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James Madison, Executive Power, and the Question of Consistency
Unformatted Document Text:  government. So far Madison’s diagnosis and cure for the ills that plagued the American Republic suggest that he was a thoroughgoing Calvinist. However, a closer look at his political philosophy reveals that it was tinctured with a modest dose of optimism about the potential of some members in a republic to rise above their base passions, see their long term interests, and consequently act in a virtuous manner. On the one hand, he acknowledged that there was “a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust.” On the other hand, Madison asserted, “there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these in a higher degree than any other form.” He could not bring himself to believe that there was “not sufficient virtue among men for self-government,” or that “nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.” 11 To understand how Madison’s moderated Calvinism influenced his political thought at the time of the Constitutional convention, it is necessary to describe his intentions concerning the construction, composition, mode of election, and purpose of the upper house of the National legislature. In 1787, he brought to the Constitutional convention a deep seated wish that it would be constructed in such a way that it would be independent and powerful, and composed of the natural aristocracy. Unlike the other members of the convention Madison came to the meeting with a well articulated comprehensive plan to save the American experiment in republican government. Both his diagnosis and prescription presupposed a conception of human nature that on the one hand acknowledged depravity, but on the other hand held out hope that a select group of American’s were capable of overcoming their basest passions, because they understood their long term interests, and could couple these interests to their reasoning faculty, and thereby offset the weight of their passions. The trick for Madison was constructing the government in such a way that these individuals were elected to the federal government, and vested with the power to control the destabilizing forces in the American political system. 12 According to James Madison, the American Political system suffered from numerous fatal infirmities. Each of these areas of weakness was attributable to the impotence of the federal government versus the States. Under the 11 James Madison, “Federalist #55,” Ibid., 346. 12 Daniel W. Howe, “The Political Psychology of the Federalist,” WMQ 44 (1987): 395. 8

Authors: Edwards, Gregory.
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government. So far Madison’s diagnosis and cure for the ills that plagued the American Republic suggest that he
was a thoroughgoing Calvinist.
However, a closer look at his political philosophy reveals that it was tinctured with a modest dose of
optimism about the potential of some members in a republic to rise above their base passions, see their long term
interests, and consequently act in a virtuous manner. On the one hand, he acknowledged that there was “a degree of
depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust.” On the other hand, Madison
asserted, “there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence.
Republican government presupposes the existence of these in a higher degree than any other form.” He could not
bring himself to believe that there was “not sufficient virtue among men for self-government,” or that “nothing less
than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.”
To understand how Madison’s moderated Calvinism influenced his political thought at the time of the
Constitutional convention, it is necessary to describe his intentions concerning the construction, composition, mode
of election, and purpose of the upper house of the National legislature. In 1787, he brought to the Constitutional
convention a deep seated wish that it would be constructed in such a way that it would be independent and powerful,
and composed of the natural aristocracy. Unlike the other members of the convention Madison came to the meeting
with a well articulated comprehensive plan to save the American experiment in republican government. Both his
diagnosis and prescription presupposed a conception of human nature that on the one hand acknowledged depravity,
but on the other hand held out hope that a select group of American’s were capable of overcoming their basest
passions, because they understood their long term interests, and could couple these interests to their reasoning
faculty, and thereby offset the weight of their passions. The trick for Madison was constructing the government in
such a way that these individuals were elected to the federal government, and vested with the power to control the
destabilizing forces in the American political system.
According to James Madison, the American Political system suffered from numerous fatal infirmities. Each
of these areas of weakness was attributable to the impotence of the federal government versus the States. Under the
11
James Madison, “Federalist #55,” Ibid., 346.
12
Daniel W. Howe, “The Political Psychology of the Federalist,” WMQ 44 (1987): 395.
8


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