1. According to James Madison, the challenge in society is to guard against what?
2. A good constitution should do what?
3. According to Madison, what is the most durable source of factions?
4. What are the problems of republican government and what is the remedy for the problems of republican government?
5. In government, what guards against the interest of a few?
6. What are Madison’s views on factions and liberty?
The key to understanding James Madison’s views on constitutional government, republicanism, factions, and other matters of importance lies in the series of columns he and Alexander Hamilton (and, to a lesser extent, John Jay) wrote for publication in newspapers throughout the newly-established states as part of an effort at educating the public and garnering support for the Constitution. Those articles, the Federalist Papers, provide an invaluable source of information as to the intentions of those most responsible for drafting that seminal document and, considered by many “the Father of the Constitution,” Madison’s views carry great weight in deliberations regarding original intent.
Madison believed firmly in the need for a constitution because his overriding concern was the deterioration of the nascent nation-state struggling to emerge from the yoke of British imperial rule, particularly the need to find the best possible balance between state and central powers and the best possible balance among branches of government. He understood, as he noted in an April 16, 1787 letter to George Washington, that a binding document setting forth the structure of a federal government, a document that would enjoy total legitimacy amongst the governed, was absolutely essential to the nation’s survival:
“Over and above this positive power, a negative in all cases whatsoever on the legislative acts of the States, as heretofore exercised by the Kingly prerogative, appears to me to be absolutely necessary, and to be the least possible encroachment on the State jurisdictions.”
A constitution setting forth the separation of powers within the federal government while specifying the extent of the reach of those powers was necessary to prevent the accumulation of powers in one branch or agency and to prevent a potentially destructive pattern of contentious debate between the states and the federal government.
One of the most threatening problems that Madison perceived was the inevitable emergence of “factions” among the electorate. As he wrote in Federalist Paper #10,
“The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.”
Defining “factions” as “. . .a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community,” Madison took great pains to judiciously prepare the public for measures that he calculated would be necessary for the prevention of an overbearing emergence of factions. [See Federalist Paper #10: The Utility of the Union as a Safeguard against Domestic Faction and Insurrection”] According to Madison, the
“. . .the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views.”
For Madison, the ratification of a constitution spelling out divisions of power and responsibilities would check the worst impulses of an electorate prone to divisions. As he further wrote, “The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government.”
With respect to Madison’s views on republicanism, he devoted considerable effort to explaining the drafters’ intentions and thoughts on the merits of republican, vice purely democratic, government. In Federalist Papers #s 14 (“Objections to the Proposed Constitution from Extent of Territory Answered”), 39 (“The Conformity of the Plan to Republican Principles”) and 51 (“The Structure of the Government Must Furnish the Proper Checks and Balances Between the Different Departments”), he laid out his arguments for and concerns with republican government. While expressing concerns regarding the viability of representative government in Federalist #14 (“As the natural limit of a democracy is that distance from the central point which will just permit the most remote citizens to assemble as often as their public functions demand, and will include no greater number than can join in those functions; so the natural limit of a republic is that distance from the centre which will barely allow the representatives to meet as often as may be necessary . . .”), Madison clearly concluded that republicanism was the only viable alternative:
“The first question that offers itself is, whether the general form and aspect of the government be strictly republican? It is evident that no other form would be reconcileable with the genius of the people of America; with the fundamental principles of the revolution; or with that honorable determination, which animates every votary of freedom, to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government. If the plan of the Convention therefore be found to depart from the republican character, its advocates must abandon it as no longer defensible.” [Federalist #39]
In summary, then, Madison believed that the challenge to society is to guard against any recurrence of tyranny; that a good constitution should preclude an imbalance of power among branches of government while unifying the nation by balancing the rights of the states with the power of the federal government; that the most durable source of factions is the “unequal distribution of property” creating potentially violent divisions between “haves” and “have-nots”; and that legislative remedies guard against factions and the tyranny of the few. Madison, Hamilton and other principals involved in drafting the U.S. Constitution believed that, by carefully delineating lines of responsibility between branches of government, and by establishing limits to the power of the central, or federal, government, the emerging democracy could have a chance for survival. The importance vested in the House of Representatives, as spelled out in Article I of the Constitution, speaks to the importance in which these men held the role of the public. The House was intended to be the part of the federal government closest to and most representative of the public. Its prominent place in the final document is testament to their commitment.