By Tony Williams
In my last essay on the Federalist, titled “The Federalist and Human Nature,” I discussed Publius’ classical and Christian understanding of human nature as flawed but capable of virtue and worthy of trust. The view of human nature was the basis of the kind of government the Founders would create. Under the Constitution of the United States, they established a constitutional republic with many safeguards to control human nature as well as allow it thrive in liberty based upon the principle of government by consent of the governed.
The human capacity for virtue led Publius to support the idea that republican self-government was possible. If humans lacked that moral sense, then they were brutes who were meant to be governed by a tyrant who kept them on a short leash. But, Publius clearly understood that humans were flawed and often followed their passions. He was generally pessimistic that their experiment in liberty and self-government would endure and that humans were capable of governing themselves. After all, the few historic examples of Greece, Rome, the Italian City-States, and the Dutch Republic had all failed. The Americans would have to address the problems of human nature if they were to build “a new order for the ages.”
The entire Federalist project is an explication of the new Constitution and its framework of government. But, nowhere in the essays is there a better and simpler explanation of how Publius addressed the best form of government given the nature of humans than in Federalist No. 51. James Madison wrote the paper and made the connection clear when he wrote, “A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”
The auxiliary precautions were the essential principles of separation of powers, checks and balances, bicameralism, and federalism. The separation of powers was the most basic and important principle because consolidation of executive, legislative, and judicial power in one branch was the definition of tyranny. “In order to lay a due foundation for that separate and distinct exercise of the different powers of government, which to a certain extent is admitted on all hands to be essential to the preservation of liberty, it is evident that each department should have a will of its own.” Hence, America has a Congress, a President, and a Supreme Court.
However, the branches were interconnected with each other to limit tyranny through the principle of checks and balances. Madison gives several examples such as the executive veto over congressional legislation, but there are numerous other examples in the Constitution such as the congressional override of a veto, the power of impeachment and removal from office, and Senate approval of executive treaties.
Because the legislative branch was most representative of the people, and was delegated the power to enact laws, it was the strongest branch – and, thus, the most dangerous. “In republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates,” Madison wrote, “The remedy for this incoveniency is to divide the legislature into different branches,” with different modes of election and powers. Thus, the United States has a bicameral Congress with a House of Representatives and a Senate. That is the principle of bicameralism, and indirectly, the separation of powers.
Madison then admits the danger of having a more powerful central government at the national level. The dangers of usurpation of powers to liberty are great so that the federal government is divided into “distinct and separate departments” with checks and balances. Moreover, the oft-ignored principle of federalism was key. “In the compound republic of America, the power surrendered by the people is first divided between two distinct government,” or, in other words, the federal and state governments. The Constitution was replete with examples of sovereignty of state governments including the original appointment of Senators by state legislatures (changed by the Seventeenth Amendment), the Electoral College and presidential selection, the ratification of amendments by the states, the vote by state if a presidential election goes to the House, and the Tenth Amendment reserving all powers to the states that are not enumerated to the federal government. The larger size of the American republic and the federal principle, Madison writes, will limit the ability of unjust majorities (factions) from trampling the rights of minorities.
The product of the incredible balancing act of preserving individual liberty and controlling human nature was the U.S. Constitution with its auxiliary precautions. “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.” The end of this constitutional government and civil society is justice. “It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit.” In addition to the Separation of Powers and Federalism, Justice is also fundamentally the topic of Federalist No. 51, which offers profound civics lessons for both students and citizens.
(previous installment - 2nd in series - "The Federalist and Human Nature": http://wjmi.blogspot.com/2012/08/the-federalist-and-human-nature.html)
See also: "Teaching the Federalist in Secondary Schools" -- http://wjmi.blogspot.com/2010/10/teaching-federalist-in-secondary.html
Tony Williams is the WJMI Program Director and co-author with Stephen F. Knott of the forthcoming Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America (Sourcebooks).