It is essays such as Federalist 48 that validate Thomas Jefferson’s famous quote about the Federalist Papers, “the best commentary on the principles of government … ever written.”

The checks and balances of our government, so beautifully constructed by the founders, are based on this axiom from Federalist No. 48:

“It will not be denied, that power is of an encroaching nature, and that it ought to be effectually restrained from passing the limits assigned to it.”

Our founding fathers knew that separating powers into three branches of government was not enough to ensure the liberty of the people.  Without “checks,” any one branch could become tyrannical.

It is ironic that the best way to accomplish separation of powers is to not completely separate the powers, but for the three branches to “share” some aspects of the powers, in order to wield checks on each other.

It is also ironic that the legislative branch, the branch closest to the people (at least the U.S. House), is also the branch most likely to overstep its bounds.  The quotes in Federalist No. 48 about the legislative branch could easily have been written this year, as in 1878.

“The legislative department is everywhere extending the sphere of its activity, and drawing all power into its impetuous vortex.”

“The legislative department derives a superiority in our governments from other circumstances. Its constitutional powers being at once more extensive, and less susceptible of precise limits, it can, with the greater facility, mask, under complicated and indirect measures, the encroachments which it makes on the co-ordinate departments.”

“Where the legislative power is exercised by an assembly, which is inspired, by a supposed influence over the people, with an intrepid confidence in its own strength; which is sufficiently numerous to feel all the passions which actuate a multitude, yet not so numerous as to be incapable of pursuing the objects of its passions, by means which reason prescribes; it is against the enterprising ambition of this department that the people ought to indulge all their jealousy and exhaust all their precautions.”

“One hundred and seventy-three despots would surely be as oppressive as one.”

Madison points out the many reasons why legislative branches are prone to usurpations of power:

1. “Legislative power is exercised by an assembly,” …… with an intrepid confidence in its own strength.”

2. There are enough members of the legislative body to “feel all the passions which actuate a multitude,” yet few enough to actually act on those passions.

3. “Its constitutional powers being at once more extensive, and less susceptible of precise limits,” allow it to mask with greater ease “under complicated and indirect measures, the encroachments which it makes on the co-ordinate departments.”  (The “Commerce Clause,” and the “Necessary and Proper Clause,” are perfect examples in our federal legislative branch of the “more extensive, and less susceptible of precise limits,” of which Madison speaks)

4. The legislative department has the power to tax (“access to the pockets of the people”).

5. The legislative branch has some influence over the wages of those who fill the federal government jobs (“pecuniary rewards”), and controls the budgets of the departments and agencies.

The founders knew the predisposition of the legislative body, and thus built in checks on legislative power. One of the most important checks they devised was the appointment of U.S. Senators by the State Legislatures.  The removal of that “check” by the ratification of the 17th Amendment caused a disturbance in the balance of power, and allowed the Congress to encroach past its enumerated powers further than the founders ever dreamed possible.

In a blog comment on Federalist 46 today, Andrew points out an important truth:

“A key point most posters missed and that was not really addressed in the essay is that it still was voters who have approved of the expansion of the federal government. Voters elected congressmen and presidents who supported the expansion of the federal government. Most are reelected, and there is rarely any movement to undo expansions because those expansions are popular with the majority.”

Andrew is correct.  “We The People” allowed the checks and balances to break down. It is “We The People,” who are charged time and again with sounding the alarm and protecting the Constitution.

“If the federal government should overpass the just bounds of its authority and make a tyrannical use of its powers, the people, whose creature it is, must appeal to the standard they have formed, and take such measures to redress the injury done to the Constitution as the exigency may suggest and prudence justify.” Federalist No. 33 (Hamilton)

In order to protect the Constitution, and keep government in check, we must first know the Constitution and understand the principles upon which it was based.

Thank you all for a wonderful week of blog comments, and a big thank you to Professor Baker for his enlightening essay!  Federalist 48 is one of my favorite papers yet.

Looking forward to Federalist 49!

Wishing you all a wonderful July 4 weekend as we celebrate the birth our country!

Good night and God Bless,

Cathy Gillespie

Saturday, July 3rd, 2010


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