Montana Viewpoint: Nation’s framers added “saucering effect” to Constitution

Jim Elliott

An article in the October 2018 Atlantic (“Is Democracy Dying?”) points out that one of the checks and balances the creators of the Constitution employed was the use of time.

The writers of the Constitution were highly educated men for whom the importance of rational thought was paramount. They feared that the irrationality that is born of inflamed passions of an aroused public would be the chief danger to the nation’s success, and so they developed a document that would require a slow, deliberate process to prevent the easy passage of laws hastily written in an emotional reaction to some event or condition.

The Senate was created in a master stroke of compromise to placate the worries of the less populated states, giving all states equal power in that body. But the Senate was also seen as a way to slow down what might be called the impetuosity of the House.

Allegedly, when Jefferson, who had been representing the nation in France while the Constitution was written, asked Washington why we needed a Senate. Washington compared it to the practice of “saucering” tea, which was the act of pouring the hot tea from the cup into the saucer and drinking it from there. It was done to cool the tea, and that was the same reason for the Senate – to let ideas from the House cool off by requiring time in the process for reflection. The House, being the governing body closest to the people (the Senators were then elected by state legislators) would be more apt to reflect the passions of the electorate, sometimes with good results, sometimes not.

Shortly before the constitutional convention, while Jefferson was in France, he sent James Madison two trunks full of books on ancient failed governments such as the city states of Greece. Many of them were direct democracies with an assembly of all citizens arguing issues and making decisions about the way that they would be governed.

Madison felt that it was this direct democracy that led to the downfall of those governments because of the ability of silver-tongued demagogues to work up the citizens, causing them to make bad decisions. For that reason, we have a representative democracy wherein the voters elect the legislators and the legislators make the decisions.

There is a quote by one of the framers that keeps floating around in my mind, but I can’t remember who said it. It went something like; “We are writing a document to work not only in our time, but also in a future time that we cannot possibly imagine.” One of the things that they could not imagine was the increasing rapidity with which information was to be relayed. From newspapers mailed to outlying areas to telegraph to radio, television, and finally, the Internet – Americans received information instantly, often information that was incorrect. That information – true and false – now comes so rapidly that there is no time allowed to think about it.

Early newspapers were sometimes little more than political platforms, but over time news began to be filtered through professional newsmen and women who at least attempted to verify that what they were printing was accurate. Most of them still do that and save their opinions for the editorial page.

But there is no filter on the internet – no saucer to cool things down. It is reminiscent of Orson Welles’ 1938 Halloween broadcast of a radio play called “War of The Worlds,” wherein Martians had landed on Earth. People believed it was true and there was panic in the streets until the hoax was admitted.

When news traveled more slowly, there was time to discuss it and consider what it meant because it took some time for the next installment to arrive. Now, the next installment is instantaneous, and anyone can start a virtual “news” site. Comments by anonymous people are taken as fact and reinforced by the next person who posts a comment and passions are aroused to fever pitch. Our emotions are excited by unknown persons, and often lead to poor decisions because the issue is not thoroughly thought out.

So, next time you find yourself wrought up about some controversial issue, take a break from the Internet and have a good, hot cup of tea. And don’t forget to saucer it!

Jim Elliott served sixteen years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. Montana Viewpoint appears online at missoulacurrent.com and in weekly papers across Montana.