What were James Madison's political beliefs

"But what is government if not the greatest of all considerations of human nature?"

- James Madison, The Federalist Papers, 1787-88

For Thomas Jefferson, one of the American Founding Fathers and later the third president of the young nation, the Federalist Papers were "the best commentary on principles of government ... ever written." For 19th century British philosopher John Stuart Mill, the collection of 85 short essays commonly called The Federalist was "the most illuminating treatise on American government we have". The astute political commentator Alexis de Tocqueville from France wrote in 1835 that it was "an excellent book that should be known to statesmen of all countries".

Contemporary historians, lawyers, and political scientists generally agreed that The Federalist was the most significant work of political philosophy and pragmatic governance ever written in the United States. It has been compared to Plato's "Republic", Aristotle's "Politics", and Thomas Hobbes' "Leviathan". It was also consulted by the politicians of numerous emerging nations in Latin America, Asia, and Africa as they drafted their own constitutions.

The delegates who signed the draft of the American constitution in Philadelphia on September 17, 1787, stipulated that it should only come into effect in 9 of the 13 states after the ratifying assemblies approved. Although not explicitly stated, a rejection of one of the two key states New York or Virginia, due to their size and influence, could jeopardize the whole project. The New York and Virginia delegates were deeply divided on their views on the Constitution. The governor of New York, George Clinton, had already expressed his opposition.

One would think that a work as highly acclaimed and influential as the Federalist Papers is the result of a lifetime of experience in the humanities and government. In fact, it was largely the work of two young men: 32-year-old Alexander Hamilton from New York and 36-year-old James Madison from Virginia, who wrote in a hurry - sometimes up to four essays in a single week. John Jay, a senior humanities scholar who was later appointed first President of the Supreme Court, penned five of the essays.

Hamilton, an ally of Washington during the Revolutionary War, asked Madison and Jay to help him on this important project. Their intention was to convince the New York congregation to ratify the newly drafted constitution. They wanted to write letters to New York newspapers under the common pseudonym "Publius" in which they would explain and defend the constitution.

Hamilton initiated the project, outlined the order of topics to be dealt with, and addressed most of them vigorously in 51 of the letters. However, Madison's 29 letters proved to be the most memorable letters, with their mixture of frankness, balance, and ingenuity. It is not clear whether the Federalist Papers, written between October 1787 and May 1788, had a decisive influence on the difficult ratification of the constitution. But there is no doubt that the essays became and still are the most authoritative commentary on this important document.


The primary and most obvious approach underlying the Federalist Papers was a new definition of federalism. The former American colonists had only just won the War of Independence against oppression by a monarchy and did not want to replace it with another centralized, unrestricted regime. On the other hand, through their experiences with the instability and disorganization of the articles of the Confederation - due to resentment and competition between the individual states - they were not averse to the creation of a stronger federal government. Some of the Federalist Papers argued that a new form of equilibrium not yet achieved anywhere was impossible. Indeed, the Federalist Papers themselves struck a balance between the nationalist leanings of Hamilton, who advocated the commercial interests of the port city of New York, and the caution of Madison, who, like many Virginia farmers, was suspicious of distant state power.

Madison suggested that instead of absolute sovereignty for each state, as envisaged in the articles of the Confederation, states should retain "residual sovereignty" in all areas that did not require national coordination. The process of ratification of the Constitution itself, in his view, symbolized the concept of federalism, not nationalism. He said, "Consent and ratification must be given by the people, not as individuals who make up a common nation, but as representatives of the different individual states of which they are a part ... The act of passing the constitution is made therefore not a national, but a federal act. "

Hamilton proposed a "synergy" between the forces of the state and state governments. But his image of the planets orbiting the sun, which nevertheless retain their own status, assumed the greater importance of a central government. Hamilton and Jay (also from New York) added as an example alliances in ancient Greece and the Europe of the time, which inevitably broke apart in times of crisis. For the authors of the Federalist Papers, despite their differences, the lesson was clear: the survival of a respected nation required the transfer of significant, albeit limited, powers to the central federal government. They believed that this could be done without destroying the identity or autonomy of each state.


The Federalist Papers also point out, for the first time in the history of political literature, the idea of ​​checks and balances as a way of restricting government power and preventing abuse of power. The concept primarily refers to the two-chamber legislature, which was the most powerful branch of government for Hamilton and Madison. The supposedly impulsive House of Representatives, directly elected by the people, was the original idea, to be controlled by a more conservative Senate. The state parliaments should designate the senators. (The 17th Amendment of 1913 changed this provision and mandated direct popular election of senators.) In a letter, however, Madison argued broadly that "offices and ministries should control one another" and "one democratically elected Assembly must be controlled by a democratically elected Senate and both these institutions by a democratically elected President ".

In his most prominent essay (No. 78), Hamilton defended the right of the Supreme Court to rule on the constitutionality of laws passed by state or state parliaments. This historically crucial judicial review power, he argued, was adequate legislative scrutiny that was most likely that "the contagious tinge of fragmentation can poison the sources of justice". Hamilton expressly rejected the British system of government, in which parliament can overturn any decision of a court that does not agree with a majority. Rather, he was of the opinion that the courts should be seen as "the bulwark of a restricted constitution against the encroachments of the legislature". Only the arduous and arduous process of constitutional amendment or the lengthy conviction of the Supreme Court members of a different opinion could change the court's interpretation of this document.


Behind the system of mutual control and shared responsibility was a very realistic view of the human being. Although Madison and Hamilton believed that the best human qualities are reason, self-discipline, and justice, they also recognized vulnerability to emotional outbursts, intolerance, and greed. In a famous passage, after discussing the measures necessary to maintain freedom, Madison wrote: "It may be underlying human nature that such instruments are necessary to prevent abuse of power within government. But what is government if not the greatest of all considerations of human nature? If humans were angels, there would be no need for government. If angels were to rule, there would be no external or internal controls over the government. There is one great difficulty in creating government of people over people : First the government must be able to control the governed; then it must be obliged to self-control. "

Madison addresses this twofold challenge in the most impressive and novel of the Federalist Papers (number 10). His main concern was the need to "break through and control the severity of the fragmentation". He was referring to political parties here and saw fragmentation as the greatest threat to popular rule: "I know that some citizens ... are driven by a common passion or interest that goes against or against the interests of other citizens the enduring and common interests of the community. "

These wishes or interests that endanger the rights of other people can be of a religious or political nature, but mostly of a more economic nature. Splinter groups can be wealthy and have-nots or creditors and debtors, or the groups are based on the type of property a person has. Madison wrote: "An interest in land, manufacturing, trade or finance, or even minor interests, grow out of necessity in civilized nations and are still divided into different classes, triggered by different attitudes and views. The regulation of these different and competing interests is." the main task of modern legislation ... "

How can fair, rational, and free people coordinate so many competing claims or the splinter groups that emerge from them? Since it is impossible to declare passion or self-interest illegal, a functioning government must be able to prevent factions, regardless of their influence, from asserting their will against the public good. One precaution against overbearing factions, according to Madison, is the republican (or representative) system of government, which helps "refine and expand public views as they must pass through the medium of an elected civic body."

Even more important, according to Madison, was the expansion of the republic's geographic and public base, as envisaged by the federal government proposed by the new constitution. He wrote: "Since every MP in the great republic is elected by a greater number of citizens than in the small republic, it is more difficult for unworthy candidates to successfully practice the reprehensible arts with which elections are held too often ... The Influence of factual politicians may trigger enthusiasm within their state, but it will not unleash a general storm of enthusiasm in the other states. "

Here the principle of pluralism is called for, which approves diversity both for its own sake as a testimony to personal versatility and freedom, but even more crucially because of its positive effects in balancing conflicting desires and interests. Just as the great diversity of faiths in the United States makes the supremacy of a single state church unlikely, so does the multitude of states, with their many different regions and concerns, make the national victory of a fanatical and potentially tyrannical faction or party unlikely. Confirmation of Madison's argument can be found in the genesis of the major American political parties, which have always tended to be moderate and non-ideological because of their diversity of specific and economic interests.


In order to rule out arbitrary rule through concentration of power, the division of state powers into different branches of government is part of the overarching concept of the system of mutual control and shared responsibility. The Federalist Papers, however, see another benefit in the separation of powers, and that is to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of government. By confining their responsibilities to specific functions, the various branches of government develop both expertise and pride in their role. This would not be the case if they were related or if their responsibilities overlapped too much.

Qualities that are crucial for one function may be unsuitable for another. Hamilton was therefore of the opinion that "energy in the executive branch" was indispensable in the defense of the country, fair justice and the protection of property and civil rights - for him closely related rights. On the other hand, "deliberation and wisdom" are the most important characteristics of a legislator, not energy. He must earn people's trust and reconcile their various interests.

The diversity of needs also explains why one person - the president - should have executive power, since a multi-person executive could stall and "interfere with essential government action in the worst emergencies of the state." If the legislature, which reflects the will of the people, has given its considered and considered judgment by passing a law, then the executive must enforce that law, without any preferential treatment or derogation in the case of self-interest. In the event of an attack by another state, the executive must have the power and energy to respond immediately and with strength. The judiciary, in turn, must also be distinguished by special qualities: not the energy and speed of the executive, nor the legislature's openness to public opinion or its ability to compromise, but rather "integrity and moderation". Since they are appointed for life, the judges are also free from pressure from the public, the executive, or the legislature.


The Federalist Papers' memorable observations on government, society, freedom, tyranny, and the nature of politicians are not always easy to find. Much of the essay appears outdated, repetitive, or stylistically out of date. The authors had neither the time nor the intention to give their thoughts an orderly and comprehensive form. However, the Federalist Papers are indispensable for those who deal with the recurring questions of political theory and practice that both Hamilton and Madison discussed. "No more eloquent, principled, and insightful answers have ever been given by an American writer," wrote the 20th century famous political historian Clinton Rossitor. "The message of the Federalists is this: no happiness without freedom, no freedom without self-government, no self-government without constitutional government, no constitutional government without morality - and none of these great goods without stability and order."

Original text: "Explaining The Constitution: The Federalist Papers" from the brochure "Outline of U.S. Government published by the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of International Information Programs. (published on America Service, May 17, 2005)