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James Madison, Executive Power, and the Question of Consistency
Unformatted Document Text:  system. Experience had evinced a constant tendency in the States to encroach on the federal authority; to violate national Treaties; to infringe the rights & interests of each other; to oppress the weaker party within their respective jurisdictions.” He considered the negative “the mildest expedient that could be devised for preventing these mischiefs.” 25 The alternative was to give the National government a coercive power over the states. Such a power he thought would only create animosity, resentment, and even civil war. The negative by preempting the passage of any mischievous laws would make force unnecessary. In the same way that both houses of legislature must pass a law before it becomes “operative,” state bills would only become effective after acceptance by the Federal government. “But in order to give the negative this efficacy,” he added, “it extend to all cases…In a word, he concluded, “to recur to the illustrations borrowed from the planetary system. This prerogative of the General Government is the great pervading principle that must controul the centrifugal tendency of the States; which, without it, will continually fly out of their proper orbits and destroy the order & harmony of the political system.” 26 Although Madison identified this negative as a “defensive” measure to prevent the states from encroaching on the power of the federal government, his description of it as a kin to gravity acting like the “pervading principle” in the Union suggests that he intended it be more than a mere protection against the states encroaching on the power of the federal government. His explanation of the vices it would cure such as injustices within the states themselves suggests that Madison intended that its exercise would bring the power of the federal government to bear within and throughout the states. As Charles F. Hobson accurately points out, that Madison’s advocacy for such an extensive open ended power in the hands of the general government meant that “in 1787, Madison was thus scarcely less a consolidationist than Alexander Hamilton,” except that Hamilton loved the British model of monarchy while Madison desired to frame a “national government on republican principles. And Madison wanted to transfer what was traditionally a prerogative of the king to the upper house of the legislature.” 27 25 James Madison, “Speech,” 8 June 1787, NFC, 88. 26 Ibid, 89. 27 James Madison to George Washington, New York, 16 April, 1787, PJM 9: 383; For the debate over whether Madison intended this to be merely a defensive power or whether he intended to be a powerful tool in the hands of the federal government that would reduce the states to approximation of counties within the states see Charles F. Hobson, “The Negative on State Laws: James Madison, the Constitution, and the Crisis of Republican Government,” WMQ 36 (1979): 215-235; and Lance Banning, The Sacred Fire of Liberty (Ithaca: Cornell University Press), and “The Practicable Sphere of the Republic,” in Beyond Confederation , edited by Richard 14

Authors: Edwards, Gregory.
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system. Experience had evinced a constant tendency in the States to encroach on the federal authority; to violate
national Treaties; to infringe the rights & interests of each other; to oppress the weaker party within their respective
jurisdictions.” He considered the negative “the mildest expedient that could be devised for preventing these
mischiefs.”
The alternative was to give the National government a coercive power over the states. Such a power he
thought would only create animosity, resentment, and even civil war. The negative by preempting the passage of any
mischievous laws would make force unnecessary. In the same way that both houses of legislature must pass a law
before it becomes “operative,” state bills would only become effective after acceptance by the Federal government.
“But in order to give the negative this efficacy,” he added, “it extend to all cases…In a word, he concluded, “to recur
to the illustrations borrowed from the planetary system. This prerogative of the General Government is the great
pervading principle that must controul the centrifugal tendency of the States; which, without it, will continually fly
out of their proper orbits and destroy the order & harmony of the political system.”
Although Madison identified this negative as a “defensive” measure to prevent the states from encroaching
on the power of the federal government, his description of it as a kin to gravity acting like the “pervading principle”
in the Union suggests that he intended it be more than a mere protection against the states encroaching on the power
of the federal government. His explanation of the vices it would cure such as injustices within the states themselves
suggests that Madison intended that its exercise would bring the power of the federal government to bear within and
throughout the states. As Charles F. Hobson accurately points out, that Madison’s advocacy for such an extensive
open ended power in the hands of the general government meant that “in 1787, Madison was thus scarcely less a
consolidationist than Alexander Hamilton,” except that Hamilton loved the British model of monarchy while
Madison desired to frame a “national government on republican principles. And Madison wanted to transfer what
was traditionally a prerogative of the king to the upper house of the legislature.”
25
James Madison, “Speech,” 8 June 1787, NFC, 88.
26
Ibid, 89.
27
James Madison to George Washington, New York, 16 April, 1787, PJM 9: 383; For the debate over whether
Madison intended this to be merely a defensive power or whether he intended to be a powerful tool in the hands of
the federal government that would reduce the states to approximation of counties within the states see Charles F.
Hobson, “The Negative on State Laws: James Madison, the Constitution, and the Crisis of Republican
Government,” WMQ 36 (1979): 215-235; and Lance Banning, The Sacred Fire of Liberty (Ithaca: Cornell
University Press), and “The Practicable Sphere of the Republic,” in Beyond Confederation , edited by Richard
14


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