This was first posted in 2014, when J. Rufus Gifford was ambassador.

By J. Rufus Gifford, fmr. Ambassador of the United States to the Kingdom of Denmark

I come from Boston, Massachusetts, and I grew up close to places central to America’s independence.  When the organizers of the Aqago project asked me to comment on what democracy means to Americans, my first thought was of school lessons about the American Revolution and the people we often call our “founding fathers” — those who won our freedom and created our system of government.  Every American remembers reading as a school child the opening passages of two key documents penned by these inspired leaders capturing the central ideas of our democracy: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

We are taught how the colonists arrived from Europe with a spirit of freedom, self-reliance, equality, and justice; ideas from the great thinkers of the Enlightenment apparent in the Declaration of Independence’s second sentence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  The colonists fought for independence in pursuit of these truths, and Americans often invoke this phrase whenever we need to remind ourselves of the ideals underpinning our nation.

As the early Americans struggled to form a working government, they drafted what has survived to become the oldest written national Constitution in use in the world, beginning with another phrase familiar to American students that describes exactly what we hope our democracy will achieve: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

For most Americans, I think just the first few words of both these passages — “We the People” and “We hold these truths”— inspire a democratic sense of belonging to a cause that is larger than all of us.  And yet the word ‘democracy’ does not appear in either passage.  In fact, ‘democracy’ does not show up anywhere in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution.

It turns out our founding fathers were actually quite skeptical of pure democratic rule, fearing it could lead to disorder and the tyranny of the majority.  So they formed a representative republic, creating checks and balances between the branches of the government to protect the minority by preventing unlimited power from falling into the hands of any one group.  This sense of a good greater than the simple wishes of the majority was what made the new American experiment truly unique.   

Many historians think that part of the inspiration for these concepts came from some of the indigenous people of North America, who have been practicing a form of participatory democracy for over 500 years.  In northeastern North America, there is a group of cultures that at the time of America’s independence was known by the French as the “Iroquois Confederacy,” by the English as “the Six Nations,” and who called themselves “Haudenasuaunee” or “people building a long house.”  They include the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas, and Tuscaroras.  Their governing principles, contained in the Haudenasuaunee’s “Great Law of Peace,” include division of power between the confederacy and the member nations, three branches of government, and many other concepts familiar to students of the Constitution.  

Iroquois leaders offered up the Great Law of Peace as a model for America’s new government, and Benjamin Franklin and others were intrigued.  Franklin invited Iroquois leaders to address the Albany Congress, a precursor to the Continental Congress, and he became a proponent of including Great Law principles in the U.S. Constitution.     

The Great Law is filled with references to what we would call the public good.  It directs the nations to “labor, legislate and council together for the interest of future generations” and calls on the minds of the leaders to be “filled with a yearning for the welfare of the people of the Confederacy.”  It also provides for the removal of a chief who disregards the welfare of the people.  The idea that government’s overriding concern should be the needs of the citizens was central to the Haudenasuaunee and took form in the Constitutional principle “to promote the General Welfare.”  

But with this government dedication to the common good comes the responsibility of the citizen to hold the government to that standard.  Our democracy is aspirational, and every individual is part of the struggle for that “more perfect Union.”  A strong government will only survive with active citizens who work together for the greater benefit of all.  As I have told many audiences, we can disagree on how to address the issues facing our countries, but what is essential is that we each care about something – even one thing – that inspires us to become involved.  Participation is the life-blood of democracy, apathy its antithesis.  Therefore getting people to care, hearing their concerns, answering their questions, and conversing with them about what matters to them and what we should do to create a better future is absolutely essential for democracy to thrive.

I was reminded of this as I watched Greenland, home to another great indigenous people of North America, exercising its democracy with elections this past November.  It made me think of a quote that I keep hanging on the wall of my office.  It’s an excerpt from President Barack Obama’s first inaugural address: “What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility - a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.  This is the price and the promise of citizenship.”