“The Mirror of Representation” and Federalist 65 – 67
In this section, Rakove pursues further the peculiar difficulties the Founders faced in clarifying the notion of representation on which the republic would rely going forward. As noted elsewhere, the core of this concern was the degree of accountability that could be expected from a new class of legislators, endowed as they were with expanded powers by the Constitution, but also ensuring the proper balance of accountability and independence: “The problem of representation was not to make legislators more accountable than they already were, but to find ways to dissipate the populist pressures of the people and improve the quality of lawmaking by reforming the character of the lawmakers” (218). Madison, we know, was very suspicious of the quality of leadership drawn from the state assemblies. Bound up in this suspicion was a worry that parochial local interests and prejudiced shortsightedness would creep into national debate, distorting policymaking and hindering the progress of effective government: “However much homage Americans paid to the ideal of the citizen who virtuously subordinated private interest to public good, few of them learned to prefer the duties of public life to the contentments of private life” (220) To this day, one of the plagues on our political happiness is our rising anguish that politicians are chiefly concerned with their own survival and in some cases are even profiting directly from their public service in inappropriate and profligate ways, if not during office, then certainly after.
One of the features of our political culture, which only seemed to exacerbate the fear that self-interest would trump public interest, was and is the inherent tension between excellence in leadership and the perceived elitism of leaders. Americans, it seems, want to be led by capable, superlative characters, but also want to see in their leaders their own image. Excellence must be concealed, if only hinted at, and never flaunted. Federalist worries about the quality of legislators only confirm this paradox. In sketching out the recruitment parameters for members of the legislative branch, Madison knew the bar had been set deliberately low: “The Constitution required nothing more of legislators than relatively low requirements of age and citizenship—not even a religious test of the most innocuous kind” (227). The feat of electing a Congress—let alone a President—that matched the elegance and integrity of the written Constitution was a daunting one: “Federalist expectations could be realized only if the enlarged sphere of the extended republic worked to filter talent upward while the prestige and power of national office drew qualified candidates away from their law offices, plantations, and countinghouses” (227). One takes little comfort in the recognition that our present anxieties about the revolving door between Wall Street and Washington are not historical anomalies.
On the subject of prosecuting breaches in accountability, Hamilton writes passionately on the Senate as the designated court for impeachment cases in Federalist 66: “So far as might concern the misbehavior of the executive in perverting the instructions or contravening the views of the Senate, we need not be apprehensive of the want of a disposition in that body to punish the abuse of their confidence or to vindicate their own authority. We may thus far count upon their pride, if not upon their virtue” (407). Hamilton is certainly on point in his trust that a politician’s pride will ensure his motivation to nitpick on issues of balance of powers. We need only witness the outcry in the Congress over President Obama’s minimal consultations in the decision to commit U.S. forces to enforcing an international no-fly zone in Libya. From both left and right, the objection was that the President had not paid due diligence, leaving Congressional egos bruised. Lucky for the lawyerly Commander in Chief, there is little ground for impeachable offense here, and yet, Hamilton’s point has never found a truer expression.
In one of the most entertaining rebukes to the weak reading of his critics, Federalist 67 shows Hamilton at his grumpiest. The tone is that of a schoolmaster taking his students to task for a cursory reading of a clause in the Constitution interpreted by critics to give nominating power to the President for Senate vacancies, which is the province of state authorities, either governors or legislators depending on the state. A misinformed reader had conflated two separate and conditional clauses and ignored the exclusivity of the authority provided to the President, which limits appointments to “ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, judges of the Supreme Court, and all other officers of the United States whose appointments are not in the Constitution otherwise provided for” (409). In annoyed response, Hamilton undertakes a detailed explication of the section and offers some choice words of scorn for ungrammatical readings of this sort, concluding with a condescending apology on behalf of more attentive readers: “I hesitate not to submit it to the decision of any candid and honest adversary of the proposed government whether language can furnish epithets of too much asperity for so shameless and so prostitute an attempt to impose on the citizens of America” (411).