Friday, March 01, 2013

James Madison’s Majority Nightmare:
An engaged, enraged and impoverished rabble.

It may be said that I come to this argument with a personal agenda, especially considering the economic circumstance we find in America in the early 21st Century, so be it. Like most of us, I feel poor by my own standing, but, unlike many, I know that I am rich when compared with so many other Americans. Further I believe that I have experienced the extremes of both opposing sides of the economic spectrum that impacts us all; and in the 60 years I have been on this earth I have seen a wide swath of what is humanly possible. It is in this glaring light that I must judge James Madison’s Federalist 10 and 51 and find these to be too quickly, even premeditatively, reaching for the bottle of power to protect and secure the well-heeled minority over the natural interests of the economically bereft majority.

It is so widely acknowledged and recorded that Madison’s “most distinctive belief was that the new republic needed checks and balances to protect individual rights from the tyranny of the majority*” that this is noted almost immediately in the Wikipedia entry on James Madison. In Federalist 10 Madison plainly states his concerns about the tyranny of the majority against the minority, referring in paragraph one to “the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority,”as though it was the greatest threat facing the new-founded country. Madison perfects his concerns in paragraph seven of Federalist 10: “The most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property,” suggesting that an impoverished hungry country full of unemployed citizens might find the excesses of those who got their money the old fashion way — by inheriting it — hard to bear meekly. I suggest that it is Madison’s fear of potential future acts of government that might redistribute the young nation’s wealth that most motivates his thinking in both Federalist 10 and Federalist 51, but let us look to the texts.

Federalist 51 begins with a question: How should the young country “practice the necessary partition of power?” Madison says this partition is particularly important in assuring that no one segment of the government reign supreme over all the others, for as we know from our class discussions and his reference to the saintly behavior of inhuman angels, pure power is the most addictive of substances for mere mortals and inevitably leads to tyranny. Madison answers his initial question in paragraph four of Federalist 51 with the observation that “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” Note that it is not the Creator nor morality nor compassion nor Christian charity that might mediate the human lust for power and wealth, but that by pitting the hunger of one ferocious dog against the next, the general populace might be saved from the most wretched of avaricious impulses by its individual governing citizens. In paragraph nine he again reaffirms his concerns about dangers of majority rule by first briefly acknowledging the risks of oppression by the ‘rulers,’ which is offered in contrast to the premier importance of guarding “one part of the society against the injustice of the other part” — as though the tyranny of the elite was not either of those ‘parts.’ It almost seems as if Madison’s ideal of democratic rule is a dream almost beyond his ability to surrender to the democratic process, which should be ironic in that he is called the “Father of the Constitution.”

Returning to paragraph four Madison recognizes that the first problem of government is granting men the power and authority to govern themselves. He then states that the second problem is getting government to regulate or restrict itself. His solution in paragraph five is to create many, separate, nearly equal departments to vie for this dangerous authority in a policy of supplying “opposite and rival interests,” “where the constant aim is to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other.” Again it is only by setting the worst of us in competition with the other worst of us that the average person might avoid being entirely consumed. There is no appeal to our better natures in Madison’s argument, nor are there legal obligations and restrictions, only the recognition of our most selfish impulses. Each self-interested party in governance shall be constrained by the matching self-interest of their competitive parties. Like Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand, this system seems to work better in the idealization of daydreams and coffeehouse conversations than in the dog-eat-dog world where these greedy parties quickly realize that by either ‘horse-trading’ or selective ‘blindness,’ each of them can get all them want and more, so long as no one upsets the status quo by reining in his opposite too vigorously. In fact, by codifying this specific individual self-interest into the institutional framework of government, doesn’t this encourage the most selfish and self-interested of behaviors and ensure us that predominantly only the worst of us will fight hard enough to win a seat at the public table of governance, and only so that those who rise to such heights of hypocrisy will be giving access to the trough of bottomless cash? Doesn’t this create an entire governmental culture of greed and narrow self-interest rather than empathetic and noble compassion for all the citizens of this union? There are other compunctions used by humans throughout history to moderate their worst behaviors, religion offers entire tomes dedicated to elevating man’s baser instincts to a higher plane.

Madison’s next several paragraphs are devoted to further elucidating the particular branches of government, both state and federal, and each branch’s natural strengths and weaknesses, with suggestions as to how best to keep each branch and office at parity with its several mates. In paragraph nine Madison states the obvious, that ‘Different interests necessarily exist in different classes of citizens,” by which it is reasonable to suggest that he is again referring to the disparity of wealth, especially inherited wealth, already endemic to the new born country. His first solution is to create a “hereditary or self-appointed authority.” I assume by this Madison is referring to something like the English House of Lords (or more and more like both of our two houses of government where hereditary office seems to be more the rule than the exception). He dismisses this idea without detail. His second solution is to suggest a society “broken into so many parts, interests, and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority.” It has been our misfortune to have seen over the last 250 years that the rights of the minority, if that minority was not wealthy and powerful, were rarely protected from the abuses of the majority under such a system as Madison devised, just as it has been our misfortune to have witnessed that a wealthy and powerful minority has continually coalesced both wealth and power into fewer and fewer hands over the ensuing years.

Madison then looks into the hazy future in the balance of the final paragraph, still paragraph nine, to see a vast and diverse America where our great numbers and varieties of peoples is our salvation. Or as Madison states “the larger the society, provided it lie within a practical sphere, the more duly capable it will be of self-government.” It would be wonderfully interesting sit down with James Madison today, 250 years later, and hear what he has to say about this system of governance he worked out. My suspicion is that it worked out very much like he expected it would.

*from Wikipedia, referencing Madison Debates in Convention - Tuesday June 26, 1787: “There will be particularly the distinction of rich & poor. … In framing a system which we wish to last for ages, we should not lose sight of the changes which ages will produce. An increase of population will of necessity increase the proportion of those who will labor under all the hardships of life, and secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of its blessings. These may in time outnumber those who are placed above the feelings of indigence. According to the equal laws of suffrage, the power will slide into the hands of the former.” …and Notes of the Secret Debates of the Federal Convention of 1787, June 26th: “The man who is possessed of wealth, who lolls on his sofa, or rolls in his carriage, cannot judge of the wants or feelings of the day laborer. The government we mean to erect is intended to last for ages. The landed interest, at present, is prevalent; but in process of time … when the number of landholders shall be comparatively small … will not the landed interest be overbalanced in future elections … if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of the landed proprietors would be insecure. An agrarian law would soon take place. If these observations be just, our government ought to secure the permanent interests of the country against innovation. Landholders ought to have a share in the government, to support these invaluable interests, and to balance and check the other. The checks and balances ought to be so constituted as to protect the [privatized property of the] minority of the opulent against the [will of the] majority.”

Madison, James. “The Federalist Papers, The Federalist No. 10.” Thomas: Library of Congress. unknown. Web. April 13, 2011 Wikipedia. “James Madison.” April 13, 2011. Web. April 13, 2011 <>
Fred Dodsworth, April 13, 2011


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