Preventing Government Abuse: Federalist and Anti-federalist Debates on History of the Republic of Venice to Avert Concentration of Powers
In Number 39 of The Federalist, James Madison objects to the habit of political writers of referring to Venice as a republic. He asserts that Venice is a system “where absolute power over the great body of the people is exercised, in the most absolute manner, by a small body of hereditary nobles.” Later, in Number 48 of the same work, Madison raises the need of providing practical security for each branch of the government against the intrusion by others into its powers. He quotes Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. Jefferson, commenting about the formal separation of powers in the constitution of Virginia which he had been instrumental in creating, bemoaned the lack of effective barriers among the branches which would better preserve their respective independence. As a part of his critique, Jefferson opined that the concentration of legislative, executive, and judicial powers in one body would be “the definition of despotic government.” Further, it mattered not “that these powers would be exercised by a plurality of hands, and not by a single one. One hundred and seventy-three despots would surely be as oppressive as one. Let those who doubt it, turn their eyes on the republic of Venice.”
Leaving aside the historical veracity of Madison’s and Jefferson’s characterizations of Venice, their perceptions shaped their ideas of a proper “republican” political structure and how that would differ from Venice. Madison’s critique of a city governed absolutely by a small body of men made Venice an aristocracy or, more accurately, an oligarchy for him. It is ironic that opponents of the proposed Constitution launched that very calumny against the structure which Madison was defending. The Anti-federalists maintained a drumbeat of attacks about the supposed anti-republican, aristocratic Constitution. Some were thoughtful and substantive objections. Other writers opted for the popular appeal of satire, not likely nuanced and subtle humor, but an entertaining burlesque style.
Two examples suffice. A writer styling himself “Aristocrotis” wrote a lengthy satire in a pamphlet published in Pennsylvania in 1788.
“For my own part, I was so smitten with the character of the members [of the Philadelphia Convention], that I had assented to their production, while it was yet in embryo. And I make no doubt but every good republican did so too. But how great was my surprise, when it appeared with such a venerable train of names annexed to its tail, to find some of the people under different signatures—such as Centinel, Old Whig, Brutus, etc.—daring to oppose it, and that too with barefaced arguments, obstinate reason and stubborn truth. This is certainly a piece of the most extravagant impudence to presume to contradict the collected wisdom of the United States; or to suppose a body, who engrossed the whole wisdom of the continent, was capable of erring. I expected the superior character of the convention would have secured it from profane sallies of a plebeian’s pen; and its inherent infallibility would have debarred the interference of impertinent reason or truth.”
With the tune of satire set, Aristocrotis applied it to a libretto of feigned aristocratic enthusiasm for a document which, according to him, set the few to rule over the many, in accord with the law of nature. Particularly useful for this aristocratic scheme was a powerful Senate and both direct and deviously hidden restrictions on the potentially dangerous House of Representatives. Establishing the latter was an unavoidable practice reflective of the corrupt practices of the times, he acknowledged. However, providing for 2-year terms, instead of the annual elections common to republican state constitutions, in combination with Congress’s power to set the times, places, and manner of elections allowed that body’s membership to perpetuate itself. In addition, Congress had the power to tax so as to give itself independence over its own pay. Raising taxes on the people would have another salubrious effect: it will make them industrious. “They will then be obliged to labor for money to pay their taxes. There will be no trifling from time to time, as is done now….This will make the people attend to their own business, and not be dabbling in politics—things they are entirely ignorant of; nor is it proper they should understand.” If the people object, Congress had the power to make them comply by raising an army. This backhanded compliment reflected the deep republican antipathy to peacetime armies.
Another example of the style was an essay by “Montezuma,” which appeared in the Philadelphia Independent Gazetteer on October 17, 1787, a month after the constitutional convention adjourned. If anything, Montezuma was even more prone to literary absurdity and plot lines reminiscent of a Gilbert and Sullivan production a century later than was Aristocrotis. He begins, with all emphases in the original,
“We, the Aristocratic party of the United States, lamenting the many inconveniences to which the late confederation subjected the well-born, the better kind of people, bringing them down to the level of the rabble—and holding in utter detestation that frontispiece to every bill of rights, “that all men are created equal”—beg leave (for the purpose of drawing a line between such as we think were ordained to govern, and such as were made to bear the weight of government without having any share in its administration) to submit to our friends in the first class for their inspection, the following defense of our monarchical, aristocratic democracy.”
After this mockery of the Constitution’s preamble, Montezuma proceeds to a listing of provisions that animate his imagined constitution. Any semblance of republicanism in the actual proposal, such as the election of the House of Representatives is a mirage. After all, the actions of the House can be overridden by the aristocratic Senate’s refusal to go along or by the monarchic President’s veto. Moreover, there is no limit to their re-election, so that the basic republican principle of “rotation of office” found in the Articles of Confederation is eliminated. This will result in perpetual re-election and soon make the representatives permanent members of the ruling elite. The Senate is the main home of this elite and is structured with long overlapping terms so that there is continuity in membership to acculturate any newcomers to the elite’s ways. The states are made subordinate to, and dependent on, the national government and will be “absorbed by our grand continental vortex, or dwindle into petty corporations, and have power over little else than yoaking hogs or determining the width of cart wheels.” The office of President is so named to fool the rubes with a republican title which hides his kingship. After all, “[W]e all know that Cromwell was a King, with the title of Protector.” He is the head of a standing army, which will start out small, ostensibly to defend the frontier. “Now a regiment and then a legion must be added quietly.” This allows the elite “to entrench ourselves so as to laugh at the cabals of the commonality.” There is no bill of rights, including the “great evil” of freedom of the press. The list goes on. Concluding his send-up of the Constitution through its closing phrase, Montezuma writes, “Signed by unanimous order of the lords spiritual and temporal,” a direct reference to the British House of Lords.
Montezuma and Aristocrotis recited the common themes of the Constitution’s opponents about the document’s insufficient republicanism: Long terms of office, no rotation in office through mandatory term limits, an aristocratic Senate, a president elected and re-elected for sequential lengthy terms, a standing army, consolidation of the formerly sovereign states into a massive national government, and lack of a bill of rights. There were other, more specific concerns raised by thoughtful opponents, but the foregoing resonated well with the citizenry.
If those themes defined a constitution’s non-republican character, Venice looked little different from what the Philadelphia Convention had produced. True, a formal nobility was prohibited under the Constitution, but there had been no formal nobility set in place in Venice until the previous constitutional structure was changed in 1297. Rather, wealth determined one’s status. Further, the commoners controlled the operations of the government through the bureaucracy. There were other important political institutions, such as the Senate with its important role to define public policy in Venice, but the ultimate power to make law was in the most populous branch, the Great Council, acting without fear of a veto by another branch of government. Unlike the proposed American system, membership in the Venetian Senate and the executive apparatus, with the exception of the Doge, was limited to annual or even shorter terms, as was the practice in the early state constitutions. While the President’s selection was filtered through electors chosen by the state legislatures, and the election might finally be determined by the House of Representatives, the selection of the Doge occurred through a process which had a strong component of what was classically viewed as a “democratic” tool, the drawing of lots of the names of those who would make that selection. The likelihood of a cabal controlling this convoluted process in order to install a puppet as the head of government was no more likely in Venice than under the Constitution. Moreover, the Doge had little formal power, unlike the President. Finally, Venice had no standing army, although it did have a large and powerful navy. In short, to an opponent of the Constitution, “aristocratic” Venice had at least as “republican” a character as the proposed American system, and Madison’s contemptuous dismissal of the city as a small group governing with absolute power sounded hollow.
The writers of The Federalist strove mightily to rebut these attacks. Madison’s narrowly formalistic definition of a republic in essay Number 10 that its distinguishing characteristic was its system of government by indirect representation, rather than direct action by the citizenry, was useful to establish a minimum of republicanism in the proposed system. But, by itself, it would hardly suffice to address the Anti-federalists’ multiple attacks. Madison understood this weakness and went on the attack, cleverly turning his opponents’ arguments against them in connection with the problem of “factions” and their threat to individual liberty and political stability.
Today, that essay is considered a brilliant insight into how political actors operate and how the framers were practical men who set up the constitutional machinery for our system of interest group politics later dubbed by the American political theorist Robert Dahl as Madisonian “polyarchy.” Yet, at the time of its publication, essay Number 10 aroused hardly a murmur. The reason likely was that few disputed his premises or his discussion about the existence, sources, and problems of factions in society seeking their own ends in contrast to the republican ideal of the general welfare. Alexander Hamilton, for one, had addressed the same point in essay Number 9. As well, no one really challenged his definition as a necessary characteristic of a republic. They disagreed about its sufficiency for a republic and, more profoundly, about whether the Constitution adequately balanced the self-interests of factions while at the same time preserving liberty.
As in so many other instances, the writers of The Federalist took to heart the maxim that “the best defense is a good offense.” Madison argued first that the republican principle of the vote, as qualified by the states themselves per the Constitution, would protect against extended dominance by some political minority. As to liberty, Madison asserted that the very variety of political factions spread across the country made the national council less likely to succumb to a dictatorship of an entrenched faction than would be the case in a smaller, culturally more homogeneous polity, whether democratic or republican in structure, such as a state or a city, including Venice. In a memorable paragraph, he wrote:
“The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular states, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other states: a religious sect may degenerate into a political faction on a part of the confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it, must secure the national councils against any danger from that source: a rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the union, than a particular member of it; in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular county or district, than an entire state.’
In other words, to prevent the deleterious effects of factions, the answer is, the more, the better, and the larger the domain, the more factions will exist. In at least the sense of guarding against a federal tyrant, diversity really is our strength. He repeated this defense of the general government in other essays, including one of the most renowned, Number 51.
Essay Number 51 also provides a thoroughgoing refutation that the states will be “consolidated” into the general government, and that the latter will degenerate into a tyranny. Madison relied on the formal structural separation of powers with its mutual checks and balances and on reflections about human nature. As to the first, he found common ground with his opponents:
“In order to lay a due foundation for that separate and distinct exercise of the different powers of government, which, to a certain extent, is admitted on all hands to be essential to the preservation of liberty, it is evident that each department should have a will of its own; and consequently should be so constituted, that the members of each should have as little agency as possible in the appointment of the members of the others….It is equally evident, that the members of each department should be as little dependent as possible on those of the others, for the emoluments annexed to their offices.” In the opinion of its supporters, the Constitution did that, and to exactly the correct degree.
As to the second, Madison tapped into the cynicism of some of his antagonists and the generally pessimistic views most Americans had about human nature in its fallen state. In another series of hard-hitting paragraphs, he urged:
“But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department, the necessary constitutional means, and personal motives, to resist encroachments of the others….Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interests of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? 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. In framing a government of men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”
In short, government is a necessary evil commensurate with the fall of mankind. But, as a human creation, it, too, is naturally corrupt. To protect liberty, one cannot overly rely on the virtue of the citizenry, and certainly not on that of the rulers. Constitutions are made of parchment and need robust pragmatism to work. To do that, it is best to harness the natural self-interest of politicians to maintain and then expand their power, by setting them against each other in various independent centers of power, state, national, legislative, executive, and judicial. The scandalous and amoral proto-capitalist assertion by the early-18th-century economist Bernard de Mandeville in his satirical Fable of the Bees about how private vices, such as greed, lead to public benefits, such as economic growth, applies well in the political realm, it seems. Such a multiplicity of political institutions acting as checks on each other, exists in the entire system of human affairs, private and public, according to Madison. An examination of the competition among political bodies and offices which characterized constitutions throughout Western history, from Athens and Sparta to Rome and Venice, bears him out.
It must be noted that, by engaging their opponents in a debate about the objects of government in a republic, not merely about its operational grounding in the particulars of the concept of representation, the writers of The Federalist were able to turn the contest to their advantage. Debates over annual versus biennial election of representatives, or four-year terms for the President versus three-year terms for the governor of New York, was playing small ball. Those issues must be addressed and were, in various writings. Excepting the careful obfuscation of the institution of slavery, the big issues were given their proper due. Reassuring the people incessantly that the federal government was of little consequence when compared to the reserved powers of the states; that the President had exactly the right degree of power to provide energy to government while also being checked by Congress’s or the Senate’s power over the purse, war, and treaties; that a standing army was necessary to protect the country’s security and that the possibility of that army becoming dangerous to liberty was remote in light of the vastly larger number of armed Americans organized into militia.; that a bill of rights was both unnecessary and would be proposed once the Constitution was adopted. Those were the republican principles which mattered, and it was there that Madison and others successfully advocated the Constitution’s republican bona fides.
Joerg W. Knipprath is an expert on constitutional law, and member of the Southwestern Law School faculty. Professor Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums, and serves as a Constituting America Fellow.
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