AP U.S. History Notes

Challenges to American Democracy: Trends and Similarities

Prompt: Compare the greatest challenges that American democracy faced in 1805, 1905, and 2005. Which challenges are essentially the same, and which are radically new?

American democracy has faced numerous challenges from the 1700s to modern day. However, the American dream has never faltered for a moment; even in the face of sure failure, and sure destruction, the United States has triumphed. The years 1805, 1905, and 2005 were no exception to this tradition; though at times in history Americans may have had doubts about the future of American democracy, unwavering patriotism has helped the country to succeed in the face of global adversity.

The main challenge that faced the United States in 1805 seemed insurmountable at first. The conflict between the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans was threatening to tear the country apart. The country was split between two very different approaches to government: federal power versus state power. The Federal government argued that they needed authority over the states in order to ensure harmony within the country and avoid dangerous sectional conflicts. However, states’ rights activists argued that a tyrannical British Parliament should not be replaced with a tyrannical Congress. Ultimately, both sides had good points, but the conflict caused by the differences in opinion nearly tore the country apart. The first few Presidents set an important example for future generations. When the Second Continental Congress was being held, it was clear that George Washington would become the first president. The trust and faith in General Washington led the Congress to draft a Constitution with strong Federal power and strong executive powers. While in office, Washington worked to increase Federal power in an attempt to end divisions in the nation. However, when Democratic-Republican Jefferson was elected, American democracy would be put to the test. Jefferson entered office as a states’ right supporter or a believer in “strict construction”; he believed that the federal government should be given as little power as possible; in his opinion the federal government was very prone to becoming tyrannical. When he first entered office Jefferson believed that the federal government was granted “certain definite powers” and that the states were reserved “the residuary mass of right to their own self-government.” However, Jefferson was forced to alter his philosophies later in his presidency. One such occasion was when Jefferson authorized the Louisiana Purchase. In this situation, Jefferson clearly demonstrated a disregard for the limit of his powers. Jefferson knew that he did not have the authority to engage in such a deal with France, because it was not a power specifically granted to him in the Constitution. However, he completed the Louisiana Purchase anyway because he “thought it his duty” to risk himself for the good of the United States. In other words, he knew what he was doing was wrong, but he felt justified in knowing that it was for the good of the country. There are advantages to each of the policies: strict and loose construction. The challenge faced in 1805 showed Americans that both philosophies, when used together, would create a powerful nation.

In 1905, there was another threat to American democracy, however it was radically new—and never seen before. A new class of multi-millionaire “captains of industry” or “robber barons” was threatening to remove the democracy from the American way of life. These industry leaders pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps and after working hard, and sweating to achieve the American dream, they were reaping the reward: a luxurious lifestyle, millions and millions of dollars, and most importantly political control.  The famous robber barons Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Morgan consistently fought against worker’s rights, putting down strikes, dissolving worker’s Unions, and destroying all means of worker protection. Without unions, laborers were unable to stop these industrial giants from paying them unfair wages. Not only did the robber barons create unfair job conditions, but they used their large sums of money to bribe government officials to turn a blind eye to corruption. On numerous occasions, scandals such as the Credit Mobilier Scandal robbed the government of millions of dollars. Powerful political machines rigged elections by bribing incoming immigrants with job offers in exchange for votes. These multi-million dollar corporations were threatening a free American way of life, even though that had risen up to the top of the American system. Most Americans felt that the government should step in and stop the robber barons to defend the greater good, even at the expense of economy-stimulating corporations. The government responded to this crisis slowly, but eventually passed anti-trust legislation like the Sherman Act to “trust bust” big corporations. The crisis faced in 1905 demonstrated that the government must look to the greater good of society when protecting capitalistic enterprise.

The last and most recent challenge facing American democracy in 2005 is the Patriot Act. After the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, Congress passed the Patriot Act with the noble intention of finding and prosecuting international terrorists operating on American soil; however, the unfortunate consequences of the Act have been drastic. Many of the Patriot Act’s provisions are in clear violation of the U.S. Constitution. The Patriot Act encroaches on sacred First Amendment rights, which protect free speech and expression, and Fourth Amendment rights, which protect citizens against “unwarranted search and seizure.” The Patriot Act even authorizes unethical and unconstitutional surveillance of American citizens with a negligible improvement in national security. Free speech, free thinking, and a free American lifestyle face a difficult challenge in the climate of distrust and constant fear created by the Patriot Act. However, like the challenges the United States has faced in the past, this one will be solved through diligence and unwavering patriotism.

American democracy has faced numerous challenges from the 1700s to modern day. However, even in the face of sure failure and sure destruction, the United States has triumphed. The challenges were all unique and yet similar in that they all threaten the ideals of American democracy. In 1805, the Americans debated Federal versus States’ rights; in 1905, Americans addressed the problems created by rich industrialists; and in 2005, Americans questioned the constitutionality of the Patriot Act and continued to fight to defend the American Creed. These challenges make the United States such a wonderful place to live. As John F. Kennedy once said, “Democracy is never a final achievement. It is a call to an untiring effort.”

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How to cite this note (MLA)

Aboukhadijeh, Feross. "Challenges to American Democracy: Trends and Similarities" StudyNotes.org. Study Notes, LLC., 05 Jan. 2014. Web. 02 Mar. 2024. <https://www.apstudynotes.org/us-history/sample-essays/challenges-to-american-democracy-trends/>.