Constitution Sunday: “Publius,” The Federalist XIV

“Publius,” The Federalist XIV [James Madison]

New-York Packet, November 30, 1787

With the draft Constitution having been published for consideration by the residents of each state in 1787 came questions about whether and how the federal government would effectuate its responsibilities given the vast land that the states and territories had already comprised—which James Madison found to be framed by the Atlantic Ocean and the Mississippi River. Madison, in The Federalist XIV, articulated the reasoning behind the Constitution’s model for government, and at the heart of that reasoning was that this new form of government was not going to be a pure democracy of yore but rather a modern republic: “The true distinction” between a democracy and a republic is “that in a democracy, the people meet and exercise the government in person; in a republic they assemble and administer it by their representatives and agents. A democracy consequently will be confined to a small spot. A republic may be extended over a large region.”

An undiluted democracy will have a natural limit that amplifies as one sits further from its central point as the “most remote citizens” will assemble only “as often as their public functions demand” and “will include no greater number than can join in those functions.” However, in a republic, representatives may be “almost continually assembled” just as they were in the thirteen states before the proposal of the Constitution. Additional proof for the size of the territory not being insurmountable for operating the republic was Germany, “where a Diet representing the whole empire is continually assembled.” This was logical, Madison wrote, as a federal government “is not to be charged with the whole power of making and administering laws” but instead to exercise its jurisdiction in “certain enumerated objects, which concern all the members of the republic, but which are not to be attained by the separate provisions of any.” What the federal government does not control the state governments would “retain their due authority and activity,” ensuring that the localized needs are met.

Madison asked his readers to set aside those voices that bellowed the form of government called for in the Constitution was “a novelty in the political world” had no place in the theory of government, and that it would be “impossible to accomplish.” Rather, he asked his readers to consider: “But why is the experiment of an extended republic to be rejected merely because it may comprise what is new? Is it not the glory of the people of America, that whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience?” Madison also expected that the context of the Constitution’s proposal would persuade those citizens who expressed reservations about its ratification. The leaders of the revolution “pursued a new and more noble course” and “accomplished a revolution which has no parallel in the annals of human society: They reared the fabrics of governments which have no model on the face of the globe. They formed the design of a great confederacy, which it is incumbent on their successors to improve and perpetuate. If their works betray imperfections, we wonder at the fewness of them. If they erred most in the structure of the union; this was the work most difficult to be executed, this is the work which has been new modelled by the act of your Convention, and it is that act on which you are now to deliberate and decide.”

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