Skip to comments.Did James Madison Get It Wrong? (Vanity)
Posted on 07/01/2012 7:20:34 AM PDT by dagogo redux
The story is told that a woman asked Benjamin Franklin - as he and the Founders left the hall where they had spent four months crafting our Constitution - what sort of government they had given the people.
A republic, if you can keep it, was his famous reply.
As something of the highpoint in my multi-year study of the founding of our once-great nation, I have especially savored the insights of two books over the past year: James Madisons Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, and William Lee Millers biography, The Business of May Next: James Madison and the Founding, which a fellow Freeper was kind enough to direct me to.
Madison, more than any other, shaped our Constitution. A practical politician with a moral bent, he hoped that a new, enduring nation could be forged from the thirteen colonies, and he believed that the best hope for that nation would be a republic. As an avid student of the history of politics, however, he was well aware that no republic had ever been truly enduring.
Learning of the upcoming conventions to rectify the failed Articles of Confederation, he began to prepare. He asked Jefferson - who was in France at the time, where such things could be had - to gather and send to him a vast collection of books on the histories of failed republics. With the intent to understand, and then be able to correct, the fatal flaws of previous republics, Madisons intense study of these texts, coupled with his firsthand experience with real-life politics, led him to the basic ideas that formed our Constitution.
Currently, our Republic, and the original intent of those who created our Constitution, now teeter on the brink. Indeed, many here will say that they have already fallen. Having a fair knowledge of the history of such things, and being a staunch and vocal advocate for our Republic and its founding principles, I have no illusions about my own likely fate when it falls. And yet, before it goes and we can no longer discuss it, Im posting here to see if I can get some insight into what went wrong.
Madison got much of what he wanted in the Constitution, but not all. Although used to the give-and-take deal-making of legislative politics, he was distraught over several defeats. He was on the losing side in The Great Compromise over the equality of unequal states, a compromise he believed severely affected the prognosis for the Republic. He also lost on the slavery issues - the three-fifths clause, the fugitive slave clause, and the twenty year postponement for considering the ending of the slave trade.
And yet, looking back, it seems to me that neither of these two areas were sufficient to directly doom the Republic over time. Indeed, no one flaw comes to my mind to explain the gradual erosion of our Republic. Which leads me to ask: Where was Madison wrong?
For me, a number of landmarks and trends stand out as body blows that have slowly sapped the strength of the Founders original intent: the Federal power grabs surrounding the Civil War; absurd Supreme Court interpretations of the Commerce and General Welfare Clauses; various surrenders of sovereignty through treaties; the cancerous slow march through the institutions of the Progressives and other strains of Marxists in the last century.
And yet, what is it Madison missed or got wrong in his deeply considered Constitution that allowed the formation of the very malignancies he sought to prevent. Why were the immune functions of his checks and balances inadequate over time? Was there some specific, fundamental flaw in his construct, some hidden chink in the armor that led to our current state? Or was Madison simply naive about republics? Are republics really, perhaps - given human nature - simply doomed to eventually fail, to die like any other mortal thing? Are the glorious notions of Jeffersons Declaration merely Platonic Ideals, vain conceits to distract us from the brutal reality: that most people throughout history live lives of quiet desperation under tyrants, punctuated at best by only rare, brief, distant glimpses of true freedom, and even that imaginary, nothing but a hopeful little bit of hallucination --- ?
Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.- John Adams
I blame human nature more than specific deficiencies in the Constitution...although I’ve often wondered how we’d have done if we’d have never ditched the Articles of Confederation.
As Adams (our first liberal president) pointed out, our form of government requires a moral populace. Our largely successful republic produced such a long period of freedom and peace that we started to take it for granted. Our culture has deteriorated to the point that we now have as many people happily on the dole as those providing the funds. Under these conditions, given time, humans will do whatever is necessary to change the meaning of the constitution to remove the limitations it imposed on the federal government. Any unconstitutional law that slips through becomes precedent for the next via “stare decisis”.
We are in the midst of a marxist takeover, yet even the victors are unaware of that fact. The final stage will progress very rapidly...and is just around the corner. Keep your powder dry.
There is no system of government that can withstand an over saturation of ticks.
You are right that Madison had no such control, but you miss the point entirely: he crafted a Constitution he thought would endure such failings and such people, with whom he was quite familiar. He tried valiantly to build such controls into the very fabric of the Constitution. Our country adopted the Constitution, thinking he got it right.
Immoral people elect immoral people and singling either left or right out for that “honor” would be dishonest and thus immoral.
Too many people want to go back and change the founder’s ideal to fit their own. I even saw a thread here the other day where a handful of FReepers were seriously supporting the idea of a dictator as long as it was “our” dictator.
We’re in real trouble.
I suspect the powder of which you speak is very dry among Freepers. :)
The Supreme Court is, in essence, a branch above the branch based on the fact that it has the "final" word. As we know, the powers of judicial review were not delegated to the Supreme Court but it didn't take long for them to be used. I can't think of a solution for this, really - you should always have the ability to have an 'arbiter' on an issue.
The other unelected, fourth branch of government as Mark Levin calls it, is the bureaucracy. I don't think our founding fathers predicted a large, monolithic branch passing rules and regulations with absolutely no input from Americans, but here we have the EPA, the FCC, you name it. The power to regulate should not be able to be delegated. The EPA should be an advisory agency that recommends laws to pass by Congress.
A lot of time is spent nowadays over nuances of text in the Constitution because of the evolution of the English language. Concepts such as "regulate for the general welfare," and of course the entire 2nd Amendment's debate around a comma. However, if countless published texts from the first-party sources like Madison himself are not enough to convince those intent on changing the meaning, or interpreting it incorrectly, what can ever be done?
I sometimes wonder if the amendment process was made too difficult. I understand the principle - it should be used only for extreme situations because the text establishing our government should rarely be altered. But because of this, it's rarely tried anymore. Those who want to change it have found ways around it. Why bother with an Amendment when the Supreme Court themselves will rule that the power to force Americans to purchase a product is permissible as a tax? If the Amendment process were easier, perhaps these things would be proposed - and defeated.
No form of government is perfect, and history shows us that all of them become some form of tyranny sooner or later, and usually sooner. Madison understood that quite well. I think where Madison and the Convention went wrong was in not abolishing slavery immediately. (I am aware why they did not- if they did, the states where slavery existed would not have adopted the Constitution in the first place). If they had, then a civil war might have been avoided, and the resulting disaster of a over-mighty Federal government also avoided. I am not going so far as to say it would have stopped a demagogue like FDR from creating the New Deal, or Johnson from creating a “war on poverty” which has turned into a quagmire.
Madison should have listened more closely to the criticisms of the “anti-Federalists”. Time has proven them to be correct on almost every point raised during the ratification debates. It took quite a while for the rot to progress, but the Anti-Federalists identified the root causes of pretty much every rotten trend plaguing us today.
Part of the problem here is the definition of “republic.” It means a government of “the people” acting through officers they elect or choose in some other fashion themselves. A republic contrasts with an aristocracy, monarchy or dictatorship/tyranny in which power is obtained or handed down through heredity, military force, etc.
Unfortunately, there is nowhere any guarantee that “a republic” cannot be oppressive of many or even a majority of the people who live within it. All ancient and medieval republics defined “the people” who would choose the magistrates more or less narrowly, often being less than 10% of the actual population.
And of course many of these republics were appallingly oppressive of everybody except their full citizens. An example being Sparta, which though technically a (dual) monarchy functioned in practice much more like a republic. Sparta was notorious for being oppressive even of its full citizens. The Roman Republic in its last century or so was so oppressive and chaotic that almost everyone welcomed its fall and the institution of effective government under the Empire.
Madison, through his study of the history of republics, was of course fully aware of this. That is why he attempted to set up a republic with limited powers,
What I’m trying to say is that we still have a republic, but that this form of government structure is not a guarantee that it will not be oppressive. We the people have allowed this mess to get so bad. We can also fix it.
Will we? I am hopeful but by no means certain. The people can become just as corrupt as any other group.
There is a picture I've seen occaisionally on FR, the smiley face that reads "Imagine the world with no liberals".
Though the picture makes me smile, and I agree with the sentiment, if we take that idea to the end, we end up with what you describe. A dictatorship.
A place where those who don't agree with our particular views are outlawed.
How many "cults" have been started with the intent of controlling morality or thoughts or expression of thoughts.
Go back to early America, where certain religous groups tried that. The Puritans TRIED to lead lives of self control and discipline. They knew that discipline was the enemy of immoral living, and yet that very discipline became the burden around their necks.
Until sin is removed from the world, no political system will truly succeed.
You can’t fix the failings of the human heart. The only way would be to set up a shadow government that keeps the real government in line, harshly. But even it could be corrupted over time.
I say let Cloward-Piven have their collapse, then snatch victory from them. Take control by any means necessary, and rebuild a free society, and this time become intolerant of leftist ideas.
-- James Madison, the father of the U.S. Constitution
"I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents."
-- James Madison, the father of the U.S. Constitution
That was true.
But more than anything, to allow people who have no stakes in the fate of our Republic an equal vote is the beginning of the end.
The old Constitution was mugged by history, specifically: the Civil War, which weakened the old concept of the states as sovereign; the development of the country as a powerful, unified market that looked to the federal government to set common standards; the Progressive movement and the exigencies of the Depression, which led to new federal powers; and the vast federal revenue stream generated by the income tax. These gradually created and cemented into place a massive, powerful federal government, too big to cut back or reform until we are on the brink of bankruptcy.
Yours may be the best plan.
Kind of ridiculous to allow those with no skin in the game to vote against those with everything invested.
People want the unearned, the undeserved, and something for nothing, and politicians are willing to give it to them in order to be reelected.
Many years ago, Dr. Walter E. Williams was subbing for Rush and closed out a segment by saying something along the lines of, “Some have said that people desire freedom and will do whatever it takes to throw off the chains of tyranny. America is the result of these desires. I now wonder if America isn’t the aberration and tyranny is the natural state.”
I remember disagreeing violently to that statement. I believed that it was natural for a person to desire to be free.
Now, years later, I’ve observed a number of rational people who are more than willing to give away their personal freedom in order to get services and/or security. Entire nations have followed sweet-talking leaders into tyranny during my lifetime. A significant portion of the world’s population is now in the process of trading peaceful coexistence with the other nations for a promise of an earthly kingdom now and a paradise yet to come.
All of these people are willing to give away their freedom to be enslaved by one form of tyranny or another. I look back in history, and I see the same thing. IF people have any freedom, it is soon taken away either by a strong man who perceives their freedom as weakness or by the people themselves exchanging it for some worldly good, some level of security, or some desire.
It’s just possible that those of us who desire to be left alone and allowed to live our lives as we choose are the weird ones. Those others who want the government to do everything for them might be the normal ones.
Good points you and Dr. Williams address. Man, individually or in associations, seeks power. Tyranny is the eventual end of all political systems. Ours has been better than most in delaying that end.
Thanks dagogo redux.
Just a little piece of trivia, but the woman in question was the wife of the mayor of Philadelphia. She ran up to ask Dr. Franklin the question as to what the delegates had given the country.
Someone mentioned in a previous post that they thought the amendment process was to difficult and that was a possible problem. I feel quite the contrary. Honestly, how many Freepers agree with all the amendments. Some amendments were passed because of fear and the power of the press (e.g. Prohibition which needed its own amendment to repeal it.) I think a part of the problem is that the amendment process was too easy.
Ending slavery and sufferage were probably the only amendments that made our Constitution better. I think that was because Madison and Jefferson were very in tuned to what would keep our Republic together the longest and those two amendments were in line with their beliefs and morals. What they ended up with was a quick fix so the 13 original colonies/states would stay together for the duration of the Revolutionary War. I think that the founding fathers thought that others with their moral character would fix the rest later. Unfortunately there are few, if any, after them who had the moral fiber to make decisions in favor of the People.
The snow-ball that began rolling downhill and got out of control, in my opinion was the Civil War. After the civil war, Federalism won and so did those who evolved from the Hamiltonians and now called Progressives. States effectively lost their sovereignty then and at that time we, in effect, broke with the constitution. I implore you to look up the complete context of Jeffersons quote - The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of Tyrants and Patriots. It is manure. end quote.
Jefferson was refering to Shays Rebellion which was eventually quashed. Jefferson continued to agree with their right of rebellion but hastened to add that the rebels should be pardoned and even though he didnt agree with the reason of the rebellion, he believed that our country needed a rebellion from time to time so the Government didnt forget who ruled this country - The People. He is often misquoted because people do not know the context of what he said.
I could drone on, but I will end with a quote from a letter from Thomas Jefferson to James Madison dated January 5, 1799 (Ford VII). 344 regarding the Alien and Sedition Acts Quote condensed for purposes of saving space - The several states composing the United States of America are not united on the principles of unlimited submission to their General Government...By compact under the style and title of a Constitution for the United States...they constituted a General Government for special purposes, reserving, each state to itself, the residuary mass of right to their own self government...Whensoever the General Government assumes undelegated powers, its acts are unaauthoritave, void, and of no force - end quote.
To be honest, what American history shows is a tragedy wrought by an insoluble dilemma. When war comes, most of the chains of the Constitution are cut off, for obvious reasons: who wants their government to fight a foreign foe with one hand tied between its back? Unfortunately, the lack of Constituional restraint in war leads many Americans to associate semi-tyranny with victory. Thus, semi-tyranny becomes prestigious and less easy to fend off.
As I said, there's no way out of this dilemma (that isn't absurd or impracticable.)
Of course, I could take the easy out and say...Madison's Fault! :)
b um p