Federalist No. 49 – Method of Guarding Against the Encroachments of Any One Department of Government by Appealing to the People Through a Convention, From the New York Packet (Madison)

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Guest Essayist: Colleen Sheehan, Professor of Political Science at Villanova University and Director of the Matthew J. Ryan Center for the Study of Free Institutions and the Public Good

James Madison wrote Federalist 49 in part as a response to Thomas Jefferson’s idea that a constitutional convention should be called whenever one of the departments of government oversteps its delegated constitutional authority.

Madison argued that this was a bad idea for five reasons:  1) the proposal doesn’t cover the case in which two departments combine against a third  2) routinely involving the people in rewriting the Constitution would reduce the veneration the citizens have for their laws and government, thereby destabilizing the polity  3) frequent appeals to the people’s fundamental authority would excite their passions and disturb public tranquility  4) if the usurpation of power was instigated by the legislative branch (which is the most likely scenario), it is probably these same men who would be elected by the people to the convention, since they are the public figures most familiar to the people – that is, they have the best name recognition and the most influence, which is how they got elected in the first place  5) if the people didn’t choose their legislators to attend the convention – perhaps because the usurpation of power by some of them was so flagrant – the choice of convention delegates would nonetheless be conducted in a turbulent atmosphere of partisan politics.

In the last case, Madison argued, it would be “the passions, therefore, not the reason, of the public [that] would sit in judgment.”  But this is the exact opposite of how good popular government should work.  According to Madison, in a well-constructed republic the passions of the public will be controlled and regulated by the government; in turn, the government will be controlled and regulated by the reason of the public.

It is important not to misconstrue Madison’s argument against frequent appeals to the people in this essay.  He opposed frequent appeals to the people in their most sovereign capacity – which is what constitutional conventions represent. His claim is that convening a convention to change the Constitution every time there is an abuse of power by politicians is not the best or even, generally, a smart solution.  Given that Madison was already a seasoned political leader (albeit only 36 years old) and a realist about human nature, he knew that this would mean a lot of conventions!  He also knew that asking the people to reconsider and revise fundamental law on a chronic basis would agitate and destabilize public opinion, which is the very foundation of government and the effective rule of law.

It is important to note that Madison did not argue for a blanket rejection of an appeal to the fundamental authority of the people; indeed, he insisted that a path to constitutional change must be kept open to the people, to be tread on extraordinary occasions.  This is of course the purpose of Article V of the U.S. Constitution, which establishes the constitutional amendment process. Moreover, his discussion of reverence for the laws should not be interpreted to mean that the people ought to venerate rather than vigilantly watch over their government.  In fact, in Federalist 57 he will stress the importance of the vigilant spirit of the people in restraining government and safeguarding liberty.  In the 49th essay, however, Madison is warning his fellow citizens that we should not be unrealistic about the sway of reason in politics.  Since most people are not disinterested or dispassionate philosophers, he implies here what he teaches throughout The Federalist: the achievement of reasonable and just public decisions is going to take substantial time and the hard work of communication and public deliberation.  Essentially, Madison is saying, let’s be careful not to circumvent these speed bumps, which are constructed for our own safety.  Let’s not be impetuous and race headlong at a dangerous pace.  Slow and steady wins the republican race.

Colleen Sheehan is Professor of Political Science at Villanova University and Director of the Matthew J. Ryan Center for the Study of Free Institutions and the Public Good.

Monday, July 5th, 2010

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