Friday, May 21st, 2010
What sets the founding of the American republic apart from the founding of so many nations on Earth was the depth and breadth of knowledge, research, analysis and debate that went into it. This is made evident from Madison’s Federalist #18, written under his pseudonym “Publius”. In 18, Madison delves deeply into the experience of the ancient Greek states and the various federations, alliances, and confederations that they had historically formed. In an era without instant electronic access to libraries of information, the sheer amount of scholarship presented in these pieces is nothing short of astounding.
Federalist #18 charts the shortcomings that arose within these various confederacies, presenting them as analogs and object lessons for the then-current struggles the fledgling republic was experiencing. The message was simple: we must learn from these mistakes, and make every effort to correct where the learned Greeks were deficient. It is the essence of archival scholarship: those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.
Two key lessons emerge. First and foremost, the issue of balancing minority interests against those of a powerful majority, and vice-versa. It was only though the careful historical scholarship of the founders that the delicate structures that we have today were created—and direct lines can be drawn from these lessons to the creation of two very different legislative branches, one stemming from direct democracy (The House), the 2nd stemming (initially) from a more genteel (but, in my estimation far more responsive to the people) source of power (The Senate, which until the ratification of the 17th Amendment drew its members from the nominations of state legislatures); the electoral college (which serves to balance the interests of rural and urban population centers); as well as the very system of dual sovereigns that underpins the system of federalism.
The second lesson arose out of the first—that whatever federal union would be created, would have to be strong. That even though federalism “secures to citizens the liberties that derive from the diffusion of sovereign power” (The Supreme Court in Coleman v. Thompson, 501 US 722, 759 (1991)), nevertheless there would still have to be a strong and unified central power, to ensure that the nation would not only grow and prosper, but be able to effectively defend itself. There is strength to be had in numbers, and this is the essence of E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One).
Call it happenstance, call it the coincidence of timing and talent, or call it (as I do) divine providence. The bottom line is that at the time when this nation needed learned minds and steady hands guiding it, those men were to be found leading it. Their grasp of the lessons of history (both the mistakes, and triumphs) are evident in Federalist #18.
Andrew Langer is the President of the Institute for Liberty