Federalist 41 – Madison

Federalist 41 is a generalized defense of some provisions of the US Constituti0n.  In this essay Madison answers some of the charges that critics of the Constitution had leveled against it, specifically as related to issues of national defense and taxation.  The essay covers ground previously trodden by both Madison and Hamilton in earlier editions, though it offers some interesting new insights.

To begin with, Madison offers a rather pragmatic evaluation of the Constitution that reveals his inherently conservative approach to politics.  He observes that some critics have vocally complained about the broad powers conferred to the federal government, and responds that it was impossible to pen a document that was completely free from any potential problems.

It cannot have escaped those who have attended with candor to the arguments employed against the extensive powers of the government, that the authors of them have very little considered how far these powers were necessary means of attaining a necessary end. They have chosen rather to dwell on the inconveniences which must be unavoidably blended with all political advantages; and on the possible abuses which must be incident to every power or trust, of which a beneficial use can be made. This method of handling the subject cannot impose on the good sense of the people of America. It may display the subtlety of the writer; it may open a boundless field for rhetoric and declamation; it may inflame the passions of the unthinking, and may confirm the prejudices of the misthinking: but cool and candid people will at once reflect, that the purest of human blessings must have a portion of alloy in them; that the choice must always be made, if not of the lesser evil, at least of the greater, not the perfect, good; and that in every political institution, a power to advance the public happiness involves a discretion which may be misapplied and abused. They will see, therefore, that in all cases where power is to be conferred, the point first to be decided is, whether such a power be necessary to the public good; as the next will be, in case of an affirmative decision, to guard as effectually as possible against a perversion of the power to the public detriment.

In other words, this is not a perfect document.  This is not a utopian soluti0n to the problem of politics, but rather the best effort of honest men to address the problems of the Articles of Confederation government.  Here we see hints of what he will say in Federalist 51 regarding man’s un-angelic nature.  In a perfect world no government would be needed, but in a fallen world such as ours government is a necessity, and such a government needs to be armed with certain powers that possibly could be abused.  It is impossible to devise a government where power will never be abused because government is created and operated by imperfect beings.  The best that can be done – and this is what the Framers did – was try to place as many limits as possible on the powers of the government in order to minimize the potential for abuse.

Madison turns his attention to the issue of a standing army, and again this reflects his pragmatic philosophy.  He argues that there is an absolute need to have an army at the ready, and this is due to man’s fallen nature.

How could a readiness for war in time of peace be safely prohibited, unless we could prohibit, in like manner, the preparations and establishments of every hostile nation? The means of security can only be regulated by the means and the danger of attack. They will, in fact, be ever determined by these rules, and by no others. It is in vain to oppose constitutional barriers to the impulse of self-preservation. It is worse than in vain; because it plants in the Constitution itself necessary usurpations of power, every precedent of which is a germ of unnecessary and multiplied repetitions. If one nation maintains constantly a disciplined army, ready for the service of ambition or revenge, it obliges the most pacific nations who may be within the reach of its enterprises to take corresponding precautions.

We cannot diminish our readiness for war so long as other nations of the world remain non-pacifist.  In other words, we have here an 18th century expression of realpolitick.

Madison then goes on to explain how other features of the Constitution help keep the nation secure, including the very nature of the solid and unified country itself.  A unified America, with or without a standing army, will be a more useful guarantor against foreign aggression than a scattered confederacy.  Again, this is an echo of Hamilton from earlier papers, but it is noteworthy that Madison shares some of Hamilton’s fundamental assumptions.

From there Madison also defends the need for a navy:

The palpable necessity of the power to provide and maintain a navy has protected that part of the Constitution against a spirit of censure, which has spared few other parts. It must, indeed, be numbered among the greatest blessings of America, that as her Union will be the only source of her maritime strength, so this will be a principal source of her security against danger from abroad. In this respect our situation bears another likeness to the insular advantage of Great Britain. The batteries most capable of repelling foreign enterprises on our safety, are happily such as can never be turned by a perfidious government against our liberties.

These words would spring to life during Jefferson’s administration.

In the same vein, so long as there is a need to provide for the common defense there will be a need to raise revenue to support it.  Here Madison defends the taxing power of granted to the federal government.

I will address one additional reflection only to those who contend that the power ought to have been restrained to external taxation by which they mean, taxes on articles imported from other countries. It cannot be doubted that this will always be a valuable source of revenue; that for a considerable time it must be a principal source; that at this moment it is an essential one. But we may form very mistaken ideas on this subject, if we do not call to mind in our calculations, that the extent of revenue drawn from foreign commerce must vary with the variations, both in the extent and the kind of imports; and that these variations do not correspond with the progress of population, which must be the general measure of the public wants. As long as agriculture continues the sole field of labor, the importation of manufactures must increase as the consumers multiply. As soon as domestic manufactures are begun by the hands not called for by agriculture, the imported manufactures will decrease as the numbers of people increase. In a more remote stage, the imports may consist in a considerable part of raw materials, which will be wrought into articles for exportation, and will, therefore, require rather the encouragement of bounties, than to be loaded with discouraging duties. A system of government, meant for duration, ought to contemplate these revolutions, and be able to accommodate itself to them.

External taxation will not be a consistently reliable form of taxation, thus the requirement to be able to raise money in some other manner.  But this power to tax, contrary to the fears of the Constitution’s opponents, is not quite infinite.  Madison concludes with a note that the Constitution’s defenders have been echoing for two centuries, namely that the Framers paired the granting of a general power of taxation with very specific and enumerated powers that limited the reach of the federal government.

But what color can the objection have, when a specification of the objects alluded to by these general terms immediately follows, and is not even separated by a longer pause than a semicolon? If the different parts of the same instrument ought to be so expounded, as to give meaning to every part which will bear it, shall one part of the same sentence be excluded altogether from a share in the meaning; and shall the more doubtful and indefinite terms be retained in their full extent, and the clear and precise expressions be denied any signification whatsoever? For what purpose could the enumeration of particular powers be inserted, if these and all others were meant to be included in the preceding general power? Nothing is more natural nor common than first to use a general phrase, and then to explain and qualify it by a recital of particulars. But the idea of an enumeration of particulars which neither explain nor qualify the general meaning, and can have no other effect than to confound and mislead, is an absurdity, which, as we are reduced to the dilemma of charging either on the authors of the objection or on the authors of the Constitution, we must take the liberty of supposing, had not its origin with the latter.

This is a part of the balancing act that went into the creation of the Constitution.  As I’ve mentioned repeatedly, the Constitution simultaneously enhances the powers of the national government while placing strict limits on said powers.  Unfortunately people on both sides of the political spectrum today forget either the latter or the former part of that equation.

Published in: on December 2, 2010 at 5:05 pm  Comments (4)  


  1. “This is not a utopian solution to the problem of politics, but rather the best effort of honest men to address the problems of the Articles of Confederation government”

    This is a really significant but oft forgotten point. It is extremely important to understand the Constitution in relation to Articles of Confederation. The Constitution didn’t spring up out of thin air. Madison’s willingness to acknowledge its problems and push for a new governing document so early on was a shrewd decision that showed a great deal of courage and a degree of uncanny foresight that comes once in a generation (if we are lucky).

    I often hear people discuss the Constitution with the reverence one would attach to a statement of Utopian principles, but it is not. It is a highly practical document, which is probably the reason that it is still useful to us today. Madison’s pragmatism, which you do a nice job of illustrating in this article, is his genius.

  2. Madison’s pragmatism, which you do a nice job of illustrating in this article, is his genius.

    Thanks Keith, and you’re exactly right. One day I hope to work on a project that explores how Madison, of all the Founding Fathers, is really the most representative of Burkean political thought.

    As for revering the Constitution, in a sense you’re correct, but perhaps what we ought to revere is the very fact that the Framers put together such a marvelous document that has stood the test of time.

  3. The connection between Burke and Madison/Hamilton and some of the other Founding Fathers sounds quite interesting. I look forward to reading it. I have always found Burke’s ideas extremely interesting, but have yet to put a lot of time into reading him. It would certainly be helpful to me to be able to study Burke’s ideas in relation to early US political thought.

    The Constitution is nearly perfect, but there are still a few things that could be improved. For instance, a federal prohibition on the use of the designated hitter in American League baseball games should have been included. I often blame Madison for making Yankee/Red Sox games last 4 and a half hours. I guess that is what the amendment process is for.

  4. Keith, I believe those are amendments that would bridge any partisan gaps in this country.

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