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

New-York Packet

January 29, 1788

James Madison, who would later become the fourth President of the United States, sought to quell fears of an overreaching and overly powerful federal government. The Constitution’s opponents had shared their fears—fears that Madison called “chimerical”—of a federal government that took power from the states and dominated the country’s governing. Rather than the states governing themselves and the federal government keeping to its own affairs, many of which related to international relations, the thinking was that the federal government would subsume those states’ powers and undermine their sovereignty.

James Madison. By: Gilbert Stuart.

Those opponents of the Constitution, Madison wrote, must consider that the federal government and state governments are “substantially dependent on the great body of the citizens of the United States.” With the “ultimate authority” being placed in the people, it was the people who could exercise their discretion as to the contours of power and how the federal and state governments interact—or don’t interact. More than that, Madison wrote, “the first and most natural attachment of the people will be to the governments of their respective States.” The “personal interests of the people will be regulated and provided for,” and “the people will be more familiarly and minutely conversant” with their states.

Further, wrote Madison, if “the people should in future become more partial to the federal than to the State governments, the change can only result, from such manifest and irresistible proofs of a better administration, as will overcome all their antecedent propensities.” In other words, if the people came to support the federal government rather than their state government, it would only be because the those officials in the federal government administered it more effectively. Even then, however, the federal government only may operate “within a certain sphere.” Those individuals satisfied with federal matters otherwise relied on their states to administer their governments—governments that are much closer to their citizens. To take it one step further, some citizens of a state can even look to other states for inspiration as to how a state can operate and what policies those states espouse and enact, and those citizens can encourage their own states to adopt such policies.

“A local spirit will infallibly prevail much more in the members of the Congress, than a national spirit will prevail in the Legislatures of the particular States,” wrote Madison. This was due to the fact that elected officials carry with them local sentiments or sensibilities—or idiosyncrasies—into the federal government. Congress, for instance, thus becomes a constellation of interests, identities, ways of life, and a reflection of the country, and this is a healthy expression of a representative democracy; the federal government would be unsustainable if it shouldered the burden of tamping down local interests. That impossible task would result in states being the outlet for those local interests, and states with similar such interests will band together and take on the federal government; and for all of its global influence and power in high-level matters, the federal government does not have much recourse against what a group of states fights to change.

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