Constitution Sunday: “Publius,” The Federalist XXXVII [James Madison]

“Publius,” The Federalist XXXVII [James Madison]

Daily Advertiser (New York), January 11, 1788

In the course of human history, there have been innumerable types of governments—all of which serve as examples for those seeking to devise their own system of government. When the Constitutional Convention gathered, there was consensus that the Articles of Confederation would no longer suffice, but it remained unclear what direction the convention should go when drafting its Constitution. James Madison, writing under the name Publius, detailed the monumental task that the convention assigned itself.

Madison, in his article, noted that when one looks back at the empires who have fallen or the kingdoms crushed, one only is reflecting on what governments have failed: those examples “therefore furnish no other light than that of beacons, which give warning of the course to be shunned, without pointing out that which ought to be pursued.” He continued: “The most that the Convention could do in such a situation, was to avoid the errors suggested by the past experience of other countries, as well as of our own; and to provide a convenient mode of rectifying their own errors, as future experience may unfold them.”

Then, Madison reasoned, even when one looks to forms of government with an eye toward measuring success rather than failure and effectiveness versus impotence, there is the difficulty of distillation: “The faculties of the mind itself have never yet been distinguished and defined, with satisfactory precision, by all the efforts of the most acute and metaphysical Philosophers. Sense, perception, judgment, desire, volition, memory, imagination, are found to be separated by such delicate shades, and minute gradations, that their boundaries have eluded the most subtle investigations, and remain a pregnant source of ingenious disquisition and controversy.” And so it is true with even the most adept political scientists: with so many factors at play in creating a functioning society and a responsive government, how can anyone confidently attribute a state’s success or failure to a set of those factors?

In this light, the Constitution that resulted from the convention was remarkable, indeed. As sagacious and learned as were those men who gathered, there was every indication that whatever document they created would not long be capable of warding off the plagues of government. As Madison wrote: “The history of almost all the great councils and consultations, held among mankind for reconciling their discordant opinions, assuaging their mutual jealousies, and adjusting their respective interests, is a history of factions, contentions, and disappointments; and may be classed among the most dark and degrading pictures which display the infirmities and depravities of the human character. If, in a few scattered instances, a brighter aspect is presented, they serve only as exceptions to admonish us of the general truth; and by their lustre to dark the gloom of the adverse prospect to which they are contrasted.” Madison saw two “important conclusions” emerging from these circumstances: first, the “Convention must have enjoyed in a very singular degree, an exemption from the pestilential influence of party animosities; the diseases most incident to deliberative bodies, and most apt to contaminate their proceedings”; and second, “that all the deputations composing the Convention, were either satisfactorily accommodated by the final act; or were induced to accede to it, by a deep conviction of the necessity of sacrificing private opinions and partial interests to the public good, and by a despair of seeing this necessity diminished by delays or by new experiments.”

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