Guest Blogger: William C. Duncan, director of the Marriage Law Foundation

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

Federalist 20 is one of a series of essays that discuss the governmental precedents of other nations as illustrations of some of the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation. In it, James Madison discusses the Netherlands, painting a picture of a weak government held together by a strong magistrate and the pressures created by hostile surrounding nations. Madison underscores the fact that the government has overstepped its constitutional bounds on occasion because those bounds do not allow it to meet emergencies.

A lesson here is that a weak and ineffectual government is a threat to liberty just as an overly strong and active government would be. He explains that the experience of the Netherlands demonstrates: “A weak constitution must necessarily terminate in dissolution for want of proper powers, or the usurpation of powers requisite for the public safety.” The implication for the United States Constitution is that it must create a government capable of meeting true emergencies and dealing forcefully with threats from other nations. The failure to do so not only could result in dissolution, but ironically, could lead to too strong a government: “Tyranny has perhaps oftener grown out of the assumptions of power, called for, on pressing exigencies, by a defective constitution, than out of the full exercise of the largest constitutional authorities.”

Madison attributes the weakness of the constitution of the Netherlands to “the calamities brought on mankind by their adverse opinions and selfish passions” and recommends that Americans “let our gratitude mingle an ejaculation to Heaven, for the propitious concord which has distinguished the consultations for our political happiness.”

In addition to evoking gratitude, there is another important lesson in Federalist 20 for current political debates.

In the Pennsylvania Convention, John Dickinson had taught: “Experience must be our only guide. Reason may mislead us.” At the end of Federalist 20, Madison explains why he has spent time describing the precedent of other nations in words that echo Dickinson’s: “Experience is the oracle of truth; and where its responses are unequivocal, they ought to be conclusive and sacred.”

An obvious application of this point is to the ongoing debate over whether our government should continue to press for greater and greater social controls. It would seem obvious that the unequivocal disaster of socialist and communist governments ought to warn us away from that precipice.

More generally we can heed the Framers’ example of willingness to learn from experience rather than to trust only in their unaided ability to reason out new solutions. Subtle thinking and cleverness have their place but must be disciplined by a willingness to learn lessons from human experience. One of the greatest strengths of the U.S. Constitution is its dual application of (1) the principles of self-government learned in the colonial experience and (2) the lessons of history derived from careful study and reflection.

Returning to a theme from the discussion of Federalist 17, there is a temptation to apply not experience, but ideology, to problems we face as a nation. Doing so appeals to a hubristic temperament. Some will always be dissatisfied if political reality is not made to conform to prefabricated theories even when doing so requires compulsion and control. In fact, the ability to control society may be the attraction of such theories; at least to some of their adherents.

The Framers eschewed easy answers and paid the price in experience, deliberation and study to create a secure foundation for our national government. That foundation incorporates the lessons of experience. Our response to current challenges must do the same.

Mr. Duncan is director of the Marriage Law Foundation ( He formerly served as acting director of the Marriage Law Project at the Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law and as executive director of the Marriage and Family Law Research Grant at J. Reuben Clark Law School, Brigham Young University, where he was also a visiting professor

16 Responses to “May 25, 2010 – Federalist No. 20 – The Same Subject Continued: The Insufficiency of the Present Confederation to Preserve the Union, from the New York Packet (Hamilton & Madison) – Guest Blogger: William C. Duncan, director of the Marriage Law Foundation”

  1. Charles Babb says:

    This morning I sent the following message to my children.

    “Those who are not informed of what they possess will not recognize when it is taken from them. Nor, can they preserve it for their prodigy.

    William Duncan has blogged an informative op ed in response to our reading of FEDERALIST No. 20 this morning and I invite you to take a few minutes and read it.


    Understanding what is needed won’t help much if I don’t take some positive step toward implementation. Eventually we can all begin to demand that those seeking elective office exhibit an of understanding of and a desire to support the truths we believe in.

  2. Maggie says:

    Madison and Hamilton state that “a weak constitution must necessarily terminate in dissolution for want of proper powers, or the usurpation of powers requisite for the public safety.”…..It is in the name of “safety” that the government has continued their unrelenting power grab. I’m sure we have all seen what an overbearing parent does to the will of a child. When does a parent let the child grow up and fend for himself? This goes for both “safety” concerns as well as being financially responsible. How brilliant these two men were when they said, “let our gratitude mingle an ejaculation to Heaven, for the propitious concord which has distinguished the consultations for our political happiness.” Our “new” system works. Why are we not rejoicing to God that it has brought us thus far and doing all we can to protect it rather than looking back with fondness upon the many systems that have failed time after time?

  3. Susan Craig says:

    What crystal ball did they have? Or was it just a true understanding of history and its lessons?
    This paragraph brought me up short!

    This unhappy people seem to be now suffering from popular convulsions, from dissensions among the states, and from the actual invasion of foreign arms, the crisis of their distiny. All nations have their eyes fixed on the awful spectacle. The first wish prompted by humanity is, that this severe trial may issue in such a revolution of their government as will establish their union, and render it the parent of tranquillity, freedom and happiness: The next, that the asylum under which, we trust, the enjoyment of these blessings will speedily be secured in this country, may receive and console them for the catastrophe of their own.

    We have Michigan, California, Louisianna and Arizona. We have Islamic radicals, several countries that don’t like us very much (Venezuela, North Korea and Iran) not to mention those that wouldn’t mind seeing us taken down a peg.

  4. Ron Meier says:

    Thanks for the Dickinson quotes, Mr. Duncan, especially “Experience is the oracle of truth; and where its responses are unequivocal, they ought to be conclusive and sacred.”

    For the longest time, I had tried to show several otherwise very logical and rational friends, all with advanced degrees, including PhD, the folly of their thinking, by comparing reality to their ideology. For example, an atheist friend believes Radical Islam is not a problem and we should not be fighting a war in the Middle East. I pointed out that an atheist has the most to fear from Radical Islam because they would be forced to convert to Islam or be killed. Since an atheist does not believe in life after death, they would be most disappointed to be killed before their otherwise natural death; yet, if they are true to their atheism, they should not convert. Therefore, I would submit that Atheists should be the ones whom we might expect to be most adamant in pursuing the war on Radical Islam, to insure that they are never faced with that impossible choice.

    After awhile it finally hit me that logical and rational reasoning, supported by experience and facts, was 100% ineffective in arguing with those whose ideology trumps all facts and experience. Now, generally, I ignore their comments and don’t waste time. It seems that my time is better spent discussing with those who are fence sitters and open to ideas rather than those who are confined to their ideological straitjackets.

    I wonder what Mr. Duncan might think about the utility of arguing with these kind of ideologues and what advice he might have for us so we can be more effective? Certainly marriage counseling has many similar circumstances and I would assume similar roadblocks are encountered there.

  5. Dave says:

    Mr. Duncan, well said. Thank you.

    Charles for Father of the Year!

    Maggie, I concur. With increasing frequency we are told of a crisis and the impending doom if we don’t grant Washington more power, control and more of our money.

    And we haven’t been rejoicing to God for our good fortune for over one hundred years, because some pointy-headed, hubristic “intellectuals” thought man could do better. Man can create that utopia that God has so cruelly and stingily withheld. After two world wars one would think our days of longing for a man-made utopia contrary to “the laws of nature and of nature’s God” would be over.

  6. Karen Sherer says:

    This study of the Federalist papers has really brought home to me the plain fact that a thorough knowledge of history is not “a useless course of study. I’ll never use it in my life. Why take it?” It is so very true that our current administration (and many others before it) DO rely on their pure ideological goals and either ignore or never learned the lessons of history.

  7. Bache says:

    The wisdom obtained and applied by the Founders required diligence, dedication and knowledge. The personal principles each contributing writer and scholar to our Constitution and foundation of our country came with sacrifice. I believed that they recognized their own inadequacies and were willing to listen to experience and to the history. B. Franklin once said, ” The doors of wisdom are never shut.”

  8. Susan Craig says:

    There is a book titled ‘The World Turned Upside Down’, that demonstrates that reason comes out of religion and that eventually all genres of thought that say religion is inimitable to reason and logic eventually hit a point which is unreasonable and illogical. The author is Melanie Phillips.

  9. Carol Frenier says:

    I, too, continue to be interested in the impact of ideology on both 1) failing to see the importance of experience and 2) the desire of some to expand the power of central government. Can you recommend a good history of ideological development in American politics?

  10. Laurie says:

    I was concerned that no one responded to Carol Frenier’s writing yesterday about what this ideology from Europe is that we keep referring to as the one that is a threat to the America that our founders gave us. I immediately think of a mandatory course in 11th grade, “Americanism vs Communism.” Bet that’s not mandatory anymore. Whether you want to call it Socialism or Communism, it is an ideology that gives the wealth to the political or ruling class and makes the rest of us basically equal. (See Russia, China, Cuba, Venezuela) A European book that was recently translated into English is “The Coming Insurrection” by the Invisible Committee, how to bring down governments, even the family. ( has it) Also, study Saul Alinsky’s Rules for radicals and the Cloward and Piven strategy, you can Google those. They also preach how to overwhelm the welfare system in order to bring American capitalism to an end. The Drudge Report has a story today how “government provided benefits are at record high” and “paychecks from private businesses at record low.” (About 42%) Who is going to pay all these benefits? Unions want a 165 Billion Dollar bailout for their pensions. State worker unions want 100 Billion Dollar bailout. This is what the radicals want. Who is rioting in Greece? Labor Unions and Radicals. I’m afraid we are being set up by Overspenders in Washington, who want to collapse free enterprise and all our liberties. That is why this Federalist study, learning what Americanism is again is so terribly important.

  11. Carolyn Attaway says:

    As Susan pointed out, the paragraph that begins ‘This unhappy people . . .’ could very well be written to some extent of America today. Reading headlines such as “Redistribution Victory: Private Pay Plummets, Govt Handouts Soar”, “ObamaCare Lawsuit Reveals National Grab to Regulate Individual Decisions”, and “Nonpartisan Proof: Cap-and-Trade Is an Economy-Killer”, brings home the point addressed in Paper 20 that ideology over experience always leads to failure. I believe that many nations have their eyes fixed on us, some praying for our strength, and others for our demise.

    Which leads me to the most important statement that I have read so far in the Federalist Papers; with added words “Experience is the oracle, the divine revelation of truth; and where its responses are unequivocal, absolute, they ought to be conclusive, decisive and regarded with reverence, sacred.

    As Mr. Duncan points out, “Subtle thinking and cleverness have their place but must be disciplined by a willingness to learn lessons from human experience. One of the greatest strengths of the U.S. Constitution is its dual application of (1) the principles of self-government learned in the colonial experience and (2) the lessons of history derived from careful study and reflection.”

    Of this great strength in our Constitution, can we make the argument that our Congress is not paying much heed to the second application, and that many of America’s citizens themselves have forgotten the valuable lessons of history? I am always taken aback when I mention a relatively known country such as Wales, and the large number of people who do not even know that Wales is a country, much less where it is located.

    So how can one study the history of a country, if they do not even know that that country exists? One of my favorite videos on AFV is when the father of a little 2 year old girl asks her to point to various states and cities on the map, and when she is correct in her answer, she does the “Smarty Pants Dance” (It still makes me giggle) Anyway, maybe we should take this lesson and apply it to students of all ages, reinforcing the idea that knowledge of history makes one very wise.

  12. Kay says:

    The premises and arguments of The Federalist Papers are seeping into my being. Two weeks ago I wrote a two page letter to my congressman (remember the NY 23rd district race) with concerns, and ended it with: “Our founders were wiser than the whole Congress put together today, having foresight because they had hindsight on what works and does not work for a nation to prosper. They did not live in the moment because they desired that the Constitution be a lasting document, not like the legislation Congress is passing that will destroy us as a people.” Because of the essayists and commentators on this project, my thinking is being refined and focused on the whys behind our wonderful Constitution. May we all have opportunities to pass onto others what we are learning.

  13. The Ransom of Reason

    Reason be and reason we
    Away our distant shores
    Wander not and wanton trot
    Afraid of written mores

    Did we not through seasons see
    The meaning, yet for many
    We forgot the how,
    We riddled out the penny

    “I know this and I know that
    Believe me for I’ve the vision
    Follow me and listen now
    For I rewrite the mission

    We is the forgotten us
    It matter not for you
    I seek your best and vest my truths
    It is I who reap the view.”

    Freedom this and Freedom that
    Ring in empty vestibules
    History renders ghosts forgotten
    Lost the written tools

    “I seize the rapture
    Seek doleful and the bane
    Meeker making spirit spree
    I linger not in vain

    Feed the weakness, starve the heart
    Watch the soul regress
    Rhyme and reason take their toll
    Happy opportune the guess.”

    By Janine Turner
    May 25, 2010

  14. Laurie says:

    The God that the founders turned to in 1776, is the same One today. Without Him, we will not succeed in our desire to re-found our nation on the principals of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Make no mistake. Without Him, we will be overwhelmed by the agenda from others. Our founders didn’t just have incredible knowledge of history, they believed in God, and His special purpose for America. That was their strength. We must have the same strength today. Those who believe in America, must believe in the God of our Founders, Who gave the incredible power and foresight and knowledge to help them to create our exceptional-ism, never before in the history of the world, a country of freedom and liberty and justice for all. Truly, a miracle.

  15. Maggie says:

    Janine……that’s absolutely beautiful!

  16. Roger Jett says:

    Laurie, I agree. Even the “Deist” of our day can see that we live in “a time that try men’s souls”, but it will require that “we the people” once again awaken to the faith of our fathers. A faith that not only acknowledged Him the “Creator” as He was ….., but that He is and that He will always be the “Sustainer” and “Giver” of all good things. You said in your post that “they believed in God, and His special purpose for America.” There are those who dispute that and have long been laboring in the margins of our society to knit a fabricated false rewrite of history. Unfortunately, they are no longer operating in the margins. They are positioned in high places and with each day they seek to entrench. As you say, “Without Him, we will be overcome by the agenda of others”. We can reason and trust that He that is the “First Cause” is more than able and can effect the restoration and sustainment of all that we desire, “a country free and liberty and justice for all”.

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