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

Independent Journal (New York)

January 26, 1788

A nation comprised of states (or provinces) will inevitably have tension between the national government and each of the state governments. Most frequently, at the center of that tension is sovereignty; one state’s policy preference may be anathema to another state.

James Madison, writing under the pen name Publius, sought to reassure critics of the Constitution that the framers of the document had studied the failures of past governments as related to balancing a national government and local governments. More than that, the framers had accounted for those tensions that would arise between the federal government and the states. There was a “supposition that the operation of the federal Government will by degrees prove fatal to the State Governments”—that the federal government would subsume the state governments over time. Madison wrote: “The more I revolve the subject the more fully I am persuaded that the balance is much more likely to be disturbed by the preponderancy of the last than of the first scale”—to Madison, it would be more likely that states would undermine the federal government’s potency than the other way around.

Although analogous systems in history were “so dissimilar” from the proposed system under the Constitution in that the Constitution vested states with “a very extensive portion of active sovereignty,” there was still value to looking at what happened in those systems to cause their downfalls. In those “antient and modern confederacies, the strongest tendency continually betraying itself in the members to despoil the general Government of its authorities, with a very ineffectual capacity in the latter to defend itself against the encroachments.” According to Madison, historically, it was more likely that states would counteract the federal government and strip it of its powers than for the reverse to occur; and some of this was owing to the fact that the national governments were unable to defend the encroachments that the local governments plotted. The Constitution, as written, permitted a balance to exist—although this balance, as the systems have further developed, has evolved in ways Madison could have scarcely imagined.

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