Madison: Insights and Ideals

madison3I continue to peruse the collected WRITINGS of  James Madison appreciating his insights and idealism.  He proposes the branches of government as a means of containing and controlling the power of government by prohibiting concentration of all power in any one small group of leaders and thus thwarting power abuse.  Madison is clear that he recognizes that humans are fallen, sinful creatures.

“It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government.  But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?  If men were angels, no government would be necessary.  If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.  In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficult lies in this:  You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself.  A dependency on the people is not doubt the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”

Regular  and frequent elections are the means by which those in government are made dependent on the people – in order to stay in power, the governing must always go back to get a mandate from the electorate.  He feels this also will make those governing more sympathetic with the governed.  For Madison the end of government – meaning its goal not is abolition – is justice for all.

“Justice is the end of government.  It is the end of civil society.  It ever has been, and ever will be pursued, until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit.  In a society under the forms of which the stronger faction can readily unite and oppress the weaker, anarchy may as truly be said to reign, as in a state of nature where the weaker individual is not secured against the violence of the stronger. “

In this last sentence Madison is drawing an analogy from animals in the wild where no matter how peaceable one animal may be it is always under the threat of violence from the stronger.   Madison is no social Darwinist – favoring the survival of the fittest.  He sees the goodness of government as extending protection to all – neither the powerful nor the weak should feel threatened  or  in need of using violence to protect their own interests when good government fairly treats everyone.  Government thus is a check on the violence found in our fallen world and because of our sinful and selfish ways.

For Madison the republican form of democracy he upholds requires that the people themselves must be wise and virtuous, even if the people they elect are not.  He certainly does not believe wise rulers will be elected if the voters themselves are not virtuous!

“To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical idea.  If there be sufficient virtue and intelligence in the community, it will be exercised in the selection of these men.  So that we do not depend on their virtue, or put confidence in our rulers, but in the people who are to choose them.”

In this last saying Madison shows himself to be a true son of the Enlightenment.  Despite understanding the foibles and sins of fallen humanity, Madison trusts  that civilization can educate its members to be intelligent, wise and virtuous.  Evil or fallen human nature for the Enlightenment thinkers can always be overcome by education.  His idyllic world envisions people who have been trained in virtue and thus would readily want to overcome their passions, temptations and selfishness.   Thus we are left to rely on voters to choose virtuously.

Madison favored limiting government but also in limiting the constitution – he did not want the constitution to spell out every detail of government power.  Instead, he wrote:

“…the powers granted by the proposed constitution, are the gift of the people, and may be resumed by them when perverted to their oppression, and every power not granted thereby, remains with the people, and at their will. … that every thing not granted is reserved.”

Government thus derives its power from the governed.  The U.S. government thus only has whatever power is specifically delegated to it by the constitution.  Thus in an argument about what government can do –  that which is permitted or only that which is not forbidden – Madison holds to the former:  Government can only do that which is clearly delegated to it by the constitution.  It can claim no other power.

Interestingly, his idealism also leads him to conclude:

“There can be no harm in declaring, that standing armies in time of peace, are dangerous to liberty, and ought to be avoided, as far as it may be consistent with the protection of the community.”

He will go on to acknowledge that the security of the nation from external threat will dictate a need for a standing army, but because he understands fallen human nature he recognizes a standing army is always a temptation for the governing to grab power over the governed.

One thought on “Madison: Insights and Ideals

  1. Pingback: War, What is it Good For? It Keeps Journalists Employed « Fr. Ted’s Blog

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