Sunday, November 14, 2010

Madison's wisdom on pluralism, federalism and liberty

One of the key building blocks of American liberty is the diversity and pluralism that have existed within our country since the colonial period.   It was precisely the coalescing of the various colonies into a single American nation that solidified that pluralism, as no single colony had sufficient weight to dominate the entirety of the country.  Thus New England remained separate from the South, Pennsylvania from Virginia, South Carolina from its neighbors in Georgia and North Carolina.  The fragmented cultures, demographics and economies of the various colonies, later states, prevented the country from taking on one particular characteristic.  As a consequence, there were a variety of religious, economic, political and social interests throughout America at the time of the Founding, and it was this diversity that spurred on the growth of liberty.  Since no single state, demographic group, religion or economic interest could control the whole, it was in the interest of each differing segment of the country to support freedom for all.

This point was emphasized brilliantly by James Madison in one of his most notable contributions to The Federalist, Essay # 51, dated February 6, 1788.  Written to console the fears of those who thought that the proposed Constitution would create a federal leviathan that would stamp down religious and political rights, Madison emphasized that the true defense of liberty in the United States came not from paper guarantees but on the vibrant and varied interests within the country, interests that emphasize not the centralization of power but rather auger for the pursuit of the common good through the policy of federalism.  As Madison put it so well:
In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects. The degree of security in both cases will depend on the number of interests and sects; and this may be presumed to depend on the extent of country and number of people comprehended under the same government. This view of the subject must particularly recommend a proper federal system to all the sincere and considerate friends of republican government, since it shows that in exact proportion as the territory of the Union may be formed into more circumscribed Confederacies, or States oppressive combinations of a majority will be facilitated: the best security, under the republican forms, for the rights of every class of citizens, will be diminished: and consequently the stability and independence of some member of the government, the only other security, must be proportionately increased.  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; and as, in the latter state, even the stronger individuals are prompted, by the uncertainty of their condition, to submit to a government which may protect the weak as well as themselves; so, in the former state, will the more powerful factions or parties be gradually induced, by a like motive, to wish for a government which will protect all parties, the weaker as well as the more powerful. It can be little doubted that if the State of Rhode Island was separated from the Confederacy and left to itself, the insecurity of rights under the popular form of government within such narrow limits would be displayed by such reiterated oppressions of factious majorities that some power altogether independent of the people would soon be called for by the voice of the very factions whose misrule had proved the necessity of it. In the extended republic of the United States, and among the great variety of interests, parties, and sects which it embraces, a coalition of a majority of the whole society could seldom take place on any other principles than those of justice and the general good; whilst there being thus less danger to a minor from the will of a major party, there must be less pretext, also, to provide for the security of the former, by introducing into the government a will not dependent on the latter, or, in other words, a will independent of the society itself. It is no less certain than it is important, notwithstanding the contrary opinions which have been entertained, that the larger the society, provided it lie within a practical sphere, the more duly capable it will be of self-government. And happily for the republican cause, the practicable sphere may be carried to a very great extent, by a judicious modification and mixture of the federal principle.
Federalism, in Madison's presentation, thus forms one -- and perhaps the principal -- guarantees of liberty in the American Republic.  And federalism in Madison's view in The Federalist #51 means a balanced government, with proper powers vested in a general government as well as proper powers retained by the states to deal with properly local issues.  Madison was no radical, particularly when he was writing The Federalist essays with fellow Founders Alexander Hamilton & John Jay.  His defense of "the federal principle," the idea of both a powerful general government and robust local governments, was then and remains today an almost perfect expression of that unique American ideal of the pluralism of interest guaranteeing liberty within the construct of a constitutional order that was itself divided between general and particular structures, between national and state governments.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Mark D. said...


Interesting stuff, but I don't see its relevance Madison's point in the The Federalist.

I also don't tend to the see the point in looking at Madison's personal views about church-state separation when deciding how the First Amendment should be applied. The First Amendment gains its power not from Madison's ideas but from its legal enactment by the Congress and by the ratifying States. It is the wording of the Amendment that is critical, not Madison's own views -- especially not his own views expressed long after ratification.

And the wording of the Amendment, not to mention its legal effect at the time of ratification, was to apply strictly to the national government, not to the States. It was only after the 14th Amendment was ratified that the 1st Amendment's guarantees were enforceable against the States.

Tom Van Dyke said...

All that was my point, Mark. You got it. Madison didn't really carry the First Amendment question, and they dropped "national" from the phrasing because they believed it was a federal government.

After ratification, the word "national" wasn't used. "General" government was a term of choice.

Mark D. said...

Sweet! Glad we are on the same page!