Classical Philosophers and federalist 10 and 51
The United States Constitution was not ratified without debate. There were many who felt that its provisions gave far too much power to a federal entity, and were concerned that the new government would become as distant and abusive as the British Monarchy from which they had just separated. In order to convince critics of the merits of the new Constitution, its advocates, James Madison, John Jay and Alexander Hamilton, wrote anonymous letters of support to newspapers defending the Constitution’s philosophy and form. These defenses, known collectively as “The Federalist Papers,” offer a detailed look at the philosophy and thinking that caused the Constitution to be written as it was. These works emphasized the philosophical underpinnings of the theory of government suggested, and drew heavily on the work of earlier philosophers. From Plato to John Locke, the influence of these philosophers is clear within the Federalist Papers. Two of the better known papers, Federalist #10 and #51, written by James Madison, clearly express the ideals of the Enlightenment that underscore the provisions of the Constitution.
Federalist number 10 focused its argument on the dangers of factionalism, and how government might be designed to minimize those effects without surrendering to the will of the unschooled mobs. (Madison, 1788 ) Madison argues in this paper that the downfall of popular government has it seed in factionalism. (Madison, 1788 ) He defines factions as those groups of citizens, numbering either in the minority or majority, who are politically committed to a cause that is of the detriment to the rights of other citizens. (Madison, 1788 ) Having established the evils associated with factions, Publius (Madison’s alias for the letters) begins to logically examine the methods by which factionalism may be avoided. (Madison, 1788 ) He posits to methods of removing factions: destroying their causes, or by controlling its effects. There are, according to Madison, two ways to remove the causes of factionalism, neither of which conforms to the idea of a free government. (Madison, 1788 ) One is by destroying the liberty fueling the faction, and the other is investing every citizen with the same ideas, so that no conflict of interest can occur. (Madison, 1788 ) Madison rejects the first of these solutions as contrary to the spirit of free men, and the second as a practical impossibility. (Madison, 1788 ) He is then left with the solution of reducing the effects of factionalism. In the circumstance where the faction exists in the minority, Madison argues, the republican form of government protects the society from the effects by overruling the minority faction. (Madison, 1788 ) While this will not eliminate the faction, it will prevent the faction from imposing its ideas on an unwilling majority. The difficulty, according to Madison, is when the faction is a majority. (Madison, 1788 ) Here, it becomes the duty of the government to stand against the majority will on the particular issue without yielding the principles of popular government. (Madison, 1788 ) Madison argues that the republican form of government, in contrast to a direct democracy, is the best way to accomplish this goal. (Madison, 1788 ) Madison argues that this is accomplished by the Constitution by yielding power to elected representatives, rather than having all citizens participate directly, and by describing a form of government that could effectively cope with the large geographical and demographical differences in the United States, the way a direct democracy cannot. (Madison, 1788 ) The use of the representatives in this context is to refine and revise the views of the majority, the assumption being that these representatives would necessarily be individuals of intelligence and character, owing to the exigencies necessary to secure election. (Madison, 1788 ) Regarding the second difficulty, the republican form of government allows the overall number of decision-makers to be lower. These would be less inclined to form and execute factionalist tendencies that would infringe upon the prerogatives of others. (Madison, 1788 ) Madison concludes that it is the republican form of government is the best remedy for the potential problem of factionalism that a free government might cause. (Madison, 1788 )
Federalist number 51, also written by Madison/Publius, addresses a different aspect of the problem of government. (Madison, 1788 ) The worry among those who opposed the Constitution is that a federal form of government concentrated a too-large measure of power into the hands of relatively few people. (Madison, 1788 ) In this letter, Madison addresses this concern by expanding on the virtues of the separation of powers mandated by the Constitution. (Madison, 1788 ) Madison argues that executive, judicial, and legislative branches with their own autonomous authority would serve to prevent the concentration of power with any one of the three. (Madison, 1788 ) He further argues that the manner of determining who should serve in each capacity ought also to be independent of each of the other groups in order to preserve their true autonomy. (Madison, 1788 ) He stresses that the legislative portion of government is inherently the most powerful of the three. To mitigate that power, Madison points out that the Constitution divided the legislative prerogatives between the two houses, further creating a system of checks by which either house might be prevented from dominating the other. (Madison, 1788 ) Madison then points out that as proportionally strong as the legislative branch is in the abstract, so is the executive weak. He then argues for the constitutional provisions that strengthen the executive in the face of this natural disparity. (Madison, 1788 ) Thus, the constitution endows the executive with veto power over the legislative decisions, and the prerogative to determine the means and methods of enforcement of these laws. (Madison, 1788 ) Further, Madison argues the need of the supremacy of the federal Constitution over those of the various states by pointing out the likelihood that the federal laws would be more apt to reflect the majority will without entirely subjugating the will of minorities. (Madison, 1788 ) Madison continues the argument by asserting that in order to ensure the continuing autonomy and equality of each of the three portions of government, it is necessary that each has the ability under the law to prevent the excesses of the other portions of the government. (Madison, 1788 ) Madison then repeats his support of the republican form as a guard against the erosion of minority opinions by pointing out that a government drawn from a diverse majority would be unlikely to do so. (Madison, 1788 ) Pointing out that the end of government is justice, Madison concludes that the larger the republic, the more likely it will be to protect the interest of the minority through a cloud of diverse majority representation that would be the character of the government under the constitution.
Throughout both of these arguments the beliefs of numerous philosophers can be clearly seen. The defense of the republican form, which is illustrated in both papers, is reminiscent of the the work of Plato, particularly his arguments in The Republic. In this work Plato argues that Justice is the goal of government and good society. (Plato, 360 BCE) This idea is reflected almost verbatim by Madison in Federalist number 51, and the entire line of reasoning in both letters is geared toward achieving justice with respect to minority interests. As Plato does, in the Republic, so Madison assumes justice to be a valid objective of government independent of it’s material advantages. (Plato, 360 BCE)
The two Federalist Papers also reflect the ideas of John Locke. In his Two Treatises on Government Locke purports that the power of government is justly derived from the consent of the governed. (Locke 1680-90)At one point, Federalist 51 quotes Locke directly, stating: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” (Madison, 1788 ) Madison extends the argument by pointing out that the government is a reflection of the nature of men, and ought to be compelled to act in the interest of the citizens, rather than the interests of itself. (Locke 1680-90)He further outlines the necessity of separation of powers which is defended in Madison’s federalist 51. (Madison, 1788 ) Locke argues, as does Madison, that the will of the majority ignores minority prerogatives. (Locke 1680-90) He also observes that it is necessary to house the enforcement of laws in an executive that is independent from the legislature. Locke also extolled the virtue of the separation of church and state. (Locke 1680-90) While the two papers make no specific reference to such separation, Madison does identify religion as the source of many of the strong opinions that result in the very factionalism that the government is said to be designed to prevent. (Madison, 1788 ) In justifying the need for government, Locke argued, in contrast to Hobbes and other philosophers that Man is essentially reasonable and rational, and has as his aim the accumulation of property. (Locke 1680-90)It was, according to Locke, only when such property became scarce that government became necessary to preserve the elements of liberty. (Locke 1680-90)A government derived from the consent of the governed, a key theme in Locke’s Treatises, (Locke 1680-90) is respected in Madison’s work by acknowledging the limited choices of just government being that of either direct or representative democracy. (Madison, 1788 ) The underlying concept inherent in Locke’s arguments is called the Social Contract. (Locke 1680-90)This is the notion that government has responsibilities vis-à-vis the governed, and the failure to meet them is synonymous with the failure of the government itself. Madison, in stating that the control of factions is a key goal of government, (Madison, 1788 ) essentially echoes the notion of Social Contract by asserting that the government must bend every effort to protect not only majority, but also minority interests.
A reading of Federalist 10 and 51 clearly illustrates the philosophical underpinnings of the arguments therein. Both works proceed on the basis of the need to establish justice, an ideal first promoted by Plato. Both also promote the philosophical notion of limited government, and checks to government power. In the case of federalist 10, it is the check of republicanism against majority factions acting in contrast to the interests of the minority. Federalist 51 also argues Lockean ideas of limited government by illustrating the various balances of power in the Constitution: between branches of government, within the legislative branch, and between the state and federal authorities. It is clear that Madison, the primary author of these letters as well as the constitution, was well versed in traditional and enlightenment philosophies, and applied them both to the structure and defense of the government.
Locke, J. (1680-1690). Two treatises of Government retrieved December 12th, 2008 from The Laws of nature and Nature’s God website:
Madison, J. (1788) “Federalist #10” 1788 retrieved Dec. 12th, 2008 from Revolution to Reconstruction website:
Madison, J. (1788) “Federalist #51” 1788 retrieved Dec. 12th, 2008 from Revolution to Reconstruction website:
Plato, (360 BCE) The Republic retrieved December 12th, 2008 from The Internet Classics Website archive: http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.html