Perhaps one of the most critical and complex issues which faced the framers of the United States constitution was that of how to limit the government and associated governmental beuracacy while ensuring that the Federal government retained enough power and authority to interpret and enforce the constitution itself.
As Madison remarks in the opening lines of his now-famous “Federalist #51”, there can be no more urgent an issue, nor one which so directly confronts both the self-interested nature of the individual, but the self-interested nature of government itself: “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? ” (Madison, 1788).
The “partition of power” is a key phrase and contains within it the seeds of Madison answer to his own opening, rhetorical question. Madison offers a direct and seemingly mandatory vision of how the partition of power should be best accomplished: “The only answer that[… ] by so contriving the interior structure of the government as that its several constituent parts may, by their mutual relations, be the means of keeping each other in their proper places” (Madison, 1788).
This conclusion is commonly referred to as the “system of checks and balances” upon which the democracy of the United States is founded. Madison’s observations in “Federalist #51” are frank and founded upon concerns that the basic self-interests of human-beings, coupled with the “leviathan” power of the State pose the continual potential for dictatorship and the subversion of the constitution itself.
In this light, there is an almost exclamatory tone to Madison’s writing and there is, without a doubt, a tone of warning in the following, famous passage: But 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[…
] Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. (Madison, 1788) In Colonial times, no mistake would have been about just what kind of “encroachments of others” Madison meant to illustrate: the potential of personal ambition to trump the idealism of a democratic government founded upon principles of liberty and equality.
Similarly, the idea of connecting the interests of the individual with constitutional principles is an exceedingly complex idea, but one which would have been explicit, in consequence, to the Colonial framers of the constitution. Madison means no less than: all citizens of a democracy must put the principles of that democracy, its traditions, its institutions, laws, and integrity above their personal ambitions and self-interests.
The subtest of this, of course, is that all men’s self-interests are ultimately best-served by a government which enables them to live free and which enables them to pursue their self-interests to a point of true liberty; however, the maintenence of the constitution and the democratic state, which are, in actuality, protections against the propensity of governments to turn oppressive and hostile, must be regarded as more essential, more important than the mere personal self-interests of those who serve in government.
These types of thoughts would have been regarded as quite radical by many of Madison’s contemporaries and most especially the idea of a member of the ruling class, or the government class, being encouraged to view themselves as the protectors and servants of the constitution and the democracy — above their personal ambitions.
The idea that individuals in high positions of power must function both as facilitators of the democracy but also as a ‘check” against the possible tyranny of the majority is also an idea which Madison sets forth in this paper which is quite a radical idea: “Different interests necessarily exist in different classes of citizens. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure” (Madison, 1788).
In conclusion, Madison’s “Federalist #51” is one of the most important political documents associated with the framing of the US constitution and seems to have almost uncannily predicted and attempted to apply remedy to the points of danger and structural weakness in both the democratic form of government and the innate nature of the citizens who comprise that democracy. Reference Madison, James. The Federalist No. 51 The Structure of the Government Must Furnish the Proper Checks and Balances Between the Different Departments, Independent Journal, 1788