The Federalist Papers | Study Guide

Alexander Hamilton

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The Federalist Papers | Essays 46–48 | Summary



Essay 46: The Influence of the State and Federal Governments Compared

As its title implies, this paper is closely linked to the preceding one. Although the federal and state governments may be distinguished according to their structure and purposes, they share one overwhelming attribute in common: their authority proceeds from the people. Madison is convinced that the realities of human nature make it extremely probable the links between elected representatives and the people will be much stronger locally than nationally. State officials are much more commonly in contact with their constituents. In case of conflict between state and federal governments, the former would enjoy an advantage.

Essay 47: The Particular Structure of the New Government and the Distribution of Power among Its Different Parts

This essay, authored by Madison, focuses on the doctrine of the separation of powers, closely associated with the French political philosopher Baron de Montesquieu (1689–1755) and his masterwork The Spirit of the Laws (1748). Critics of the Constitution, writes Madison, have made the objection that the new document does not sufficiently observe the requirement of separation of powers in a republic.

Madison delivers a measured but firm reply to this objection. Montesquieu, he says, based his doctrine of theory and practice on government in Great Britain. But even a cursory look at the British Constitution (by which is meant the accretion over centuries of legal decisions, acts of Parliament, and political norms) will reveal the branches of government are not totally segregated from one another but rather overlapping. Madison offers a number of specific examples of such overlap. He then shows a similar pattern in the American state constitutions. Political realities dictate the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government will interact to some extent. It would be impractical to expect or require the branches of government remain altogether separate or unconnected.

Essay 48: These Departments Should Not Be So Far Separated as to Have No Constitutional Control over Each Other

In this essay Madison continues his analysis of the three branches of government and in particular the doctrine of the separation of powers. Power, he asserts, is of an encroaching nature. In a monarchy it is the executive branch that must be especially feared. In a representative republic, however, the legislative branch is the most likely part of government to reach out for extension of its power.

Madison illustrates his assertion with two specific examples from American colonial history: Virginia and Pennsylvania. He quotes from Thomas Jefferson's well-known work, Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), to the effect that citizens must remain vigilant about the possibility of an "elective despotism"—namely, the appropriation by the legislature of spheres that properly pertain to the other two branches of government. Pennsylvania provides Madison with a similar illustration. According to the Council of Censors there, which met in 1783–84, the state constitution was breached on numerous occasions by the legislative and executive departments.


Perhaps the most striking impressions these essays give of Madison are the breadth of his erudition and the fluency of his expression. He is equally at home with the writings of Montesquieu and Jefferson, with the British Constitution and with recent events in Virginia and Pennsylvania. The main thrust of Madison's thinking on the separation of powers shows him, once again, to have been a moderate, insightful analyst of political theory and practice. Without denying or diminishing the validity of the revered Montesquieu's principle (Madison calls him "the oracle" in Essay 47), Madison is careful to note that in actual practice the three branches of government must inevitably overlap to some extent. The irony is the critics of the Constitution have alleged the document does not sufficiently observe a strict separation between the three branches of government.

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