From No. 51 of The Federalist Papers, which branch of government did Madison think would be the weakest?Please help!

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Federalist Paper #51, “The Structure of the Government Must Furnish the Proper Checks and Balances Between the Different Departments”(Independent Journal, February 6, 1788), James Madison, writing under the pseudonym “Publius,” devoted far more attention to the issue of balancing power among disparate branches of government than he did defending the primacy of one branch over another. To the extent he addressed the issue of primacy, it is in his repeated assertion that the optimal form of government is that which best reflects the will of the people. Hence, his closing passage reads as follows:

“It is no less certain than it is important, notwithstanding the contrary opinions which have been entertained, that the larger the society, provided it lie within a practical sphere, the more duly capable it will be of self-government. And happily for the republican cause, the practicable sphere may be carried to a very great extent, by a judicious modification and mixture of the federal principle.” [Emphasis in original]

Federalist Paper #51 is concerned primarily with defending the structure of the Constitution that Madison was instrumental in drafting. The importance of an institutionalized system of checks and balances set forth in the Constitution was paramount lest the newly-emerging nation, the United States of America, evolve into the very form of autocratic government the revolution was intended to prevent. As Madison wrote in this respect, “. . .  so contriving the interior structure of the government as that its several constituent parts may, by their mutual relations, be the means of keeping each other in their proper places.”

Madison’s essay pointed out the need to keep each branch of government on a relatively level plain (omitting for the most part discussion of the judicial branch of government). Toward that end, he noted measures intended to keep the legislative branch from growing too omnipotent while buttressing the authority of the executive. While insisting on relative equality among the branches of government, however, Madison did intend for the legislative branch to prevail given its moral proximity to the people it was elected to represent. It was no accident that Article I of the Constitution established the legislature and specified its powers. Furthermore, each branch needed to be able to defend itself against the others, but the power of the legislature would be supreme: “. . .it is not possible to give to each department an equal power of self-defense. In republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates.” To prevent the legislature from evolving into its own autocratic regime, it was divided into competing chambers in which complementary but separate powers were vested.

The legislative branch of government would be closest to the people. As such, it held a special place in the hearts of the Constitution's authors. It was not, however, intended to be omnipotent. The granting to the executive the power to veto legislation and to act as commander in chief of the armed forces clearly indicated that whatever primacy the legislature enjoyed would not go unchecked. 

martinjmurphy eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Federalist 51 which was written by James Madison concerns several important principles on which the federal government is based, separation of powers and checks and balances.  Madison believes that the legislative branch is the most powerful.  He states “In republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates.”  The legislative branch is the one closest to the people in a republic and therefore would wield the most power.  He probably believes this because in his own state of Virginia, the legislative branch dominated.  To keep the legislative branch from becoming too powerful, he believed that “An absolute negative on the legislature appears, at first view, to be the natural defense with which the executive magistrate should be armed.” That is, the executive branch should have veto power over the legislative branch.  But because the legislative branch can wield so much power, more needs to be done. The legislative branch should be further divided (into a House and Senate) and these two houses have different means of election.  In the original Constitution, the House was elected directly by the people and the Senate was chosen by state legislatures.

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Please note that in this essay, Madison is not talking about all three of the branches of government that we now have.  Instead, he is only talking about the legislative and the executive branches.  Of these two branches, he believes that the legislative will be stronger and the executive will always be weaker.

He does not really tell us why he thinks this -- he just asserts it.  But the basic idea here is that it is only the legislature that has the ability to actually make laws.  This makes it the stronger of the two branches.