The balance to solve the problems inherent in past democracies are addressed in the Federalist Papers. One topic that takes precedent is the idea of popular sovereignty and its dangers that can result in the tyranny of the majority. Whereas most Founders would agree that man is rational and capable of solving problems through reason, and that the will of the majority may be correct, this will is quite fallible. The recognition of this aspect of human nature lays the foundation upon which the Constitutionalists will devise the mechanisms and safeguards within government to allow for popular sovereignty to rule, but tyranny of the majority to fail.
The very fact that these Federalist Papers were penned and published reveals a trust and confidence in the American population to deliberate and reason. In the very first of them, Federalist Paper 1, John Jay sets the tone by directly relating to the consensus of all three social contract theorists’ (Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau) beliefs that men are rational and capable of solving problems with reason (Baradat 68). “My arguments will be open to all and may be judged by all” (Rossiter 30). Publius (pen name), in the next paragraph, lays out his topics of argument and rebuttal in a cogent, logical way.
Federalist Paper No. 6, written by Hamilton, recognizes the dangers of the motives of men as represented in republics and represented as individual kings. Hamilton reminds us in his discussion responding to the advantages of the Confederation would create more harmony, “…would be to forget that men are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious” (Rossiter 48). Hamilton shared Madison’s distrust of human nature, but believed in people’s ability to overcome said deficiencies with reason. This tone seems to contradict Thomas Jefferson’s notion that the nature of man is generally good. Locke recognized the “dignity of human nature” (Baradat 71) whereas Hobbes distrusted it (69).
Thomas Jefferson, too, respected the dangers that lie within the hearts of men. In his first inaugural speech, Jefferson states, “All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate which would be oppression” (16).
Federalist Paper No. 10 is Madison’s discourse on the dangers of the so-called factions that can oppress the minority’s rights. Madison, like Plato, was weary of democracy and distrusted the masses in a crisis. Madison points out throughout his writings the crisis point of a society deteriorating the democracy into a dictatorship.
Madison so distrusted the masses that he devised and defended the notion of the checks and balances in government. If enough people with the same motive and ambition organized, this so-called faction as he called it could rule, via democratic institutions, to the detriment of the minority. By having a centralized government with divisions of power in the legislature, and the executive and judicial branches, the possibility of enough people creating that single-minded majority is lessened. The danger of the faction does not mean that a pluralistic viewpoint and mechanism cannot produce good for the community. Elected officials would be charged with rendering government for the good of the people, not the local, temporary will of the people. By dispersing power, even if an elected official was not the statesman of integrity representing the good of the people, the mechanism of diversifying power offered a safeguard against that potential tyranny.
Unlike Rousseau who thought the majority can do no wrong—that the general will of the people is always good by definition of it being the will of the majority—Madison examined too many historical examples to the contrary. People needed material well-being first in order to ponder and reason with rationality and with an outlook for the greater good. Crisis is what caused the rational to turn to the mob. Ay protecting individual rights, freedoms, and property, man can be free to exercise their thought for the greater good.
Madison’s view of the American people can best be summed up by Robert Middlekauff in The Glorious Cause: “But underlying any successful constitutionalism there had to be a virtuous people. The Founders, especially Franklin, Madison, and Wilson, believed that the Convention must risk all, indeed risk the Revolution, by trusting the virtue of the American People” (653).
Madison viewed the risks involved in democracy of the tyranny of the majority to be less intense in America than in other nations or nation-states because of the size of its territory and diversity of population over that vast land made the possibility of any one faction dominating another less probable. The House of Representatives would be popularly elected. The removal of the Senate from popular control separated the majority from the potential tyranny. The belief in popular sovereignty tempered with the fear of the majority’s tyranny resulted in the remedied called the bicameral legislative branch.
These limits “protected the rights of the minority and of property, rights which had helped set the revolution process in motion in the 1760s” (Middlekauff 653).
Madison as well as other founders also recognized a Providence that seemed to guide humanity and the new nation. Jefferson reiterated this. Although Christianity or any particular religion was not inserted into the publication of the Federalist Papers nor the Convention itself, clearly an underlying virtue subject to an Almighty underscored the sentiments of most Americans and its founders. Religion was referenced as a commonality among men, but not a cure for its ills. “Yet the Constitution managed to capture some of the morality long common in American life and clearly present in the first days of the Revolution” (Middlekrau 652). As mentioned previously, Locke also held the assumption that men are accountable to a God who created them and the natural law.
The contradiction that Madison and other nationalists had to reconcile was the notion that popular sovereignty—the will of the people and self-government—was necessary and proper, but that the ills that could result (tyranny of the majority) needed advance remedies. The Constitution and the federal government it frames exalt the virtues and curtail the ills as best architected thus far in history. “It [the Constitution] aimed to thwart majoritarian tyranny, but it not deny that sovereignty resided in the people. Government should serve the people, and in the Constitution the delegates sought to create a framework which would make such service effective, though not at the cost of the oppression of the minority“(Middlekauff 652).
Moreover, “The delegates placed their trust in the people because they had no choice: a public had to found itself on the people. Their suspicions of popular power led to a preoccupation with restraints and curbs on the undue exercise of power by deedless majorities” (653). Popular sovereignty and the fear of the tyranny of the majority was therefore reconciled by an appeal to the people to approve the strong federal government under the Constitutional framework proposed.
James Madison penned a document called “Vices of the Political System of the United States” in April 1787. In this, he outlined his discontent with the Article of Confederations. This document reveals additional insight to the underlying beliefs Madison had regarding the nature of man and its ills when demonstrated in a democracy. Madison writes of the causes of injustice in the Laws of the States in two places: the Representative bodies and in the people themselves. Madison asserted that appointments to representative bodies have three motives: ambition, personal interest, and public good. He feared that the public good as perceived could be a mask for the first two. The people from whom the representative is elected are also a so-called danger in Madison’s eyes. In this discussion, Madison further points out that the factions can still choose a representative that will not seek a greater good over the passions of the locality. Madison views that even reputation and religion cannot overcome this propensity for self-interest at the expense of others. These ideas in this document Madison penned are reiterated in Federalist Papers Numbers 10 and 51. By broadening the sphere of the republic, the dangers herein expressed are lessened (Green 517-518). Federalist Paper No. 51 examines the role of the checks and balances within the branches to protect the people by controlling each of the other branches and itself. The checks and balances protect the people from the government, and from each other, and the government from itself.
Therefore, this dual nature of man, a species created by God and guided by Providence, a species with innate capabilities such as reason and rationality; whose character traits include virtue, integrity and a quest for the common good; whose very nature is of equal value to all others and contains ambition and a desire for happiness and improvement. This nature also holds the ability to veer into darker traits such as brutish force to violate the rights of another via oppression to achieve self-interest. Reconciling these seemingly contradicting forces provides the premise on which the construction of the Constitution of a national federal government was framed. Democracy is both endowed by Nature as the right form of government, yet it is the very nature of the governed makes democracy dangerous. In this, then, is born the brilliant mechanisms of the Constitution that illuminate the will of the people and protect against its ills: Separation of power via an executive, legislative (bi-cameral) and judicial branch.
Championed by Madison, Hamilton, and Jay in the Federalist Papers and propelled by fellow founders such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, this careful and meticulous examination of human nature brought forth a new paradigm on whose successes we enjoy liberty to this day.
Amy Zewe is a professor of English and the Humanities, completing graduate work at The George Washington University and Tiffin University. She is also a freelance writer and editor as a business communication specialist and offers commentary on political and social issues to various media outlets. Amy resides in Northern Virginia.
Baradat, Leon, P. Political Ideologies. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2009. Barron, Robert C. eds. Jefferson The Man in His Own Words. Golden CO: Fulcrum Publishers. 1998
Greene, Jack P. eds. Colonies to Nation 1763-1789 A Documentary History of the American Revolution. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 1967.
Locke, John. Second Treatise of Government. Macpherson, C.B. eds. USA: Hackett, 1980.
Middlekauff, Robert. The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789. New York: Oxford Press. 1982
Rossiter, Clinton, ed. The Federalist Papers. New York, NY: Signet, 1999.
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