Jefferson & Madison


James Madison, the fourth President of the United States, pictured on the right, was a brilliant political philosopher and strategist.  Nowhere, perhaps, is this fact more evident than in his contributions to The Federalist, a body of reflective writings explaining, defending, and advocating in behalf of the United States Constitution as it was initially proposed to the States. The various essays comprising The Federalist originated not only from Madison's hand, but also from those of John Jay and Alexander Hamilton.  Yet nowhere within this body of writing by these three founders is there exhibited any higher level of political insight than in Federalist No. 10, authored by Madison.  I encourage all to read it.

In this essay, Madison concerned himself with the unsettling reality that political unions throughout history have been disrupted by faction.  He emphasized that popular governments perish, and have done so from the beginning of time, because of the rise of factions.  By "faction" he meant, either "a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community."  There were many factions existing in Madison's America, and there are probably even more of them existing in ours.  Think of the vast multiplicity of lobbies, religions, corporate and economic interests, culture concerns, and on and on that are present today on our continental shores.

In order to bring stability to government, Madison saw that faction had to be controlled.  In his meticulous analysis of the problem, he pointed out that this goal can be fulfilled in one of two ways – by either regulating the causes of faction or its effects.  Since "[l]iberty is to faction what air is to fire," and since human beings will invariably hold opinions which do not precisely coincide with those of some or all their neighbors, eliminating the causes of faction means either curtailing or abolishing liberty on the one hand or insisting upon uniform and monolithically-held opinions on the other.  Madison therefore reasoned that the way to control faction in accordance with the spirit of liberty is not through its causes, but its effects.

In an expansive republic, such as the kind which our Constitution envisions, representatives are elected from the various States. These officials, in Madison's view, will have their own interests, tempers, prejudices, and designs.  When they deliberate on any issue of national concern, the tendency will be for their opposing views to neutralize, or to balance, one another.  A "cooling-down" will occur, and disruption of the union will be avoided.  So our Constitution, in the eyes of this Virginian, encouraged liberty while, at the same time, restricting its most destructive consequences.  A stroke of genius, right?  There is no doubt about it.

The founders intended to establish a stable republican form of government.  While the American ship of state has been wobbly at times, we have not been cursed with serial coup d'etats, like those we have seen in other countries in the world.  There are many benefits that we Americans have derived thanks to the stability of our political institutions.

But, now, let me pose a few questions, and for me they have become increasingly challenging ones.  What happens when our political institutions are broken? What happens when they are no longer responsive to the people who are supposed to be served by them?  What happens when most citizens do not approve of the way our branches of government are operating?  Is stability still a benefit?  A responsive, well-oiled, functioning governmental machine, blessed with stability, is a marvelous asset to any people.  But a non-responsive, dysfunctional government, which appears set in concrete, amounts to a form of cursed tyranny. Am I missing something here?

Government is about the structuring of our public institutions. These embrace, or at least help to define, policies of interstate commerce and finance, energy, warfare, healthcare, immigration and naturalization, state-supported education, the responsibilities of citizenship, and policies regarding the media, to name but a few areas of vital concern.  When there are major problems in any area, the people feel that they are justified in looking to the national government for a remedy.  Why?  Because the national government was and is invariably the architect of such problematic policies.  The rule is simple:  where there is the power to make policy, there and there alone rests the responsibility for it.

I ask that you take a careful look at some of the problems falling squarely, or at least in large part, upon the doorstep of our national elected officials. First, the world's economy is shot.  The crisis of debt is too big for the United States government to control. The Bank of International Settlements reports that the total value of debt worldwide is now $596 trillion, or more than a half quadrillion dollars.  United States bailout funds, amounting to approximately $2.7 trillion, do not even comprise a band-aid over this gaping wound.  Second, high-paying American jobs have been outsourced for years by the hundreds of thousands, thanks to nothing more than corporate greed.  The middle class is on the ropes!  Third, diseased and impoverished illegals have invaded the country in blatant disregard and violation of the law, and have been allowed to bootstrap themselves into our medical, educational, and other welfare programs, creating deepening financial problems for American citizens.  Fourth, American culture is, because of the massive influx from the Third World, being turned virtually inside out.  We are becoming a Tower of Babel; the ties binding us together through language, practice, tradition, and religion are weakening every day!  Fifth, the media are little more than professional liars, on whom no one can reasonably rely for information.  These are but a few of the grave problems we face.  Time will exacerbate them.  Government does too little too late.

Americans do not need stability now so much as change.  But "change" can mean many things.  It can mean the further crippling of traditional American values.  It can mean increased power for those such as Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Barney Frank, and Christopher Dodd. It can mean the imposition of the Fairness Doctrine on radio and television talk shows. It can mean massive restrictions imposed on the right to own handguns and other firearms. It can mean deluging courts with activist justices. These "changes" may satisfy citizens of a secular-progressive stripe, but certainly not millions of others.

The question, then, becomes the following:  What do dissatisfied citizens do when they despise one government policy after another and regard the stability of government as little more than a means of perpetuating tyranny?  This question is a grave one, which hangs like a pall over a patriot's head and heart. 

Thomas Jefferson, below, reflected upon this issue.  In a letter to Abigail Adams, on February 22, 1787, he stated, "The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive.  It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all.  I like a little rebellion now and then.  It is like a storm in the Atmosphere."  Again, in a letter to William S. Smith, on November 13, 1787, Jefferson asked rhetorically, "What country before ever existed a century and a half without a rebellion? & what country can preserve it's [sic] liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?  Let them take arms. . . .The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants.  It is it's [sic] natural manure."

Jefferson's airy pronouncements concerning the subject of revolution strike many of us today as almost whimsical.  But I am personally convinced that he had his finger on a truth that is as worthy to ponder as Madison's.  We should not forget that the fabric of liberty has both volatile and stable elements.  It may be that, in the not so distant future, Jefferson's emphasis will rise to the forefront of public consciousness, resulting in a public catharsis, which serves to take to task a sorry and demoralized government with which few citizens are content.  We shall see.

November 21, 2008