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James Madison, Executive Power, and the Question of Consistency
Unformatted Document Text:  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 greatest difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. 9 The passage referenced above, suggests that James Madison’s political thought rested on the assumption that humans were fallen creatures governed more by their passions than by reason or any sort of moral sense. Madison would have agreed that any government constructed to defend liberty must first take stock of humanity’s inclination to follow the dictates of their passions. It would be foolish to assume that the vast majority of humanity would or could ever act in a virtuous manner. Classical republicanism counted on the people to place the needs of the whole community over their own interests. Madison clearly did not think that was possible for the majority of Americans in 1787, or in future generations. The experience of the 1780s only reinforced in his mind the doctrine of human depravity he had learned under Witherspoon’s tutelage. Instead of seeking the public good, self-interested majorities on the state level had gained control of the legislatures and abused the liberties of the minority. Madison feared that the whole experiment in free government that the revolutionary elite had staked their reputation on now looked to have failed, because some had had too high an esteem for the potential of humans to act virtuously. Now Madison vigorously attempted to present the proposed Constitution as the solution to the dilemma of how to successfully construct a government that would secure private liberties especially property. In place of a reliance on the virtue of elected officials or the people, the new constitutional system would use human ambition to check human ambition. And instead of adhering to Montesquieu’s dictum that republican government would only work on a small scale, which Madison had concluded was largely responsible for the vicious character of government under the Articles of Confederation, the new constitutional frame would extend republican government over a large geographical scale in order to control the power of self-interested factions. “The latent causes of faction were sown in human nature.” 10 The cure for the bane of faction was an extended republic where factious self interested individuals could exercise their liberties, but never gain a majority within the federal 9 Ibid., 322. 10 James Madison, “Federalist#10,” Ibid., 79. 7

Authors: Edwards, Gregory.
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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 greatest difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the
next place oblige it to control itself.
The passage referenced above, suggests that James Madison’s political thought rested on the assumption
that humans were fallen creatures governed more by their passions than by reason or any sort of moral sense.
Madison would have agreed that any government constructed to defend liberty must first take stock of humanity’s
inclination to follow the dictates of their passions. It would be foolish to assume that the vast majority of humanity
would or could ever act in a virtuous manner. Classical republicanism counted on the people to place the needs of
the whole community over their own interests. Madison clearly did not think that was possible for the majority of
Americans in 1787, or in future generations. The experience of the 1780s only reinforced in his mind the doctrine of
human depravity he had learned under Witherspoon’s tutelage.
Instead of seeking the public good, self-interested majorities on the state level had gained control of the
legislatures and abused the liberties of the minority. Madison feared that the whole experiment in free government
that the revolutionary elite had staked their reputation on now looked to have failed, because some had had too high
an esteem for the potential of humans to act virtuously. Now Madison vigorously attempted to present the proposed
Constitution as the solution to the dilemma of how to successfully construct a government that would secure private
liberties especially property.
In place of a reliance on the virtue of elected officials or the people, the new constitutional system would
use human ambition to check human ambition. And instead of adhering to Montesquieu’s dictum that republican
government would only work on a small scale, which Madison had concluded was largely responsible for the
vicious character of government under the Articles of Confederation, the new constitutional frame would extend
republican government over a large geographical scale in order to control the power of self-interested factions. “The
latent causes of faction were sown in human nature.”
The cure for the bane of faction was an extended republic
where factious self interested individuals could exercise their liberties, but never gain a majority within the federal
9
Ibid., 322.
10
James Madison, “Federalist#10,” Ibid., 79.
7


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