Federalist 63 – Madison

In Federalist 63, James Madison picks up where he left off in Federalist 62 to discuss the Senate. At the outset of the essay he continues to argue that the Senate would provide a form of stability in government that would be reassuring to foreign powers. Moreover, the Senate, with its longer tenure, would be a stabilizing force in the national character.

Yet however requisite a sense of national character may be, it is evident that it can never be sufficiently possessed by a numerous and changeable body. It can only be found in a number so small that a sensible degree of the praise and blame of public measures may be the portion of each individual; or in an assembly so durably invested with public trust, that the pride and consequence of its members may be sensibly incorporated with the reputation and prosperity of the community.

He proceeds to this next point, and in some ways it is a bit of a paradox, as Madison himself admits:

I add, as a sixth defect the want, in some important cases, of a due responsibility in the government to the people, arising from that frequency of elections which in other cases produces this responsibility. This remark will, perhaps, appear not only new, but paradoxical. It must nevertheless be acknowledged, when explained, to be as undeniable as it is important.

This is paradoxical because the Senate – due to the nature of elections and the length of tenure – would seem to be the anti-democratic institution, yet Madison is here arguing it would be more responsible to the people. But note he says responsible, not responsive. In fact it is its non-responsiveness that makes it, paradoxically, more responsible.

Responsibility, in order to be reasonable, must be limited to objects within the power of the responsible party, and in order to be effectual, must relate to operations of that power, of which a ready and proper judgment can be formed by the constituents. The objects of government may be divided into two general classes: the one depending on measures which have singly an immediate and sensible operation; the other depending on a succession of well-chosen and well-connected measures, which have a gradual and perhaps unobserved operation. The importance of the latter description to the collective and permanent welfare of every country, needs no explanation. And yet it is evident that an assembly elected for so short a term as to be unable to provide more than one or two links in a chain of measures, on which the general welfare may essentially depend, ought not to be answerable for the final result, any more than a steward or tenant, engaged for one year, could be justly made to answer for places or improvements which could not be accomplished in less than half a dozen years. Nor is it possible for the people to estimate the share of influence which their annual assemblies may respectively have on events resulting from the mixed transactions of several years. It is sufficiently difficult to preserve a personal responsibility in the members of a numerous body, for such acts of the body as have an immediate, detached, and palpable operation on its constituents.

The proper remedy for this defect must be an additional body in the legislative department, which, having sufficient permanency to provide for such objects as require a continued attention, and a train of measures, may be justly and effectually answerable for the attainment of those objects.

The next argument on this point is yet another fundamental revelation of Madison’s political philosophy.

To a people as little blinded by prejudice or corrupted by flattery as those whom I address, I shall not scruple to add, that such an institution may be sometimes necessary as a defense to the people against their own temporary errors and delusions. As the cool and deliberate sense of the community ought, in all governments, and actually will, in all free governments, ultimately prevail over the views of its rulers; so there are particular moments in public affairs when the people, stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage, or misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn. In these critical moments, how salutary will be the interference of some temperate and respectable body of citizens, in order to check the misguided career, and to suspend the blow meditated by the people against themselves, until reason, justice, and truth can regain their authority over the public mind? What bitter anguish would not the people of Athens have often escaped if their government had contained so provident a safeguard against the tyranny of their own passions? Popular liberty might then have escaped the indelible reproach of decreeing to the same citizens the hemlock on one day and statues on the next.

In order for democracy to survive there needs to be an element of the constitution checking the democratic impulse. In some ways this almost sounds a bit like Rousseau and his famous declaration that the the people “will forced to be free” under his social contract. This is perhaps not so cynical, and it echoes a recurrent theme in Madison’s writings, namely, that the momentary will of the majority is one the same majority may come to regret after a moment’s reflection. It would therefore be beneficial to have an institution which existed to curb the spontaneous outburst of the democratic will. Over time, if the popular will remains as it had been, then the Senate will reflect this popular appetetite,  but only after sufficient time has passed.

In the next paragraph Madison has to answer himself in order to justify this viewpoint.

It may be suggested, that a people spread over an extensive region cannot, like the crowded inhabitants of a small district, be subject to the infection of violent passions, or to the danger of combining in pursuit of unjust measures. I am far from denying that this is a distinction of peculiar importance. I have, on the contrary, endeavored in a former paper to show, that it is one of the principal recommendations of a confederated republic. At the same time, this advantage ought not to be considered as superseding the use of auxiliary precautions. It may even be remarked, that the same extended situation, which will exempt the people of America from some of the dangers incident to lesser republics, will expose them to the inconveniency of remaining for a longer time under the influence of those misrepresentations which the combined industry of interested men may succeed in distributing among them.

This is another recurring theme. Sure an extended republic, as advocated in Federalist 10, provides a mechansim for curbing violent passions, but auxiliary precautions are needed. It is not enough to trust the nature of the extended republic to provide safeguards against democratic exuberance; rather, other institutional mechansisms will also be needed.

Madison proceeds to outline how all historical republics had a Senate, and how these institutions are relevant to the American case. He then answers the charge that the Senate would become an aristocratic form of tyranny by first noting that “liberty may be endangered by the abuses of liberty as well as by the abuses of power.” He then provides a more substantive response:

Before such a revolution can be effected, the Senate, it is to be observed, must in the first place corrupt itself; must next corrupt the State legislatures; must then corrupt the House of Representatives; and must finally corrupt the people at large. It is evident that the Senate must be first corrupted before it can attempt an establishment of tyranny. Without corrupting the State legislatures, it cannot prosecute the attempt, because the periodical change of members would otherwise regenerate the whole body. Without exerting the means of corruption with equal success on the House of Representatives, the opposition of that coequal branch of the government would inevitably defeat the attempt; and without corrupting the people themselves, a succession of new representatives would speedily restore all things to their pristine order. Is there any man who can seriously persuade himself that the proposed Senate can, by any possible means within the compass of human address, arrive at the object of a lawless ambition, through all these obstructions?

It is check upon check upon check. In order for the Senate to become corrupted, the state legislatures themselves would have to become corrupted. In other words, unless every single other institution becomes corrupted, there is little or no chance of the Senate becoming corrupted. Thisis a seemingly endless labyrinth of institutional safeguards, combined with the federlist nature of the government and the extended republic, all meant to protect liberty from itself.

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Published in: on August 30, 2016 at 5:14 pm  Comments Off on Federalist 63 – Madison  
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