Madison's Constitutional Vision: The
Legacy of Enumerated Powers
In reflecting on James Madison and the future of limited government, the first challenge is to understand Madison's constitutional vision. That would be easier to do had modern political sensibilities not strayed so far from it—had we not become so accustomed to effectively unlimited government and indifferent, largely, to constitutional restraints on the size and scope of government. The second challenge is to understand how and why the limited government Madison sought to secure became the vast Leviathan we know today. Indeed, given the current reach of federal power, Madison's promise in Federalist No. 45 that the powers of the new government would be “few and defined” strikes the modern ear as not a little quaint. At the outset, therefore, we have to grant that Madison's legacy is less than certain, even as we draw from it to speculate about the future of limited government.
To say that Madison's legacy is uncertain is not to say, of course, that he left us nothing. Quite the contrary, although the federal government today is far larger than he imagined it would be, Madison's constitutional vision has doubtless spared us the kind of oppressive and even tyrannical government we've seen so often around the world since his plan was first unveiled. In fact, more than 200 years after it was first erected, most of Madison's structure is still standing. Looking over the events of that period, that is no small accomplishment. On balance, therefore, one would have to say that the legacy of Madison's vision has been relatively stable government, even if more government than Madison would have wanted.
To learn from that mixed legacy, it will be useful to begin with a brief overview of Madison's vision, focusing in particular on his constitutional doctrine of enumerated powers. Our main concern in that will be with Madison's conception of political legitimacy,