James Madison had extensive beliefs about the structure of American government and the sustainability of the system.
Madison wrote Thomas Jefferson, stating, “It has been remarked that there is a tendency in all Governments to an augmentation of power at the expense of liberty.” Madison to Jefferson, Oct. 17, 1788, Boyd, ed., Jefferson Papers, XIV, 20. However, Madison realized that by 1788, America had successfully staved off the manifestation of tyranny. See Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 413.
However, Madison also knew the dangers that could develop with governments. He stated that when governmental power attained “a certain degree of energy and independence, [it] went on to expand itself.” Id. Then, when power was “below that degree, the direct tendency is to further degrees of relaxation, until the abuses of liberty beget a sudden transition to an undue degree of power.” Id. quoting Madison to Jefferson, Oct. 17, 1788, Boyd, ed., Jefferson Papers, XIV, 20.
Essentially, Madison was stating that licentiousness “led not to anarchy, but to a new kind of popular despotism.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 413. This prompted Madison to state to Jefferson, “It is much more to be dreaded that the few will be unnecessarily sacrificed to the many.” Madison to Jefferson, Oct. 17, 1788, Boyd, ed., Jefferson Papers, XIV, 20.
Just as David Ramsay expressed his concern about licentiousness ruining American society, as explained in Carrying Liberty to Excess, Madison was concerned about the effects of licentiousness of the many and the effect on others. For all intents and purposes, the many could deprive the few of their fair representation and voice in government, had liberty grown to relax the many and foster licentiousness.
For some, perhaps Madison’s focus is misplaced. Some would argue that the nature of democracy is that the majority rules, and if there is a segment of Americans who are less represented, that is just part of democracy.
Regardless of which side one falls on, Madison’s restatement of the spectrum of governmental power deserves attention and analysis. Whether it is wholly accurate or not, it reinforces the notion that arises so often: it is crucially important to maintain moderation and an even balance between two ends of the spectrum.