Life gets busy and suddenly I realize it's been ages since I've posted. I've been reading through several of the Federalist Papers in preparation for class this evening; my American political theory students have been assigned factional affiliations and will have to rehash the Federalist vs. Anti-Federalist debate over ratification of the United States Constitution. A worthy enterprise (I hope)... we can always do with a reminder of why our government looks like it does.
I was especially struck by James Madison's commentary in Federalist 51. Arguing that "Ambition must counter ambition," he asserts the need for checks and balances -- interactions among the various branches of government that were intended to keep any one of the three branches from gaining too much power. (The Federalists were most concerned about the potential for legislative authority to grow too strong -- see Federalist 48, among other sources. I look forward to polling my students on the subject of which branch(es) have in practice posed the greatest "threat," if any, throughout our history.) "...what is government itself," he argues, "but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary." Humans not, of course, being angels, the checks and balances of the Constitution are vital.
Perhaps my favorite line in Fed 51 is this: "Whilst all authority in it [government] will be derived from and dependent on the society, the society itself will be broken into so many parts, interests and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority." A few observations: first, the powers of government are derived from society. Second, minority rights matter; this isn't just an argument for the will of the majority. Finally, all of this indicates that compromise was literally built into the fabric of our constitutional republic.
Some among us keep fussing that we need to "get back to the Founders." Others scoff at the idea. Perhaps the best approach might be to look at what the Founders actually said. They weren't oracles. They had no powers of prediction. They were in many ways deeply flawed (see the abhorrent slavery clauses, among other examples). They were also, however, brilliant for their time... and cautious about the future. The Federalist Papers -- and, to give full credit -- the arguments of the Anti-Federalists were about care and stewardship. What would best provide for a bright future? How could any power in society be prevented from gaining the excessive control that leads to tyranny? Important stuff. I'm blessed to have the motivation to go back and look at some of these things. I hope it's a useful evening for my students, as well.