James Madison on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights

By Robert J. Morgan | Go to book overview

Chapter 3
The True Principles of Republican Government

Before he opened his share of the public campaign to secure ratification of the Constitution, Madison reported to Jefferson on 24 October 1787. Among other things, Madison observed that the the "mutability" and the "injustice" of the states' laws "contributed more...than those which accrued to our national character and interest from the inadequacy of the Confederation to its immediate objects" in fueling constitutional reform. Therefore, it was necessary to show why private rights would be more secure under the new government than they had been in the states. They are both founded on the "republican principle which refers the ultimate decision to the will of the majority." The difference in their capacities to protect rights requires a full exposition on the "true principles" of republican government. Such a discourse would prove, contrary to the concurring "opinions of theoretical writers," that this form of government "must operate...within...an extensive sphere." This axiom must be qualified however, because this doctrine holds only within "a sphere of mean extent." If the sphere is "too small, oppressive combinations may be too easily formed" against a weaker party. If it is "too extensive," a "defensive combination may be rendered too difficult against the oppression of those entrusted with the administration." 1

The Framers and those who supported the Constitution faced another theoretical problem as well. That was the need to reduce to "practice the theory of a free government which forbids a mixture of the Legislative & Executive powers." The resolution of this problem had been difficult, however, because the "boundaries between Executive, Legislative and Judiciary powers, though in general strongly marked, consist in many instances in mere shades of difference." 2 Madison's attempts to explain these two theories in The Federalist are undoubtedly the best known of all his political writings, but they are also the most misunderstood.

Four weeks later Madison offered an extended proof of the correct theory in his first contribution to The Federalist, the Tenth essay. He claimed that representative government is most likely to secure the enactment of stable and just laws because of the restricting effect of its form on the tendency of popular majorities to act oppressively. 3 After demonstrating in the fourteenth essay that the territory of the republic was not too large, Madison met the Anti-Federalists' jeremiads against the small size of the House by arguing that the House of Representatives would meet all the requirements of accessibility,

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James Madison on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Recent Titles in Contributions in Legal Studies ii
  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • Introduction xi
  • Notes xvii
  • Part I - Power 1
  • Chapter 1 - To Improve and Perpetuate the Union 3
  • Notes 28
  • Chapter 2 - A Proper Energy in the Executive 31
  • Notes 51
  • Chapter 3 - The True Principles of Republican Government 55
  • Notes 79
  • Chapter 4 - Supporting and Restraining the Executive 83
  • Notes 111
  • Part II - Rights 115
  • Chapter 5 - Political Liberty 117
  • Notes 128
  • Chapter 6 - A Few Obvious Truths 131
  • Notes 159
  • Chapter 7 - The Very Essence of Free and Responsible Government 163
  • Notes 185
  • Chapter 8 - The Framers' Muse 189
  • Notes 202
  • Selected Bibliography 205
  • Index 213
  • About the Author 219
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