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James Madison, Executive Power, and the Question of Consistency
Unformatted Document Text:  Articles of Confederation, among other things, Congress was incapable of preventing the States from encroaching “on the federal authority, trespassing on each others privileges and rights, violating “the law of nations and of treaties,” and passing a plethora of ever changing unjust and oppressive laws. 13 In essence what the federal government could not control were the passions of men expressed through the creation and promulgation of factions throughout the Union. These factions placed the short term interest of their members over the well-being of the Republic by ignoring treaty stipulations, by passing laws that trampled on the rights of other citizens, by changing the laws without thought of the consequences once they had gained power in the States, by making the United States look foolish and weak in the eyes of the rest of the world, and by creating dissension and turmoil within and between the States. Because the States were relatively small units it was easy for a faction to gain control over the reigns of government. And since each State had retained a significant amount of sovereignty within the Union, once a faction gained power in a state they could exercise that sovereignty perniciously over their own citizens, or use it to thwart the general will of the Confederacy, or encroach upon the sovereignty of the Federal Government. By the time of the Constitutional convention, James Madison was convinced that Montesquieu’s dictum that Republican government worked best on a small scale was fallacious. His study of Ancient and Modern Confederations, and especially his contemplation of the American Confederacy convinced him that the sphere of the Republic must instead be extended by empowering the Federal government in such a way that it acted directly on individuals within the States, and was armed with an absolute veto over State laws. 14 The specific prescription that Madison brought to the Convention was “the Virginia Plan.” This plan was composed of fifteen resolutions. The first called for the enlargement and correction of the Articles of the Federation, so that their proposed objectives could be fulfilled, namely “common defence, security of liberty, and general welfare.” The rest recommended that the new federal government include a National Legislature composed of two branches. The members of the first branch were to be elected directly by the people. “The Right of Suffrage” for legislative elections would be proportionate. The first branch would then elect the second branch. 15 13 James Madison, “Vices of the American Political System,” Papers of James Madison, PJM, 9: 348-357; James Madison, “Speech, June 19, 1787,” RFC, 1: 314-322. 14 James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, New York, 24 October, 1787, PJM, 10: 212-213. 15 “The Virginia Plan,” PJM, 10: 15-16. 9

Authors: Edwards, Gregory.
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Articles of Confederation, among other things, Congress was incapable of preventing the States from encroaching
“on the federal authority, trespassing on each others privileges and rights, violating “the law of nations and of
treaties,” and passing a plethora of ever changing unjust and oppressive laws.
In essence what the federal
government could not control were the passions of men expressed through the creation and promulgation of factions
throughout the Union. These factions placed the short term interest of their members over the well-being of the
Republic by ignoring treaty stipulations, by passing laws that trampled on the rights of other citizens, by changing
the laws without thought of the consequences once they had gained power in the States, by making the United States
look foolish and weak in the eyes of the rest of the world, and by creating dissension and turmoil within and
between the States.
Because the States were relatively small units it was easy for a faction to gain control over the reigns of
government. And since each State had retained a significant amount of sovereignty within the Union, once a faction
gained power in a state they could exercise that sovereignty perniciously over their own citizens, or use it to thwart
the general will of the Confederacy, or encroach upon the sovereignty of the Federal Government. By the time of the
Constitutional convention, James Madison was convinced that Montesquieu’s dictum that Republican government
worked best on a small scale was fallacious. His study of Ancient and Modern Confederations, and especially his
contemplation of the American Confederacy convinced him that the sphere of the Republic must instead be
extended by empowering the Federal government in such a way that it acted directly on individuals within the
States, and was armed with an absolute veto over State laws.
The specific prescription that Madison brought to the Convention was “the Virginia Plan.” This plan was
composed of fifteen resolutions. The first called for the enlargement and correction of the Articles of the Federation,
so that their proposed objectives could be fulfilled, namely “common defence, security of liberty, and general
welfare.” The rest recommended that the new federal government include a National Legislature composed of two
branches. The members of the first branch were to be elected directly by the people. “The Right of Suffrage” for
legislative elections would be proportionate. The first branch would then elect the second branch.
13
James Madison, “Vices of the American Political System,” Papers of James Madison, PJM, 9: 348-357; James
Madison, “Speech, June 19, 1787,” RFC, 1: 314-322.
14
James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, New York, 24 October, 1787, PJM, 10: 212-213.
15
“The Virginia Plan,” PJM, 10: 15-16.
9


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