Criticism abounds regarding President Barack Obama and executive overreach. To name one example, the Affordable Care Act (ACA), commonly known as “Obamacare,” has raised the ire of many Americans. Expansive government and centralized approaches to political issues, admittedly, started before the Obama administration, but current executive overreach has accelerated the size of the national government and threatens individual liberty.  Various administrative divisions, whether classified as executive agencies or executive departments, such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Education, have been scrutinized, too. Through “the administrative state,” what some have labeled the “fourth branch of government,” the executive branch seemingly continues to have its fingerprints on more and more aspects of American lives. Read more

The Conformity of the Plan to Republican Principles
For the Independent Journal.

Author: James Madison

To the People of the State of New York:

THE last paper having concluded the observations which were meant to introduce a candid survey of the plan of government reported by the convention, we now proceed to the execution of that part of our undertaking.

The first question that offers itself is, whether the general form and aspect of the government be strictly republican. It is evident that no other form would be reconcilable with the genius of the people of America; with the fundamental principles of the Revolution; or with that honorable determination which animates every votary of freedom, to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government. If the plan of the convention, therefore, be found to depart from the republican character, its advocates must abandon it as no longer defensible.

What, then, are the distinctive characters of the republican form? Were an answer to this question to be sought, not by recurring to principles, but in the application of the term by political writers, to the constitution of different States, no satisfactory one would ever be found. Holland, in which no particle of the supreme authority is derived from the people, has passed almost universally under the denomination of a republic. The same title has been bestowed on Venice, where absolute power over the great body of the people is exercised, in the most absolute manner, by a small body of hereditary nobles. Poland, which is a mixture of aristocracy and of monarchy in their worst forms, has been dignified with the same appellation. The government of England, which has one republican branch only, combined with an hereditary aristocracy and monarchy, has, with equal impropriety, been frequently placed on the list of republics. These examples, which are nearly as dissimilar to each other as to a genuine republic, show the extreme inaccuracy with which the term has been used in political disquisitions.

If we resort for a criterion to the different principles on which different forms of government are established, we may define a republic to be, or at least may bestow that name on, a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people, and is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure, for a limited period, or during good behavior. It is ESSENTIAL to such a government that it be derived from the great body of the society, not from an inconsiderable proportion, or a favored class of it; otherwise a handful of tyrannical nobles, exercising their oppressions by a delegation of their powers, might aspire to the rank of republicans, and claim for their government the honorable title of republic. It is SUFFICIENT for such a government that the persons administering it be appointed, either directly or indirectly, by the people; and that they hold their appointments by either of the tenures just specified; otherwise every government in the United States, as well as every other popular government that has been or can be well organized or well executed, would be degraded from the republican character. According to the constitution of every State in the Union, some or other of the officers of government are appointed indirectly only by the people. According to most of them, the chief magistrate himself is so appointed. And according to one, this mode of appointment is extended to one of the co-ordinate branches of the legislature. According to all the constitutions, also, the tenure of the highest offices is extended to a definite period, and in many instances, both within the legislative and executive departments, to a period of years. According to the provisions of most of the constitutions, again, as well as according to the most respectable and received opinions on the subject, the members of the judiciary department are to retain their offices by the firm tenure of good behavior.

On comparing the Constitution planned by the convention with the standard here fixed, we perceive at once that it is, in the most rigid sense, conformable to it. The House of Representatives, like that of one branch at least of all the State legislatures, is elected immediately by the great body of the people. The Senate, like the present Congress, and the Senate of Maryland, derives its appointment indirectly from the people. The President is indirectly derived from the choice of the people, according to the example in most of the States. Even the judges, with all other officers of the Union, will, as in the several States, be the choice, though a remote choice, of the people themselves, the duration of the appointments is equally conformable to the republican standard, and to the model of State constitutions The House of Representatives is periodically elective, as in all the States; and for the period of two years, as in the State of South Carolina. The Senate is elective, for the period of six years; which is but one year more than the period of the Senate of Maryland, and but two more than that of the Senates of New York and Virginia. The President is to continue in office for the period of four years; as in New York and Delaware, the chief magistrate is elected for three years, and in South Carolina for two years. In the other States the election is annual. In several of the States, however, no constitutional provision is made for the impeachment of the chief magistrate. And in Delaware and Virginia he is not impeachable till out of office. The President of the United States is impeachable at any time during his continuance in office. The tenure by which the judges are to hold their places, is, as it unquestionably ought to be, that of good behavior. The tenure of the ministerial offices generally, will be a subject of legal regulation, conformably to the reason of the case and the example of the State constitutions.

Could any further proof be required of the republican complexion of this system, the most decisive one might be found in its absolute prohibition of titles of nobility, both under the federal and the State governments; and in its express guaranty of the republican form to each of the latter.

“But it was not sufficient,” say the adversaries of the proposed Constitution, “for the convention to adhere to the republican form. They ought, with equal care, to have preserved the FEDERAL form, which regards the Union as a CONFEDERACY of sovereign states; instead of which, they have framed a NATIONAL government, which regards the Union as a CONSOLIDATION of the States.” And it is asked by what authority this bold and radical innovation was undertaken? The handle which has been made of this objection requires that it should be examined with some precision.

Without inquiring into the accuracy of the distinction on which the objection is founded, it will be necessary to a just estimate of its force, first, to ascertain the real character of the government in question; secondly, to inquire how far the convention were authorized to propose such a government; and thirdly, how far the duty they owed to their country could supply any defect of regular authority.

First. In order to ascertain the real character of the government, it may be considered in relation to the foundation on which it is to be established; to the sources from which its ordinary powers are to be drawn; to the operation of those powers; to the extent of them; and to the authority by which future changes in the government are to be introduced.

On examining the first relation, it appears, on one hand, that the Constitution is to be founded on the assent and ratification of the people of America, given by deputies elected for the special purpose; but, on the other, that this assent and ratification is to be given by the people, not as individuals composing one entire nation, but as composing the distinct and independent States to which they respectively belong. It is to be the assent and ratification of the several States, derived from the supreme authority in each State, the authority of the people themselves. The act, therefore, establishing the Constitution, will not be a NATIONAL, but a FEDERAL act.

That it will be a federal and not a national act, as these terms are understood by the objectors; the act of the people, as forming so many independent States, not as forming one aggregate nation, is obvious from this single consideration, that it is to result neither from the decision of a MAJORITY of the people of the Union, nor from that of a MAJORITY of the States. It must result from the UNANIMOUS assent of the several States that are parties to it, differing no otherwise from their ordinary assent than in its being expressed, not by the legislative authority, but by that of the people themselves. Were the people regarded in this transaction as forming one nation, the will of the majority of the whole people of the United States would bind the minority, in the same manner as the majority in each State must bind the minority; and the will of the majority must be determined either by a comparison of the individual votes, or by considering the will of the majority of the States as evidence of the will of a majority of the people of the United States. Neither of these rules have been adopted. Each State, in ratifying the Constitution, is considered as a sovereign body, independent of all others, and only to be bound by its own voluntary act. In this relation, then, the new Constitution will, if established, be a FEDERAL, and not a NATIONAL constitution.

The next relation is, to the sources from which the ordinary powers of government are to be derived. The House of Representatives will derive its powers from the people of America; and the people will be represented in the same proportion, and on the same principle, as they are in the legislature of a particular State. So far the government is NATIONAL, not FEDERAL. The Senate, on the other hand, will derive its powers from the States, as political and coequal societies; and these will be represented on the principle of equality in the Senate, as they now are in the existing Congress. So far the government is FEDERAL, not NATIONAL. The executive power will be derived from a very compound source. The immediate election of the President is to be made by the States in their political characters. The votes allotted to them are in a compound ratio, which considers them partly as distinct and coequal societies, partly as unequal members of the same society. The eventual election, again, is to be made by that branch of the legislature which consists of the national representatives; but in this particular act they are to be thrown into the form of individual delegations, from so many distinct and coequal bodies politic. From this aspect of the government it appears to be of a mixed character, presenting at least as many FEDERAL as NATIONAL features.

The difference between a federal and national government, as it relates to the OPERATION OF THE GOVERNMENT, is supposed to consist in this, that in the former the powers operate on the political bodies composing the Confederacy, in their political capacities; in the latter, on the individual citizens composing the nation, in their individual capacities. On trying the Constitution by this criterion, it falls under the NATIONAL, not the FEDERAL character; though perhaps not so completely as has been understood. In several cases, and particularly in the trial of controversies to which States may be parties, they must be viewed and proceeded against in their collective and political capacities only. So far the national countenance of the government on this side seems to be disfigured by a few federal features. But this blemish is perhaps unavoidable in any plan; and the operation of the government on the people, in their individual capacities, in its ordinary and most essential proceedings, may, on the whole, designate it, in this relation, a NATIONAL government.

But if the government be national with regard to the OPERATION of its powers, it changes its aspect again when we contemplate it in relation to the EXTENT of its powers. The idea of a national government involves in it, not only an authority over the individual citizens, but an indefinite supremacy over all persons and things, so far as they are objects of lawful government. Among a people consolidated into one nation, this supremacy is completely vested in the national legislature. Among communities united for particular purposes, it is vested partly in the general and partly in the municipal legislatures. In the former case, all local authorities are subordinate to the supreme; and may be controlled, directed, or abolished by it at pleasure. In the latter, the local or municipal authorities form distinct and independent portions of the supremacy, no more subject, within their respective spheres, to the general authority, than the general authority is subject to them, within its own sphere. In this relation, then, the proposed government cannot be deemed a NATIONAL one; since its jurisdiction extends to certain enumerated objects only, and leaves to the several States a residuary and inviolable sovereignty over all other objects. It is true that in controversies relating to the boundary between the two jurisdictions, the tribunal which is ultimately to decide, is to be established under the general government. But this does not change the principle of the case. The decision is to be impartially made, according to the rules of the Constitution; and all the usual and most effectual precautions are taken to secure this impartiality. Some such tribunal is clearly essential to prevent an appeal to the sword and a dissolution of the compact; and that it ought to be established under the general rather than under the local governments, or, to speak more properly, that it could be safely established under the first alone, is a position not likely to be combated.

If we try the Constitution by its last relation to the authority by which amendments are to be made, we find it neither wholly NATIONAL nor wholly FEDERAL. Were it wholly national, the supreme and ultimate authority would reside in the MAJORITY of the people of the Union; and this authority would be competent at all times, like that of a majority of every national society, to alter or abolish its established government. Were it wholly federal, on the other hand, the concurrence of each State in the Union would be essential to every alteration that would be binding on all. The mode provided by the plan of the convention is not founded on either of these principles. In requiring more than a majority, and principles. In requiring more than a majority, and particularly in computing the proportion by STATES, not by CITIZENS, it departs from the NATIONAL and advances towards the FEDERAL character; in rendering the concurrence of less than the whole number of States sufficient, it loses again the FEDERAL and partakes of the NATIONAL character.

The proposed Constitution, therefore, is, in strictness, neither a national nor a federal Constitution, but a composition of both. In its foundation it is federal, not national; in the sources from which the ordinary powers of the government are drawn, it is partly federal and partly national; in the operation of these powers, it is national, not federal; in the extent of them, again, it is federal, not national; and, finally, in the authoritative mode of introducing amendments, it is neither wholly federal nor wholly national.


Guest Essayist: James Legee, Graduate Fellow at the Matthew J. Ryan Center for the study of Free Institutions and the Public Good, Villanova University

Senator Jefferson Davis’ response to William Seward’s State of the Country Speech was effectively a political speech- it was not meant to fully articulate the Southern cause of State’s Rights, nor was it a long-winded justification of that “peculiar institution,” slavery.  Rather, Davis’ goal was to respond to Seward’s earlier speech, which condemned slavery.  Within Davis’ speech, though, we find an idea more dangerous and pernicious than slavery as a positive good or that a State has rights; Davis rejected the central principle of the American Founding and Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  Read more

Guest Essayist: Charles K. Rowley, Duncan Black Professor Emeritus of Economics at George Mason University and General Director of The Locke Institute in Fairfax, Virginia

In this 1830 response to Edward Everett of Massachusetts James Madison maintains that a state does not possess the authority to strike down as unconstitutional an act of the federal government.  If you find the essay long-winded, you are correct in this assessment.  It is long-winded because James Madison was a hypocrite on the issue of nullification, supporting the notion when it suited him, and rejecting it when it did not. You may learn from this episode an important lesson about human nature.  The greatest of founding fathers does not always make a great secretary of state, a great president, or a great elder-statesman.  James Madison (and Thomas Jefferson) were no exceptions to this insight. Read more

Guest Essayist: Tony Williams, Program Director, Washington-Jefferson-Madison Institute

The Constitution

When Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were creating the University of Virginia, they decided that the three American documents that would best illuminate the meaning of the Constitution when teaching future statesmen were the Declaration of Independence (along with the ideas of John Locke and Algernon Sidney), George Washington’s Farewell Address, and the Federalist.

Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence expressed the universal principle that all men were endowed by a Creator with natural, unalienable rights.  Influenced by the ideas of John Locke’s social compact theory, the purpose of government was to protect those natural rights.

If any government became tyrannical, or destructive of the ends for which it was created, the people had a right to overthrow that government and to institute a government that would protect their rights. Read more

Guest Essayist: Professor William Morrisey, William and Patricia LaMothe Chair in the United States Constitution at Hillsdale College


Article IV, Section 4

The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government, and shall protect each of them against Invasion; and on Application of the Legislature, or of the Executive (when the Legislature cannot be convened) against domestic Violence.

Here the Framers speak the heart of their intentions for America.

In the Declaration of Independence, they had objected to George III’s actions because he had violated the laws of nature and of nature’s God.  One might suppose that the Americans’ complaints amounted to no more than an accusation that this king had turned tyrant—that some other, more just, monarch (a Queen Anne, a Henry IV) might have appeased them. Indeed she, or he, might have done—for a time.

But a more careful reading of the Declaration shows that not only the king but also Parliament had angered the colonists.  Americans judged that the whole British regime, and the structure of the British empire, deserved to be overthrown—replaced with a new regime and a new imperial structure. The new regime was republican—republicanism as they, not the Europeans, understood it—and federal—a federalism informed but not simply as defined by the great French political philosopher, Montesquieu.

What danger did this clause address?  The highly respected Massachusetts delegate, Nathaniel Gorham, joined John Randolph and George Mason of Virginia and James Wilson of Pennsylvania in issuing the warning: “an enterprising Citizen might erect the standard of Monarchy in a particular State, might gather together partisans from all quarters, might extend his views from State to State, and threaten to establish a tyranny over the whole and the General Government be compelled to remain an inactive witness of its own destruction.” That is, these Framers anticipated the kind of career undertaken by Napoleon in France a decade before the fact, and they moved decisively to prevent it from happening here.

As usual, James Madison (writing in the forty-third Federalist) provides the clearest overview.  “In a confederacy founded on republican principles and composed of republican members, the superintending government ought clearly to possess authority to defend the system against aristocratic or monarchical innovations.”  Why so?  Because the United States is not only a republic but a federal union: “The more intimate the nature of such a Union may be, the greater interest have the members in the political institutions of each other; and the greater right to insist that the forms of government under which the compact was entered into, should be substantially maintained” (emphasis in original).  What is more, “Governments of dissimilar principles and forms have been found less adapted to a federal coalition of any sort, than those of a kindred nature,” he writes, citing Montesquieu’s research as proof. Not only the federal government but the constituent states of the federal union must be republican.  Only this can stand as what Jefferson called “an empire of liberty.”

“But a right implies a remedy,” Madison continues.  What power within the United States can safely prevent an anti-republican faction from seizing control of a state?  “What better umpires could be desired by two violent factions, flying to arms and tearing a State to pieces, than the representatives of confederate States not heated by the local flame?  To the impartiality of Judges they would unite the affection of friends.” And even more ambitiously: “Happy would it be if such a remedy for its infirmities could be enjoyed by all free governments; if a project equally effectual could be established for the universal peace of all mankind.”  This would require that republican regimes achieve a sort of `critical mass’ throughout the world; in 1787, they had achieved such a critical mass only in the United States.  If republicanism failed here, when and where would it revive?  When and where would a general civil peace obtain—the condition for securing unalienable human rights?

Protection against invasion includes not only invasion by foreigners—the United States was bordered by the non-republican empires of Spain and Great Britain, as well as by the non-republican (and still formidable) Amerindian nations to the west—but also by other states of the Union.  Although (as Montesquieu had remarked) commercial-republican regimes had not fought one another in the past, the Framers were taking no chances.

The Constitution guarantees federal intervention in times of anti-republican rebellion and of invasion foreign or domestic.  Intra-state violence that is not anti-republican raised another problem. Massachusetts had suppressed Shays’ Rebellion only a few months before the Convention convened. Daniel Shays and his men had rebelled out of desperate indebtedness; far from being anti-republican, many had served in the war on the Patriot side. Convention delegates Elbridge Gerry and Luther Martin objected that intervention in such cases could be dangerous and unnecessary unless the afflicted state consented to it. At the same time, whatever Jefferson may have thought about a little rebellion now and then, armed rebellion does tend to throw cold water on the rule of law, and republics normally operate according to the rule of law. The delegates therefore agreed to require the federal government to obtain consent from the state government before intervening in such disputes.  On balance, the local authorities will judge best when a republican rebellion requires the heavy hand of federal intervention.

In his Federalist essay, Madison did not hesitate to notice a force that might intervene in any disorder, whether anti-republican or republican, foreign or interstate or domestic.  An “unhappy species of population abound[s] in some of the States, who during the calm of regular government are sunk below the level of men; but who in the tempestuous scenes of civil violence may emerge into the human character, and give a superiority of strength to any party with which they may associate themselves.”  The presence of slaves in the United States raised the harshest questions about both the American regime and the American federal union.  By nature, the slaves were men; by law, they were a self-contradictory mixture of personhood and property.  Civil disorder of any kind might induce them to rise up and claim their natural rights, perhaps at the expense of the natural rights of their masters; slave revolts had occurred in New York during the colonial period, and of course the freeman Toussaint Louverture would lead a (temporarily) successful insurrection in Haiti beginning in 1791.  “We have seen the mere distinction of color made in the most enlightened period of time, a ground of the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man,” Madison declared.  Would a slave revolt be an attack on republicanism or a vindication of it?  Madison and the other founders sought some way to avoid such a revolt, which might overturn republicanism in the name of republicanism or perhaps install some other regime as a remedy for evils of slaveholding republicanism.

Put in a somewhat different way, the dilemma was as simple as it was stark.  As Madison wrote in Federalist 43, the republican guarantee clause “supposes a pre-existing government of the form which is to be guaranteed.”  That is, the basis of the federal union—the new empire of liberty replacing the old empire of tyranny—is the republican regime of each constituent state.  Each state entered the union acknowledged as a republic by all of the others. But how `republican’ were those states in which slaves “abounded”?  Madison knew the answer, which he would write down in an unpublished note a few years later: “In proportion as slavery prevails in a State, the Government, however democratic in name, must be aristocratic in fact.  The power lies in the part instead of the whole, in property instead of numbers. All the ancient popular governments were, for this reason, aristocracies.  The majority were slaves…. The Southern States of America, are on the same principle aristocracies.” In his own Virginia, he observed, the population of non-freeholding whites and black slaves amounted to three-quarters of the population (Papers of James Madison, vol. xiii, p. 163).

Such regimes were republics in Montesquieu’s sense—“aristocratic” rather than “democratic” republics.  For Montesquieu, “republic” meant simply that the regime did not amount to the `private’ possession of one person—a despotism.  This definition derived from the Latin root of the word: res publica or “public thing.” But to Madison and rest of the founders “republic” meant the “democratic” republic, only; in the words of Federalist 39,  “it is essential” to republican government “that it be derived from the great body of society, not from an inconsiderable proportion or favored class of it.” And “it is sufficient for such a government that the persons administering it be appointed, either directly or indirectly, by the people—i. e., the representative principle. Representatives represent the people at large, not some “favored class.” In his 1787 critique of the Articles of Confederation, “Vices of the Political System of the United States,” Madison went so far as to publish the sentence: “Where slavery exists the republican theory [namely, that right and power are co-extensive because the majority rules] becomes still more fallacious” than it does under conditions whereby there is a large number of disenfranchised paupers.

All of this being so, the republican regime and the federal union—the unity of the United States—began its life on a knife edge.  The Framers hoped that their new Constitution would provide a framework for the peaceful resolution of the problem of popular self-government under conditions in some ways favorable—remoteness from Europe, commercial interdependence of the states, and all the other features described in the first Federalist—and in some ways ominous—the existence of anti-republican regimes on the borders and of anti-republican “domestic institutions” within the states themselves.   They inserted the republican guarantee clause as one way of strengthening that framework.  In a way, it did—but its enforcement came at horrible cost, decades later.


Will Morrisey holds the William and Patricia LaMothe Chair in the United States Constitution at Hillsdale College; his books include Self-Government, The American Theme: Presidents of the Founding and Civil War and The Dilemma of Progressivism: How Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson Reshaped the American Regime of Self-Government.

Howdy from Texas!  We are home, after a whirlwind trip Constituting America, up and down the east coast – the birthplace of our country. I was still Constituting America today though – in the grocery store check out line. The woman behind me had two children and I told her all about our Contest!

I want to thank our Constitutional scholar, Professor John S. Baker, for his insightful essay today and for all of you who are blogging with us. Isn’t this an amazing and insightful journey?

Federalist Paper N0. 39 is stimulating. I am, once again, intrigued by Publius’ knowledge of history. James Madison’s detailed description of other republics compared to the one they constituted in the Constitution was a treasure to read. It is powerful to ponder upon the dichotomy of the roadmap our founding fathers constructed for us, as well as how it differed from other countries who claimed to be republics.

Our Constituting founding fathers truly experienced a profound profusion of ideas and their compromise, their willingness to see the bigger picture, proved revolutionary in an intellectual and spiritual way. Their
“balance of powers” were delicate, yet firmly planted upon the bedrock of the “genius of the American people.”

Their virtue, insightfulness, valor, willingness, foresight, bravery and determination have a reach upon the American spiritual landscape like a long branch of a Live Oak tree. Sturdy and protective and evergreen was their love for the country and their roots were immersed in the waters of wisdom.

I do believe, for those of you reading this who are of faith, that we should pray for these attributes to guide our leaders, representatives and “genius of the American people” today. If you are reading this and not of faith, then a meditative thought picturing a people who rise to meet our country’s challenges with dignity and grace will be powerful. It will meet with the prayers and lift America into a realm of enlightenment.

It begins with prayers and thoughts, and resonates with action. Awareness, Acceptance, Action. We are aware of the greatness that birthed our country, has kept it thriving and holds the seeds of hope. We accept the mission put in front of us – the mission to hold our representatives accountable to the “genius of the American people” and to fight to maintain a Republican America for our children – a Republic that holds the values, the rights and the structure of free enterprise we enjoy today. We take action by spreading the word about the United States Constitution because it is the glue that holds our freedoms together.

When the President and Congressmen and women take office, they swear to uphold the United States Constitution. They swear to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution. I marvel that it does not say preserve, protect and defend “the people.” I now know that it states, “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution,” because it is the Constitution that protects the people.

Without the preservation of the Constitution, without the respect of the Constitution, without the awareness and utilization of the Constitution, “We the People,” lay vulnerable to the dangers of tyranny, socialism, and being stripped of our rights. Without representatives that respect our Constitution, without a people who are informed about the Constitution – we are not protected.

Spread the word.

God Bless,

Janine Turner
Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010


There are still two weeks left for young people to enter the We The People 9.17 Contest!

How is the Constitution Relevant Today?

Entries due July 4th!

High School Students: We need more short film, PSA and song entries!! We are accepting essays from high school students as well.  Prizes including $2,000 per category; trip to Philadelphia; possible TV appearance!!

Middle School students: write a cool song, or an essay! Prizes include gift cards, and national exposure!

Elementary School students: draw a picture, or write a poem!  Prizes include gift cards and national exposure!

Details and exact topics for each category on this link:

Now for Federalist No. 39:

Thomas Jefferson called the Federalist Papers “the best commentary on the principles of government … ever written.”  Federalist No. 39 certainly lives up to this quote!

This paper reads like a textbook, and wouldn’t it be wonderful if it were a part of our childrens’ textbooks! I am betting it is not often included.

First the definition of a Republic:

“a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people, and is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure, for a limited period, or during good behavior,”

Next, a careful analysis of the national vs. federal qualities of the components that make up the “real character of the government”:

(1)” the foundation on which it is to be established” – (ratification is a federal act)

(2) “the sources from which its ordinary powers are to be drawn” – the sources of power are national (U.S. House); federal (U.S. Senate); and a combination of national and federal (Executive Branch/Election of the President).

(3) “the operation of those powers” (national)

(4) “to the extent of them” (federal)

(5)  “the authority by which future changes in the government are to be introduced” (neither “wholly national nor wholly federal”)

Federalist 39 makes clear the depth and breadth of the system of checks and balances the founders so carefully constructed.  The three branches of government, and the enumerated powers of the national government are some of the more obvious checks and balances of our Republic. But the fact that the elements which make up the character of our government (foundation; sources, operation and extent of power; and authority by which changes are made) are so well balanced between federal and national qualities is amazing!  It is like cutting into a beautifully decorated cake, and finding intricate designs within, and on the various layers.

It is the depth with which these checks and balances are etched into the structure of our government that gives me hope that our Constitution and our Republic will survive. Though we may drift from time to time, there are systems built into the Constitution that allow “we the people” to bring our country back onto the intended path when we stray too far outside the Constitutional framework.

The Constitution is our roadmap.  We must look at it, read it, understand it, and respect it.  It must stay in our national consciousness.  How else will we know when we have taken a wrong turn?

Our liberty hangs in a delicate balance.  When the balance is disrupted, we lose our freedom!

Thank you to all of you who are blogging and adding to the debate, and our collective understanding! And a big thank you to Professor Baker for your enlightening essay!

Good night and God Bless!

Cathy GillespieMonday, June 21st, 2010


Guest Essayist: John S. Baker, Jr., the Dale E. Bennett Professor of Law at Louisiana State University

Federalist 39 answers attacks that the proposed Constitution is not “republican” and not “federal.”  In his response, Publius effectively redefines both terms.

Claiming the proposed government is not “strictly republican” is a serious charge.  Publius recognizes this, saying “no other form would be reconcileable with the genius of the people of America; with the fundamental principles of the revolution; or the honorable determination which animates every votary of freedom, to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government.”

The term “republican” ( Latin “res publica,” or “public thing”) had an uncertain meaning.  Common to its various understandings would have been an opposition to an hereditary monarchy and aristocracy. Republicanism referred to self-government, but proponents and opponents of the new Constitution had very different ideas about what that meant.

On the one hand, Publius acknowledged that “If the plan of the convention, therefore, be found to depart from the republican character, its advocates must abandon it as no longer defensible.” On the other hand, the vision of republicanism offered by The Federalist was quite different from that of the opponents.

Those opposing the Constitution, the Anti-federalists, generally believed that a republic could exist only within a small territory where citizens were able to know one another, live a communal life, and directly govern themselves. Their reading of the French political writer Montesquieu and the example of the ancient republics convinced them that liberty was possible only in such republics.  Thus, the Anti-federalists argued that the government to be created by the Constitution would deprive the people of their liberty.

Publius had already argued in Federalist 9 that “the petty republics of Greece and Italy” leave one “feeling sensations of horror and disgust” because “they were perpetually vibrating between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy.” He also observed that opponents to the Constitution apparently were unaware that the states were already larger than the republics discussed by Montesquieu and that he praised the benefits of a larger “confederate republic.”  Indeed, The Federalist contributes to political theory the idea that liberty is better protected in a large republic, as fully explained in Federalist 10.

Federalist 39 asks “What then are the distinctive characters of the republican form?”  Publius finds that political writers have wrongly applied the term to states that do not deserve to be called republics. Consulting principles of government, Publius says “we may define a republic to be, or at least may bestow that name on, a government which…”  (emphasis added). In other words, he is giving his own definition of the term republic, one which corresponds to principles embodied in the new Constitution.  Thus, Publius says a republic may be defined as “a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people; and is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure [presidential appointees], for a limited period [members of Congress and the President], or during good behavior [federal judges].”

Finally, Federalist 39 contends that the language in the Constitution explicitly prohibiting titles of nobility and guaranteeing the states will have a republican form of government proves the republicanism of the proposed government.

This large republic was also to be a (con)federal republic. But the Anti-federalists also charged that the Constitution violated the federal form.  Publius did not actually deny this particular charge. Rather, he contended that “a just estimate of [the argument’s] force” requires first ascertaining “the real character of the government.”  Before explaining that the real character is only “partly federal,” he added that the argument’s force also depended on the authority and duty of the Convention.  In the following essay, Publius will argue that the authority of the Convention, as well as its duty to the people, justified creating the form of government proposed by the Constitution.

Given the common understanding of “federal” at the time, the Constitution did violate the federal form. Prior to adoption of the Constitution, the words “federal” and ‘confederal” meant the same thing, just as “flammable” and “inflammable” currently have the same meaning. The Federalist, itself at times, used these terms interchangeably.  Clearly, however, the Constitution proposed to create something different from the existing confederacy.

Federalist 15 had identified the great vice of a confederacy as the attempt by a league of states to legislate for state governments, rather than for individuals.  The Articles of Confederation did not directly govern individuals, but the Constitution would do so – within its limited list of powers. The new government’s ability to reach individuals and the “necessary and proper clause” prompted the Anti-federalist fear that the Constitution would completely consolidate power in a national government.

Publius had to explain that the Constitution would not create a consolidated national government. Federalist 39, therefore, explained the mixture of federal and national elements among five essential aspects of the Constitution: its ratification or foundation [national], the sources of its ordinary powers [partly federal –the Senate; partly national-the House], the operation of its powers on individuals [national], the extent of the powers, i.e., limited [federal], and the method of amendment [neither wholly federal nor national].   Based on this mixture of elements, Publius  concluded: “The proposed constitution, therefore, …is, in strictness, neither a national nor a federal constitution; but a composition of both.”

This “compound republic” created by the federal Constitution came to be known as “federalism.” As a result, the “federal” form became distinguished from the “confederal” form  existing under the Articles of Confederation. This new form of federalism involved a residual – rather than complete – sovereignty in the states.  Indeed, as a limited Constitution, neither the federal nor the state governments were “sovereign” in the true sense of the word as a supreme power answerable to no other power.  Rather, under the Constitution, “We the people of the United States” are the political sovereign and the Constitution is “the supreme Law of the Land.”

Some argue that the Anti-federalists correctly predicted the consolidation of power in the national government.  Such an argument, however, overlooks the critical shift of power caused by the Seventeenth Amendment.  That amendment took the election of US senators from state legislatures and gave it to the voters.  As a result, the key federal, i.e. state, protection against the concentration of power was lost.  That is to say, the Seventeenth Amendment deprived the states of their direct representation in the federal government.   As long as the state legislatures elected senators, the states had the ability to pressure enough senators, even if only a minority, to prevent incursions on state power.  State legislatures no longer have that ability.

John S. Baker, Jr., the Dale E. Bennett Professor of Law at Louisiana State University, regularly lectures for The Federalist Society and teaches courses on The Federalist for the Fund for American Studies.

Monday, June 21st, 2010

Guest Essayist: John S. Baker, Dale E. Bennett Professor of Law at Louisiana State University

Although mentioned in previous essays, Publius formally began to address separation of powers in Federalist # 47.  Together with ## 48 and 51, #47 explained the unique understanding of that principle as built into the Constitution. The Federalists and Anti-Federalists agreed that separation of powers was essential to liberty, but disagreed on what that required in a constitution. Unfortunately, over the last century, the term “separation of powers” has almost disappeared from the civic vocabulary in the United States and been replaced by the term “checks and balances,” a term with an overlapping, but different meaning.

Federalist #47 affirmed the principle upon which the Federalists and Anti-Federalists agreed: “The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”  Thus, the Founders did not believe that voting alone guaranteed liberty.

It must come as a surprise to many Americans to learn that the Federalists and Anti-Federalists emphasized separation of powers as an absolutely essential guarantee of liberty.  For many — if not most – Americans, the protection of liberty is primarily accomplished through the Bill of Rights.  The Federalist and Anti-Federalists agreed on the need for separation of powers, but not for a bill of rights. The Anti-Federalists criticized the proposed Constitution for a lack of a bill of rights, but the Federalists actually contended “that bills of rights, in the sense and to the extent they are contended for, are not only unnecessary in the proposed constitution, but would even be dangerous.” Federalist #84.

Instead of mere “parchment barriers,” i.e. paper protections, the Framers presented a “well constructed Union.” Federalist ## 10 and 39 laid out the plan and purpose of the extended, (con)federal republic. Without separation of powers, however, that structure would have been insufficient to prevent the consolidation of power in the central government.  Both parts of the structure came under attack as contrary to fundamental principles of liberty. In #39, Publius admitted that if the plan of the Constitution actually did depart from the republican principle, it would be indefensible. He did likewise in #47, admitting that if the Constitution ”really [were] chargeable with this dangerous tendency to such an accumulation, or with a mixture of powers, having a dangerous tendency to such an accumulation, no further arguments would be necessary to inspire a universal reprobation of the system.”.

For separation of powers, as for the extended confederate republic, see Federalist # 9, Montesquieu was the authority appealed to by both Federalists and Anti-Federalists.  As with the extended (con)federal republic, Publius explained in # 47 that the claim that the Constitution violates the principle of separation of powers is mistaken.  Montesquieu relied on his understanding of the British Constitution to explain separation of powers.  Publius correctly observed that in the British Constitution “the legislative, executive, and judiciary departments, are by no means totally separate and distinct from each other.” Indeed, the British Constitution actually involved a “checks and balances” system, rather than one of separation of powers as understood by both the Federalists and Anti-Federalists.  That is to say, separation of powers as understood by Montesquieu and the Founders included a separate, co-equal judiciary.  Under the British (unwritten) Constitution, the judiciary has never been a separate, co-equal branch of government. Rather, at the time of our Founding, the British government involved a traditional governing system in which the one (the king), the few (the House of Lords), and the many (the House of Commons) checked and balanced each other.

Publius concluded that Montesquieu “did not mean that these departments ought to have no partial agency or no control over the acts of each other.”  (emphasis in the original) Rather, he said Montesquieu’s meaning “can amount to no more than this, that where the whole power of one department is exercised by the same hands which possess the whole power of another department, the fundamental principles of a free constitution are subverted.” (emphasis in the original).  He demonstrated the point by examining aspects of the British constitution, Montesquieu’s model.

Publius then considered the state constitutions.  He noted “that, notwithstanding the emphatical, and some instances, the unqualified terms in which this axiom has been laid down, there is not a single instance in which the several departments of power have been kept absolutely separate and distinct.” He addressed the constitutions of all but two of the states and quoted the “emphatical” language from a couple of them. While looking at the state constitutions in order to rebut the charge that the proposed Constitution violates separation of powers, Publius was not indicating that the state constitutions are an appropriate model for the new Constitution.

The last paragraph of #47 opened, stating “I wish not to be regarded as an advocate for the particular organizations of the several state governments.”  Indeed, the Framers created a government radically different from that of the state constitutions. In part, the differences were due to the fact of the federal constitution being one of limited powers, while the state constitutions have more general powers. In addition, however, the form of separation of powers in the federal Constitution differed significantly from that of the states.

In distancing himself from the state constitutions, Publius attempted to avoid giving offense by first offering a modicum of praise and an excuse for their deficiencies.  (“I am fully aware, that among the many excellent principles which they exemplify, they carry the strong marks of the haste, and still stronger of the inexperience, under which they were framed.). Nevertheless, Publius was clear that the state constitutions provided for separation of powers “on paper,” but not “in practice.” (“It is but too obvious, that, in some instances, the fundamental principle under consideration, has been violated by too great a mixture, and even an actual consolidation of the different powers; and in no instance has a competent provision been made for maintaining in practice the separation delineated on paper.”)

Thursday, July 1st, 2010

Professor John S. Baker is the Dale E. Bennett Professor of Law at Louisiana State University.

Guest Essayist: Professor John S. Baker, Dale E. Bennett Professor of Law at Louisiana State University

Federalist #51 is the most important of the essays in The Federalist, after #10. It completes the discussion of the general structure of the Constitution before Publius turns to a consideration of its particular elements. It ties together the main points of the previous essays.

Federalist #47 and #48 outlines the challenge of keeping the departments of government within their proper bounds; then Federalist #49 and #50 considers and rejects the suggestion of occasional or regular appeals to the people for that purpose.  Federalist #51, therefore, begins with the question: “To what expedient then shall we finally resort, for maintaining in practice the necessary partition of power among the several departments, as laid down in the constitution?”

Importantly, the answer is NOT a bill of rights! Rather, Publius writes, “[t]he only answer that can be given is, that as all these exterior provisions are found to be inadequate, the defect must be supplied by so contriving the interior structure of government, as that its several constituent parts may, by their mutual relations, be the means of keeping each other in their proper places.” (emphasis added).

As elsewhere, the analysis of the problem and the solution rest on an understanding of human nature. Each department must have a “will of its own,” which requires having “the means and personal motives” to defend its powers. Why the emphasis on power rather than “the common good.”  Isn’t this just a cynical approach to government?  Publius explains that enlisting private interests to protect the public good is the only method actually of achieving the end of government, which is justice.

The “preservation of liberty” requires “that each department should have a will of its own and consequently should be so constituted, that the members of each should have as little agency as possible in the appointment of the members of the others.” Rigorous adherence to this principle “would require that all the appointments for the supreme executive, legislative, and judiciary magistracies, should be drawn from the same found of authority, the people, through channels having no communication with one another.” (emphasis added). The federal judiciary, in particular, does not meet this test.  Publius says this deviation is justified because the mode of choosing judges ought to be the one best designed to produce the peculiar qualifications required of judges. He also presciently observes, as so many later presidents have learned to their dismay, that lifetime appointments for judges “must soon destroy all sense of dependence on the authority [i.,e., the President] conferring them.”

This passage reminds us that a republic, as defined in Federalist #39, “derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people.” The judiciary, along with the President and the Senate (prior to the 17th Amendment’s substitution of popular election for election by state legislatures), draws its powers “indirectly” from the people because judges are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. The judiciary and the President — who is actually elected not by the people, but by the Electoral College — are both somewhat removed from the people and in need of protection from the legislative branch.  Thus, if as to their salaries they were “not independent of the legislature in this particular, their independence in every other, would be merely nominal.”

What follows are some of the most insightful and widely quoted observations about the relationship between human nature and government.  With so much packed into one paragraph, each thought deserves to be separated out for separate consideration.

  •        “the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department, the necessary constitutional means, and personal motives, to resist encroachments of the others.:
  •        “The provision for defence must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack.”
  •        “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”
  •         “The interest of the man, must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.”
  •        “It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?”
  •         “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.  If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”
  •         “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

The notion that, at its core, the Constitution is a structure to control the self-interested tendencies of both the people and those in government may be a new idea for many Americans.  To those who think that the citizenry and government require no restraint other than popular elections, Publius responds that “experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.” The Constitution reflects the “policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives.”

Federalist #51 then reiterates and extends the argument of Federalist #47 and #48 concerning legislative dominance and the practical implementation of separation of powers. Besides strengthening the weaker branches, Federalist #51 makes clear the need to weaken the legislative branch. “The remedy for this inconveniency is, to divide the legislature into different branches; and to render them, by different modes of election, and different principles of action, as little connected with each other, as the nature of their common functions, and their common dependence on the society, will admit.” That explains the phenomenon that even when the same party controls both houses of Congress, the two bodies nevertheless do not cooperate very well.

It is often said in the media that the American people want the branches of the Federal government to work together.  The Constitution, however, guarantees conflict among the branches and between the federal and state governments in order to protect the liberty of the people.  Federalist #51 emphasizes the Constitution’s “double security” of separation of powers and federalism.

In the compound republic of America, the power surrendered by the people, is first divided between two distinct governments, and then the portion allotted to each subdivided among distinct and separate departments.  Hence a double security arises to the rights of the people.  The different governments will control each other; at the same time that each will be controlled by itself.     Federalist #51 then ties the constitutional structure back to the fundamental argument of Federalist #10. For it is necessary “not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers; but to guard the one part of society against the injustice of the other part.”  The way to avoid the “oppressions of factious majorities” is a federal system which encourages the multiplication of factions.  As a result, in the United States, “a coalition of a majority of the whole society could seldom take place upon any other principles, than those of justice and the general good.”  Thus, change is intended to be difficult as demonstrated by the fact that legislation cannot pass simply on the basis of “the majority” in Congress. A vote in the House of Representatives reflects one majority and a vote in the Senate represents a different majority. So, too, the President, who represents yet another majority, has the opportunity to sign or veto legislation.

The original Constitution operates on the basis of producing a legislative consensus through conflict and compromise.  This reflects the Framers’ view that structured conflict among the departments of government, rather than simple majorities, is more likely to produce a just consensus protective of minority interests. In such a system, there must be less pretext also, to provide for the security of the [the minor party], by introducing into the government a will not dependent on the [majority]; or, in other words, a will independent of the society itself.” (emphasis added).

This structure of “double-security” has been changed in important ways. The initial addition of the Bill of Rights did not actually change the structure, as Madison explained it would not do so when he introduced the amendments for adoption by the first Congress.  The Bill of Rights applied to the federal government, not to the states. The post-Civil War amendments did immediately change federalism by abolishing slavery and imposing important and just limits on the states. Nevertheless, federalism remained largely in tact as long as states continued to have a direct voice within the federal government by virtue of the election of U.S. senators by their state legislatures. See Federalist #62. The Seventeenth Amendment, however, changed that by requiring popular election of senators. Not that long thereafter, the Supreme Court became much more deferential to Congress and less so to the states.

One of the effects of the Senate no longer representing the residual sovereignty of the states, see Federalist #62, has been that the Court has had a relatively free hand – and indeed encouragement from some in Congress – to erode federalism. While there have been struggles among its members over federalism, the Court certainly has affected federalism through the manner in which, through the Fourteenth Amendment, it has applied the Bill of Rights to the states. In the course of doing so, the Supreme Court has arguably become “a will independent of the society itself” as it tends to prefer the minor party as against the states.  As a result of these constitutional amendments and judicial interpretations, the states no longer offer much security against the federal government.

For Publius, “the enlargement of the orbit” through federalism (see Federalist #9 and #10) made republicanism possible.  The Anti-Federalists, on the contrary, argued that such a large country was incompatible with a self-governing republic and would grow into imperialism. Despite “contrary opinions,” Publius concluded “that the larger the society, provided it lie within a practicable sphere, the more duly capable it will be of self-government.” As Publius predicted, self-government has flourished in the United States because “happily for the republican cause, the practicable sphere may be carried to a very great extent, by a judicious modification and mixture of the federal principle.” Publius’s prediction, however, became a reality because predicated on the premise of the double-security of separation of powers and federalism.

Wednesday, July 7th, 2010

Professor John S. Baker is the Dale E. Bennett Professor of Law at Louisiana State University


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

Federalist 68 to 72 address the election and structure of the Presidency. Who better to address that than Alexander Hamilton, whose knowledge of executive power combines with an affinity for it that caused much suspicion during his political career?

The first essay is a brief foray into the Electoral College. The matter excited so little passion during the ratification debates that Hamilton barely gets his writing hand limbered up. He allows himself to wax poetic and substitute a couplet edited from Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man for some of the acerbic put-downs of his preceding efforts as Publius. Yet, the frivolity of the approach should not obscure the delicate political balances reflected in the constitutional settlement of the President’s election. The Framers’ had rejected direct popular election (an easy call due to its profound conflict with the idea of the United States as a confederated republic), election by Congress, election by the state legislatures, and election by electors selected by regional electors elected by the people (Hamilton’s multi-layered proposal).

The Framers wanted at once to have an energetic executive and to prevent the emergence of an American Caesar. The first would be accomplished by unity in the office, the latter through, among other things, care in the selection of the person. They also were deeply fearful that some foreign power might place a Manchurian Candidate among the presidential contenders. Hamilton mentions that concern in his defense of the system, a concern also reflected in the requirement that the President be a natural-born citizen. This was no small matter to the Framers. There were various plots and other connections between foreign agents and American politicians and military officers (the Wilkinson/Burr cabal with Spain, for example). Moreover, these kinds of intrigues to place a foreigner in executive office were familiar, both because they were common abroad, and because of the Confederation Congress’s offer in 1786, quickly withdrawn, to the republican-minded Prince Henry of Prussia to become regent of the U.S.

The Framers faced several practical problems. Every efficient electoral system has to provide for a means of nominating and then electing candidates. Moreover, civil disturbances over what is often a politically heated process must be avoided. There must be no taint of corruption. The candidate elected must be qualified.

As to the first, the Electoral College would, in many cases, nominate multiple candidates. Electors would be chosen as the legislatures of the states would direct. Though the practice of popular voting for electors spread, not until South Carolina seceded from the Union in 1860 did appointment by the legislatures end everywhere. Once selected, the electors’ strong loyalties to their respective states likely would cause the electors to select a “favorite son” candidate. To prevent a multiplicity of candidates based on state residency, electors had to cast one of the two votes allotted to each for someone from another state. It was expected that several regional candidates would emerge under that process. There likely would be no single majority electoral vote recipient, at least not after George Washington. The actual election of the President then would devolve to the House of Representatives, fostering the blending and overlapping of powers that Madison extolled in Federalist 51.

That last step corresponded to the Framers’ experience with the election of the British prime minister and cabinet, and with the practice of several states. However, consistent with the state-oriented structure of American federalism, such election in the House had to come through a majority of state delegations, not individual Congressmen. Though modified slightly by the Twelfth Amendment as a result of the deadlock of 1800, this process is still in place.

The Electoral College also was to be the mediating device that would balance the desire for popular input with the realistic concern that a direct popular vote would promote candidates with “talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity.” Hamilton, a skilled in-fighter, possessed very sharp elbows politically, but lacked those particular talents and despised them in others. As John Jay writes in Federalist 64, the Constitution’s system would likely select those most qualified to be President. Augmented by the Constitution’s age requirement for President, the electors are not “liable to be deceived by those brilliant appearances of genius and patriotism, which, like transient meteors, sometimes mislead as well as dazzle.”

Having the voters select a group of electors, rather than the President directly, would also calm the political waters. By making that election something other than a vote about particular candidates, the process would encourage reflection and deliberation by voters about the capacity for reasoned judgment of the electors chosen. The smaller number of wise electors, in turn, would exercise that judgment free from popular passion.

There is also the problem of corruption of the electors. Every polity must address that. The Republic of Venice had a truly byzantine system of election and selection by lot of those whose sole responsibility it would be to elect the Doge (the executive). The sheer number of participants and the unpredictability of the eventual identity of the Venetian electors made vote-buying, influence-peddling, and intimidation impractical. In Federalist 68, as well, Hamilton assures the reader that, in the American system, corruption and the influence of faction are avoided by the temporary and limited duty of the electors, the disqualification of federal office holders to serve, the large number of electors, and the fact that they meet in separate states at the same time. Presumably, those protections fall away when the House elects the President. But Congressmen have to worry about re-election and, thus, want to avoid corrupt bargains that are odious to the voters.

Though the constitutional shell remains, much of the system operates differently than the Framers hoped. The reason is the evolution of the modern programmatic party, that bane of good republicans, which has replaced state loyalties with party loyalties. The Framers thought they had dealt adequately with the influence of factions in their finely-tuned system. As modern party government was just emerging in Britain and—in contrast to temporary and shifting political factions—unknown in the states, the Framers designed the election process unprepared for such parties.

Today, the nominating function is performed by political parties, while election is, in practice, by the voters. Elections by the House are still possible, if there is a strong regional third-party candidate. But the dominance of the two parties (which are, in part, coalitions of factions) suppresses competition, and the last time there was a reasonable possibility of electoral deadlock was in 1968, when Alabama Governor George C. Wallace took 46 electoral votes. Mere independent national candidacies, such as that of Ross Perot in 1992, have roughly similar levels of support in all states and are unlikely to siphon electoral votes and block the usual process.

Parties have had a beneficial effect in that they have prevented repetitions of the debacles of 1800 (when, due to the tie vote between Jefferson and Burr, it took the House 36 ballots and probable political intervention by Hamilton on the former’s behalf to resolve the election) and of 1824 (when the election dominated by just the regional candidacies anticipated by the Framers was thrown into the House and extensive bargaining precipitated charges of corruption that stymied the J. Q. Adams presidency). Had parties not emerged to provide necessary lubrication, the creaky constitutional machinery well might have had to be reformed. Though they have smoothed the process, parties arguably also have promoted the very evils (other than foreign intrigue) that Publius assured his readers were avoided under the electoral system designed by the Framers.

At the same time, the emergence of modern political parties has not made the Electoral College obsolete, as it still promotes important values. It reinforces the founding principle that the U.S. is a confederated republic and not a consolidated national government, as analyzed so persuasively by Madison in Federalist 39. Despite the occasional misfire, as in the election of 2000, the Electoral College often gives the narrow victor in the popular vote a mandate through a significant electoral college majority. The need to find a lot of electoral votes to overturn such a result reduces the likelihood of persistent challenges. Elections such as 1948, 1960, 1968, and 1992 come to mind. Proposals to change or abolish the Electoral College have appeared frequently since the Constitution’s adoption and are of predictable types. But they always lose steam, as there has been no showing that they will serve republican values better than the current system. Indeed, efforts to change the system have declined in the last half century, even after the contested election of 2000, a testimony to the enduring legitimacy of the Electoral College.

Friday, July 30th, 2010

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