Ask a typical college student today who “invented” American democracy and you’ll most likely be told “the Founding Fathers, of course.” If you’re lucky, this typical student might then go on to tell you a bit more, namely, that the historical roots of the American republic are to be found in the political traditions of early modern England, or that the Founders were inspired by the philosophies of ancient Greece or Rome, or that American democracy was only made possible by the revolution in social and political thought we call the Enlightenment. What you’ll never hear from any student, though—and I know, because I ask them every year—is the truth: America’s experiment in ordered liberty is ultimately the product less of these factors than of ideas and institutions born during what most people still think of as Europe’s backward, superstitious, and oppressively Catholic “Middle Ages.”
American democracy, of course, does not derive entirely from late medieval political thought and practice. The contributions to early American political development mentioned above by my typical college student are real, if too often over-stated and shorn of longer-term historical context. What is striking, though, in both popular and scholarly accounts of the birth of the American republic, is the extent to which the late medieval contribution to this process has been photoshopped out of the picture. Whether the specific issue is consent of the governed, limited government, rule of law, constitutionalism, rights, or even separation of church and state, the prevailing conceit is that we moderns—especially we Protestant moderns—invented it. Or, rather, re-invented it, picking up where the ancient Greeks and Romans left off over a millennium-and-a-half ago, before the collapse of the Roman Empire and the onset of what some still insist on calling the “Dark Ages.” It is as if nothing relevant to the modern democratic project happened between the death of Marcus Aurelius (AD 180) and the writings of John Locke in the late seventeenth century. As I shall argue below, however, much of consequence did happen during those centuries. Indeed, I will argue, it was during this epoch that all the major elements of democracy as we know it were actually invented.