Federalist 57 – Madison

Madison picks up where he left last time in Federalist 57 to defend the makeup of the House against charges it would elevate the few at the expense of the many. He offers up a five-fold argument, but first I wanted to examine this paragraph.

The aim of every political constitution is, or ought to be, first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust. The elective mode of obtaining rulers is the characteristic policy of republican government. The means relied on in this form of government for preventing their degeneracy are numerous and various. The most effectual one, is such a limitation of the term of appointments as will maintain a proper responsibility to the people.

This sums up as well as anything Madison’s philosophy of governance. What undergirded Madison’s faith in the constitution and in the republic – likely even moreso than even Hamilton – was the expectation that virtuous citizens would generally be at the helm. These individuals would be not be motivated by self-interest, and would take a wide-ranging view of the common good. The constitution, he thought, was the best structural mechanism by which to ensure such individuals would be placed in positions of power. This assumption is a core one for Madison, and informs most of his work.

Now he’s not a naif. Federalist 51 aptly demonstrates his non-idealistic view of human nature. Enlightened statesman will not always be at the helm. This constitution places checks and balances to mange the ill effects of those circumstances. That said, Madison does have faith that, in the main, representatives will not be guided by ulterior motives.

Now let’s quickly examine Madison’s five main points.

The first point is somewhat circular, and shows a bit more confidence in the people than is otherwise usually the case.

In the first place, as they will have been distinguished by the preference of their fellow-citizens, we are to presume that in general they will be somewhat distinguished also by those qualities which entitle them to it, and which promise a sincere and scrupulous regard to the nature of their engagements.

In other words, representatives will be distinguished individuals because their electors will have deemed as such. The second point follows the first: representatives will have affection for the people who have given them their trust. They will be driven by gratefulness to their constituents, and will thus strive not to disappoint those who have marked their confidence in them.

Now just as we have discussed the ideas of enlightened statesemen guided by motives other than self-interest, Madison expresses the view that selfish motives will actually guide the representatives towards being good caretakers.

In the third place, those ties which bind the representative to his constituents are strengthened by motives of a more selfish nature. His pride and vanity attach him to a form of government which favors his pretensions and gives him a share in its honors and distinctions. Whatever hopes or projects might be entertained by a few aspiring characters, it must generally happen that a great proportion of the men deriving their advancement from their influence with the people, would have more to hope from a preservation of the favor, than from innovations in the government subversive of the authority of the people.

This may sound slightly interested, but is a sense it anticipates Tocqueville in Democracy in America and his discussion of self-interest rightly understood. Toqueville explains it this way:

The Americans, on the other hand, are fond of explaining almost all the actions of their lives by the principle of self-interest rightly understood; they show with complacency how an enlightened regard for themselves constantly prompts them to assist one another and inclines them willingly to sacrifice a portion of their time and property to the welfare of the state. In this respect I think they frequently fail to do themselves justice, for in the United States as well as elsewhere people are sometimes seen to give way to those disinterested and spontaneous impulses that are natural to man; but the Americans seldom admit that they yield to emotions of this kind; they are more anxious to do honor to their philosophy than to themselves…

Americans – including its representatives – may be sometimes be guided by selfish motives, but those very selfish motives incline them towards unselfish acts. It’s not exactly Mandeville, but it does have echoes of his Fable of the Bees.

Madison turns to more practical, structural considerations in his fourth point – namely, that frequent elections will spur representatives to a “habitual recollection of their dependence on the people.” Thus they will be whisked away from reveries of power once they remember their constituents can snatch them from office at nearly any minute.

Madison’s final argument is Representatives will be constrained because they have to live by the laws they make.

I will add, as a fifth circumstance in the situation of the House of Representatives, restraining them from oppressive measures, that they can make no law which will not have its full operation on themselves and their friends, as well as on the great mass of the society. This has always been deemed one of the strongest bonds by which human policy can connect the rulers and the people together. It creates between them that communion of interests and sympathy of sentiments, of which few governments have furnished examples; but without which every government degenerates into tyranny. If it be asked, what is to restrain the House of Representatives from making legal discriminations in favor of themselves and a particular class of the society? I answer: the genius of the whole system; the nature of just and constitutional laws; and above all, the vigilant and manly spirit which actuates the people of America, a spirit which nourishes freedom, and in return is nourished by it.

Madison closes out the paper by noting that many state legislative districts are bigger than average U.S. House districts, and yet few if anyone was arguing against their un-democratic nature.

Madison will close out this discussion of the House in the next edition.


Published in: on August 10, 2016 at 8:46 am  Comments Off on Federalist 57 – Madison  
Tags: , ,
%d bloggers like this: