was in the harsh winter of 1787, a few years after the Revolution, and the newly minted nation was gripped by crisis. The grand design of Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson had one wheel in the ditch. Then, as now, it was, "the economy, stupid."

Poor harvests, a chaotic currency system and tax inequities favoring the wealthiest -- what a shocker! -- combined for an 18th-century "mortgage meltdown." Without hard cash, farmers and tradesmen faced foreclosures and debtor's prison, threatened with the loss of their homes and freedom.

Freedom was not a word they took lightly. These were the men who had grabbed their guns after the battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775. They fired those guns at Bunker Hill, shocked the British at Saratoga, and froze in Valley Forge. They helped win the war that made a nation.

Now they were going to war again. Only this time, they weren't "patriots," but "insurgents," and their rebellion would be named for its reluctant leader, a 40-year old farmer named Daniel Shays. A battle-tested veteran of Bunker Hill, Shays had had been forced to sell the ceremonial sword presented to him by the Marquis de Lafayette following the battle at Saratoga, to pay some debts. Now Shays led hundreds of men against the federal arsenal in Springfield, Massachusetts, hoping to seize weapons there and march on to Boston.

The Revolutionary old guard was incredulous. George Washington asked a New England friend, "Have your people gone mad?" Aging firebrand Samuel Adams wanted the rebels flogged. Then a militia army, funded by Boston's powerbrokers, beat the insurgents to the armory. A few men died; the insurrection fizzled.

But what happened next stood the world on its head. Sensing the danger of more rebellion, the founders took the lead and called for a gathering in Philadelphia in May 1787. Washington could have used the post-revolution havoc, as Napoleon would, to seize power. Instead, he quietly presided over the secret debates, which created the Constitution.

But here's the clincher that your civics books left out. Those debates were not driven by high-minded principles and a passion for democracy. The prevailing fear of more mobs really fueled the arguments. Democracy might have seemed like a good thing. But to many of the Constitution's Framers, you could get too much of a good thing. To them, democracy -- power to the people -- was one short step from "mob-ocracy."

That angst was most pronounced in the discussion of how to pick a President. Fearing direct elections, they settled on "electors," delegates selected by the states, who would then choose the President - a brake on an excess of democracy only later called the "Electoral College." Sounds just like an 18th-century version of "super delegates" -- wiser heads who would keep the unwashed masses from unwise choices.

That compromise was the brainchild of the most important Framer that most people don't know -- James Wilson. During the Revolution, Wilson had gotten an unpleasant taste of just how far angry, hungry Americans might go. He was once attacked in his Philadelphia home, along with other members of the city's upper crust, by an armed mob enraged by high grain prices and hoarding by Philadelphia's merchants.

Foreclosures. Excessive food costs. Price-gouging. Bankruptcy. Once upon a time, it was the recipe that spurred a new government of "We, the People."
Today, the concerns of so-called "bitter, small town" Americans are reduced to a campaign football and talking points in the vapid 24-hour spin cycle.

It seems to me, that if John Adams were looking at the modern political landscape, he might have said once more, with complete assurance, "We have not men fit for the times."

Kenneth C. Davis is the author of America"s Hidden History: Untold Tales of the First Pilgrims, Fighting Women, and Forgotten Founders Who Shaped a Nation. (Smithsonian Books). He is also the author of Don"t Know Much About History: Everything You Need to Know About American History but Never Learned (Harper).