Guest Essayist: Joerg Knipprath, Professor of Law at Southwestern Law School

Federalist Nos. 37 and 38 depart from Publius’s usual fare of panoramic examination of the weaknesses of historic confederations or dissection of particular objections to the Constitution. Instead, Madison takes up the cause of the project as a whole and of those who remained in Philadelphia to see it through. The thematic thread running through Federalist 37 is “fallibility,” with repeated reminders of human limitations that call for humility and compromise.

His style varies, moving from the evocative tone of the raconteur to the righteous indignation of the remonstrator to the mild defensiveness of the weary apologist. His annoyance with the quantity and variety of criticisms is palpable. He impugns the motives of opponents whom he accuses of a “predetermination to condemn.” Unlike the uncritical enthusiasts who support the project and whose motives may be good or ill, these opponents have no good or even excusably misbegotten motives. To Madison, they act from personal gain or the unwavering arrogance of their  righteous certitude.

Madison fears that the project might, like Gulliver, become tied down by the carping of Lilliputian critics. He knows that delay works against success of any significant and controversial political innovation. He declares, therefore, that he will appeal not to minds already made up, but to the honestly persuadable reader. He pleads with readers to consider the difficulties inherent in an undertaking as momentous as the crafting of a constitution, difficulties that necessarily result in imperfect compromises that expose points for easy attack. It has been said, “A camel is a horse designed by committee.” The Constitution is a camel, a durable and adaptable animal to be sure, but not a sleek and pampered horse planned by “an ingenious theorist…in his closet, or in his imagination.”

Benjamin Franklin, in a speech near the close of the Philadelphia Convention, revealed his doubts about parts of the Constitution. Ever the committed skeptic, he then declared his support “because I expect no better, and because I am not sure, that it is not the best.” Franklin expressed hope “that every member of the Convention who may still have objections to it, would with me, on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility” and sign the Constitution. As Madison writes in the next essay, no government is perfect, so that form which is least imperfect is best.

Madison describes the difficulties faced by the Convention in balancing energy in government, stability of laws, and republican liberty, that is, those fundamental characteristics of good government that can be at odds with each. All constitutions share minimum common ground in that they reflect by whom and how governing authority will be exercised. He lays out the delicate balance the Convention had to strike in ordering that authority:

The genius of republican liberty, seems to demand on one side, not only that all power should be derived from the people; but, that those intrusted with it should be kept in dependence on the people, by a short duration of their appointments; and that, even during this short period, the trust should be placed not in a few, but in a number of hands. Stability, on the contrary, requires, that the hands, in which power is lodged, should continue for a length of time the same. A frequent change of men will result from a frequent return of electors; and a frequent change of measures, from a frequent change of men: whilst energy in government requires not only a certain duration of power, but the execution of it by a single hand.

Republicanism. Liberty. Stability. Energy. Ideas that animated the Framers, as reflected in numerous essays by Publius, those were also the objects of the Convention’s plan. That plan had to be practical, driven by experience, not by unbending fidelity to some abstract theory. The vastness of the project and the limitations of human ability complicated the task. It was not merely determining the republican operation of government through elections and representation. It was also the daunting work of designing a new federal structure by balancing the state and national political domains, and of properly calibrating the separation and interaction of the three branches of the national government, all while damping the jealousies among states and regions.

This endeavor is made difficult by the “indistinctness of the object [the absence of fixed rules of nature to show how these institutions should be designed to accomplish the objects of the plan]; imperfection of the organ of perception [the fallibility of the human mind that prevents us from recognizing the perfect path], inadequateness of the vehicle of ideas [the limitations of language in the expression of ideas].” Madison regrets that “no language is so copious as to supply words and phrases for every complex idea, or so correct as not to include many, equivocally denoting different ideas.” Interpretation of written text must start with the words. But every writing suffers from the inherent vagueness and imprecision of language. For contracts, laws, and constitutions, which affect groups of persons, the reader’s mere subjective impression will not do, and recourse must be had to various extraneous sources of meaning. Those imperfections may mar the Constitution; but they will also mar any alternative.

Madison is moved to wonder “that so many difficulties should have been surmounted….It is impossible for any man of candour to reflect on this circumstance, without partaking of the astonishment. It is impossible, for the man of pious reflection, not to perceive in it the finger of that Almighty Hand, which has been so frequently and signally extended to our relief in the critical stages of the revolution.” Due recognition of the fallibility of all involved requires of them humility about their own wisdom and at least a spirit of sensible compromise (though not, by that, a lack of firm principles). Those are the marks of statesmen in contrast to mere politicians, and Madison calls on both sides to be statesmen.

Good advice through the ages.

An expert on constitutional law, Prof. Joerg W. 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.  Prof. Knipprath has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums.  His website is

Thursday, June 17th, 2010


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