What does this quote by John Jay mean?
May 6, 2020 5:15 PM   Subscribe

John Jay was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, and I am wondering what does this quote mean and how can it be put into context for democracy today?

“The wise and the good never form the majority of any large society, and it seldom happens that their measures are uniformly adopted; or that they can always prevent being overborne themselves by the strong and almost never-ceasing union of the wicked and the weak.”
posted by RearWindow to Law & Government (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
It's basically a florid restatement of the idea of Original Sin.

Or, to wit: motherfuckers gonna fuck they mothers.
posted by notsnot at 5:20 PM on May 6 [3 favorites]

In any large society, people who are wise and good are always in the minority. The good and wise people usually can't convince everyone to adopt the policies they want. People who are wicked and people who are weak are almost always on the same side, working against the good and wise people, and they often have more influence on society.
posted by Redstart at 5:31 PM on May 6 [13 favorites]

I don't see Original Sin in that quote. More like "wise/good people are rare and seldom listened to because they are overridden by the wicked/weak." It's a reference to the tyranny of the majority.

Unsure when he wrote this, but John Jay was the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, so I imagine he was pretty interested in the Court's role in checks and balances against a politically motivated Executive and Legislature.
posted by basalganglia at 5:31 PM on May 6 [11 favorites]

One way to understand it and put it into context is to note that when City College (now City University) of New York chose a name for its criminal justice department, they named it after John Jay.

Let's just say he wasn't one of the more Utopian Founding Fathers.
posted by jamjam at 5:35 PM on May 6 [2 favorites]

As for the implications for democracy today, I would take it to be a combination of:

- the Dunning-Kruger effect (stupid people don't know how stupid they are and so are tenacious, whereas intelligent or educated people realize how complex issues are and are more likely to be cautious)

- it's not a fair game, between the electoral college, gerrymandering, religious fundamentalism, the Citizens United decision and changes to Congressional rules it wasn't fair even before the current president took the oath.

Just my 2 cents.
posted by forthright at 5:42 PM on May 6

Many of the founding fathers of the United States were profoundly ambivalent about democracy or even hostile to it—in the 19thC 'democracy' was not understood as an obviously good thing, let alone as the founding principle for a country. The 'wicked' here is another way of describing demagoguery, the practice of political figures inciting crowds to rule. Quotes like this are a warning against majoritarianism, or rule by the simple vote of people.

One way of looking at it is Jay's notion of the ignorant and wicked ganging up on the wise; another way is the social elites of the 19thC recognising that they were in the minority in any universal franchise. Since Jay assumed—it didn't need saying—that he and people like him were the wise and the good, and their measures desirable, what he was thinking about was: how could they get the measures to be adopted without a majority, or measures wanted by the majority prevented?
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 6:07 PM on May 6 [5 favorites]

It just means that he thought you can’t trust the majority to govern well, because the majority is not made up of mostly good and wise people. This is the same person who said: “the people who own the country ought to govern it.”
posted by skewed at 6:39 PM on May 6 [1 favorite]

[Deleted a comment with a borked link and a couple of responses]
posted by Eyebrows McGee (staff) at 6:54 PM on May 6 [1 favorite]

Here’s the full quote for context. Jay was corresponding with Richard Price, a British minister who was a supporter of the American and French Revolutions. Price generally advocated a more direct form of democracy, but struggled with the notion that most people were either too uneducated or too dependent on their employers/landowners to make truly independent decisions. Price was also an abolitionist and raised the issue of slavery with other Founding Fathers. Jay seems to be trying to address both Price’s concerns and retain Price’s advocacy for a flawed American democracy.
posted by chrisulonic at 7:54 PM on May 6 [8 favorites]

(Oops, sorry about the borked link!)
posted by praemunire at 7:57 PM on May 6

It seems pretty straight forward in stating that the majority of the population will not be "wise and good" and consequently the policies of the wise and good will generally be overridden.

This seems totally obvious but I rarely see any discussion of why. That also feels pretty obvious, it's because "wise and good" are a privilege AND because we, as a society, don't teach our children to be wise and good.

If you're day to day life is about survival then wise and good aren't on your to do list. It's only when you're fairly comfortable and have some free time that you can think about being wise and good.

But even for folks with free time, if they were never taught that wise and good are desirable things to be then they won't try to be those things.
posted by Awfki at 4:57 AM on May 7

The 'wicked' here is another way of describing demagoguery, the practice of political figures inciting crowds to rule.

I think this is too limited a definition. There are evil people in politics who pursue their wicked agendas with little or no appeal to the crowd. Dick Cheney comes to mind. Yes, he had a measurable amount of support among the public, but I don't think he spent a whole lot of energy on inciting it. He just worked the levers of power to fuck things up to his liking, and so long as he had hold of those levers, could not care less what anyone thought, including his putative superior, GWB. Mind you, it's likely that he and his ilk actually believe that they are doing good and therefore are good. They are wrong.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:45 AM on May 7

FWIW - Jay probably counted himself among "the wise and the good." Not entirely sure of the significance of that, but it can't be overlooked.
posted by John Borrowman at 2:21 PM on May 8

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