Federalist Project 11

“Federalism” and Federalist 52 – 58

In the middle section of his chapter on “Federalism,” Rakove takes up the “conceptual problem” the Framers faced in their enterprise to articulate the “middle ground between confederation and consolidation,” in brief, how could Federal and state governments peacefully coexist with some degree of negotiated “equilibrium”. The Anti-Federalist assumption was that the size, scope, and structure of the central government would naturally tend toward consolidation, thus infringing on sacred jurisdictions long held to be the business of state authority. Against the explanations offered by Madison to the contrary, they argued that “consolidation was inevitable because so arbitrary, aristocratic, or despotic a form of national government could never brook the rivalry of the states”  (182). Perhaps their logic was sound, but enough of Madison’s contemporaries agreed that the risks of consolidation were worth the much greater dangers posed by weak confederation.

    Madison tried to show that the differences in the larger American society, the diversity of constituents forming the republic as a whole, combined with the Federal government’s supposed ability to recruit superior talent to its lawmaking bodies, would forestall undue consolidation. Here we are reminded that the Founders’ principle concern – and Madison’s chiefly so – was to avoid not the pitfalls of the “tyranny of the majority,” as is often erroneously believed, but rather the more pernicious tyranny obtained by a powerful minority interest, or even a less powerful one that could nonetheless use the mechanisms of representational government to stymie good policymaking and otherwise parochialize legislation.

    In Federalist 52 and 53, Madison fashions the House of Representatives as a key bulwark against just the kind of consolidation that worried the Anti-Federalists. In doing so, he makes an elegant plea for the unique openness of the office to a broad swath of candidates: “Under these reasonable limitations [the required age, citizenship, state residency], the door to this part of the Federal government is open to merit of every description, whether native or adoptive, whether young or old, and without regard to poverty or wealth, or any particular profession or religion” (326). And for the most part the House has remained true to Madison’s vision; today, indeed, the lower chamber of Congress is the most diverse body of the Federal government by far and is more likely to include women, nonwhite men, Jews, Muslims, and youngish upstarts as well as venerable old codgers than either the Senate or the upper echelons of the Executive Branch, and until recently, the Presidency itself. The upper and middle classes are certainly better represented there, especially as it costs more and more millions each year to get reelected, but not to the greater extent that the Senate comprises mostly wealthy ex-lawyers, a handful of ex-doctors, and successful businessmen. It’s worth remembering, too, that even a post-Enlightenment Virginian like Madison – whose family no doubt owned slaves – could confidently offer these tolerances in the House membership as distinct advantages to the commonweal. Someone should remind Sarah Palin, who recently embarrassed herself (yet again) via Twitter by spitting an ignorant and shameful objection to a proposal that places a new mosque near the Ground Zero site in New York.

    Not only was the House to be more diverse in its membership, it was also deliberately designed to maintain a more intimate “common interest with the people” by way of biennial elections. “Frequent elections,” Madison argues, “are unquestionably the only policy by which this dependence and sympathy can be effectively secured” (327). As noted in a previous post, biennial elections also come with the unfortunate consequence – however unintended by Madison – of nearly perpetual campaigning, leading to some bad behavior and general inconstancy in House personnel. But on balance, House members face a referendum on their leadership often enough to allow both for safe disposal of the bad and relatively tidy replacement by fresh faces. This is encouraging. Because Madison understood better than anyone that a sufficient number of mediocrities in the room could muck up the works of the system he placed so much faith in. He even took the attribute of mutability as salutary, a point of national pride, when it drew strength from a fixed and written constitution: “The important distinction so well understood in America between a Constitution established by the people and unalterable by the government, and a law established by the government and alterable by the government, seems to have been little understood and less observed in any other country” (331). Constitutional amendments, though brandished by both liberals and conservatives in reference to their pet causes, need to be freshly understood in the stark terms that Madison employs.

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