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Hamilton, Jay, and Madison: The Federalist

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

Hamilton, Jay, and Madison. 1787. The Federalist Papers.

Federalist #1: Introduction.

The authors have already decided that the Constitution is necessary and intend to lay out publicly their reasons.

Federalist #6: An argument against the democratic peace.

Hamilton argues that the 13 states, if they were independent, would inevitably become hostile and engage in a cycle of wars with one another. After all, neighboring states are by nature competing for resources, and therefore hostile. History has shown that republics are no less likely to fight than other states. The only solution is to form a union with institutions for resolving disputes, thus preventing conflict.

Note that this argument goes against today's popular theory of democratic peace.

Federalist #9: Size matters.

In a very large confederate republic, a man or faction disposed to tyranny would have a much more difficult time seizing power than in a considerably smaller republic. Even if the faction persuades the same number of people as it might persuade in a differently-sized republic, the percentage that this number represents would be much lower in the large republic.

A large republic is better than a small one, then.

Federalist #10: More of the same.

In brief: You can't eliminate the causes of faction without eliminating freedoms. Since factions will exist, we need to mitigate them. The constitution does so, both by its (federal and representative) institutions and by the larger polity that unification would create.

The Problem of Factions

Factions--a catch-all term for what we might call "special interests," "political parties," and pressure groups like the Moral Majority--worried Madison. If a faction grew large enough, it could impose its will on an entire nation, resulting in a tyranny of the majority.

Eliminating Factions

Madison argues that we cannot eliminate factions. To do so would require either denying civil liberties (worse than having factions) or enforcing conformity (impracticable). Factions are natural and the most common cause (according to Madison) is the unequal distribution of property.

However, even if we can't remove the causes of factionalism, we can mitigate the effects. Madison identifies both institutional and societal means of doing so.

Institutional Solutions

A representative form of government mitigates the effects of factionalism better than direct democracy would. Unlike the masses who reign under direct democracy, elected representatives are unlikely to be tempted by temporary passions because representatives must balance all the competing demands placed on them by various constituencies.

Furthermore, the Constitution's two-tiered (i.e. federal) government also helps mitigate this dilemma because state and local legislatures handle local issues, leaving only certain policy issues to the national government.

Societal Solutions

Besides these institutional solutions, the Constitution would also increase the size of the American republics by combining them into a single large polity. Larger republics have a greater number of interests and parties than smaller ones, diluting the effect of any one faction. Thus, a national union has advantages over smaller (state) republics, in that a faction in one state is unlikely to spread to other states. (See also Federalist #9 on these points.)

Importance Today

These arguments were reflected in the later debates about pluralism. See Truman (1971) for context.

Federalist #35: Class representation.

In the course of a long sequence of papers on taxation, Hamilton takes a break to argue against the idea that every class must be represented in the House. (Some opponents of the Constitution argued that the House ought to have special provisions to ensure that each class would be represented fairly.) He argues that merchants will argue on behalf of producers, etc. etc. etc., because of the incentives created by reelection. What really matters is that everyone can vote for their representative.

Federalist #37: Better than the Confederation.

Those criticizing the Constitution ought to bear in mind that it is necessarily imperfect, but at least it is better than the Confederation. If the anti-Federalists win, we are stuck with a useless government.

Federalist #39: Mixed federalism.

The Constitution outlines a system neither fully federal nor fully national. Its origin is federal, as all 13 states must agree to it (not merely a majority of those within the entire Union, which would make it national). Its powers come partly from federal and party from national elections (House is national, Senate is federal, President is mixed). It operates in a national manner (because decisions are made by a majority of the elected individuals, regardless of state), but these powers are limited in a federal manner (by reserving some powers to the states). It is amended in a mixed manner (federal because it is states that ratify amendments, national because a majority of states can impose amendments on the minority).

Federalist #47: On checks and balances.

Some have objected to the Constitution on the grounds that it violates Montesquieu's admonition to fully separate executive, legislative, and judicial powers; by implementing checks and balances, the Constitution allows members of one branch to meddle in the other branches' affairs. In reply, Madison argues, first, that Montesquieu did not want to forbid horizontal accountability; he only opposed having total control of two branches in the hands of the same person or group. Second, Madison argues that the individual states have, in their own constitutions, interpreted Montesquieu's advice to mean that the three branches may have overlapping powers. The proposed Constitution merely applies lessons learned from the state constitutions.

Federalist #48: On the same subject.

It is not enough merely to separate powers, as one branch would inevitably encroach on powers reserved to the others. Such encroachment has been observed already in Virginia and Pennsylvania, whose constitutions failed to impose adequate protections of the intended division of power. Some sort of institutional device is required to perpetuate the division of power, and the Constitutions checks and balances fill that role.

Federalist #49: The problem with plebiscites.

Some have recommended a mechanism by which questions of the proper relations between the branches could be appealed to the people. However, there are several flaws with this. Most notably, the people would need to select representatives to a convention to reconsider and clarify their constitution--and these representatives would invariably be the same politicians that caused the problems in the first place.

Federalist #50: Essentially the same.

See #49.

Federalist #51: "Men are not angels."

Madison continues the theme discussed in Federalist #47-50: The importance of checks and balances.

If men were angels, he writes, no government would be necessary. Because men are not angels, government is necessary--but this creates a paradox. We must give our representatives sufficient power to govern us, yet prevent them from using this power against us. After all, we cannot assume that our representatives will be any more angelic than the rest of us. Some have dubbed this "Madison's dilemma" (e.g. Kiewiet and McCubbins 1991).

Madison sees the answer to this paradox in the Constitution's separation of powers. Each branch (judicial, legislative, and executive) has ways to limit (i.e. "check") the power of the other branches--likewise, each branch has ways to resist encroachments by the others. The self-interested ambitions held by members of Congress lead them to counter the ambitions of the president and the courts. "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition," Madison writes. Giving each branch a check on the other is central to the Constitution's strength; these balances and checks ensure that the constitutional structures will be self-enforcing.

Furthermore, this design divides those seeking power in two ways. First, it separates authority between states and the center (federalism). Second, it separates competencies within the national government (separate executive, legislative, and judicial branches). Not only can one branch of the federal check the others, but the states can check the central government.

Moreover, dividing up power into so many pieces helps mitigate the problem of factionalism (see Federalist #10). Factions would have trouble taking control of the entire government apparatus. This multiple division of authority "will render an unjust combination of a majority on the whole very improbable, if not impracticable." Seldom would the majority embrace "any other principles than those of justice and the general good." For example, the president with his veto, allied with the Senate, can prevent the House (seen at the time as the most dangerous branch) from taking over.

Federalist #78: The judicial system.

Critics questioned the Constitution's stipulation that judges should have life tenure (assuming good behavior). Hamilton argues that life tenure is not only acceptable, but requisite.

First, judges must be able to combine knowledge of the laws with integrity. Second, they must not be afraid to cross the other branches, particularly the legislative. Indeed, one of the courts' most important responsibilties will be to determine whether the legislative branch oversteps its Constitutionally-prescribed limits with a particular statute. Independence is absolutely essential for this balancing to take place, and only life tenure ensures complete independence.

Research on similar subjects


Hamilton, Alexander (author)Jay, John (author)Madison, James (author)American PoliticsConstitutionsFederalismDemocratic PeaceInstitutions

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