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

Independent Journal (New York)

January 16, 1788

The power of a government—and the supremacy of that power—often is tied to the ways in which it can reach the people’s lives. A federal government inherently raises concerns about overreach, and the draft Constitution’s proposed federal government evoked a question of whether it would be an all-powerful national government, sitting in the nation’s capital and presiding over the country’s affairs—distant though they may be from those holding power. James Madison, writing under the pen name Publius, explained that the proposed government was a blend of a federal and national one and therefore was worthy of Americans approving it.

A truly national government, in Madison’s view, would be one of supremacy and one whose tentacles would reach even to the local level: authorities in cities and municipalities answering to the national government and having a more attenuated relationship with the states in which they reside. This was not the model of the Constitution. The federal government’s jurisdiction “extends to certain enumerated objects only[] and leaves to the several States a residuary and inviolable sovereignty over all other objects.” The explicit spheres of power of the federal government would be clear from the text of the Constitution, and the people would know that the Constitution reserved to the states those spheres of power not explicit; and those would be spheres of power that the states would retain without fear of being co-opted by the federal government.

The fact that this structure of governing gave pause to many Americans—even those more learned—was not a surprise; there were few model governments in the world; comparisons could not easily be made. There were many other systems of government to study, but those other systems had not made “that honorable determination, which animates every votary of freedom, to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government.” Analysis revealed this truth. Even countries that proclaimed to be republics did not live up to the title. In Venice, “a small body of hereditary nobles” ruled “in the most absolute manner.” Poland and Holland had masqueraded as republics, but the people did not hold power in those countries. Even in England, the mix of “hereditary aristocracy and monarchy” disqualified it from being a true republic, wrote Madison.

But the system created in the Constitution was one that would operate as a republic and one that had a federal government that was neither wholly federal nor wholly national in its nature. Even the ratification of the Constitution revealed this structure: to ratify, a majority of states, not citizens, was necessary—thus departing from the national type and advancing toward a federal character. Introducing amendments to the Constitution also was neither federal nor national in nature. It was this composition—one of a federal government that had overarching authority on some parts of governing but deferred to states on other, more local, aspects of governing—that gave merit to the Constitution. There would be no national government that pretended it could administer justice and reflect the will of its people even into small communities; it would be a more modest, more practical federal government that would see to the overall implementation of the most fundamental rights and to addressing the macro concerns of the country.

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