The Federalist Papers | Study Guide

Alexander Hamilton

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The Federalist Papers | Essays 49–51 | Summary

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Summary

Essay 49: Method of Guarding against the Encroachments of Any One Department of Government by Appealing to the People through a Convention

Madison begins this essay with another reference to Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia, which he had quoted in Essay 48. Jefferson had drafted a constitution for the state of Virginia in 1783, and in that document he had recommended a convention be held when any two branches of government agreed by a two-thirds vote that a convention was necessary. Such an arrangement, in Jefferson's thinking, would act as a "palladium" (shield) against abuses.

Although he fully endorses the concept of popular sovereignty, Madison remains cautious about appealing to the people too often. Such appeals have the effect of suggesting the government is plagued by defects. Madison alludes to the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, whose dialogue on government titled The Republic was universally acknowledged as a classic work, when he drily remarks, "But a nation of philosophers is as little to be expected as the philosophical race of kings wished for by Plato." Introducing constitutional questions to the consideration of the people too frequently runs the risk of stirring up passions and disturbing tranquility.

Perhaps Madison's most weighty objection to such an expedient, though, is that it would probably not serve its purpose. He repeats the assertion that the legislative branch is the arm of government most likely to seek self-aggrandizement. Appeals to the people from the executive and judicial branches are likely to fall flat. The members of these two branches are few in number; they are seldom personally known by the average citizen. By contrast, the members of the legislative department are numerous and locally oriented.

Essay 50: Periodical Appeals to the People Considered

In this paper, Madison continues his analysis of the issue of occasional or periodical appeals to the people by the branches of government. He reaches the same conclusion arrived at in Essay 49: namely, that such appeals carry with them many conflicts and difficulties and are unlikely to be effectual. One vexing problem is the length of the interval between such appeals. If the interval is too brief, the measures to be reviewed will be recent and will not be likely to benefit from revision. If the interval is too long, present motives would be likely to subordinate the prospect of distant censure. Abuses would have done their harm before remedies could be devised and applied. In addition, such abuses would have become deeply rooted and thus be more difficult to eliminate.

Madison illustrates these points by referring again to the meetings of the Council of Censors in Pennsylvania in 1783 and 1784 (see also Essay 48). The goal of this body was to determine whether the state constitution had been breached and whether any branch of government had encroached on any other. The meetings, though, turned out to be unsatisfactory. Conflicts of interest riddled the council's membership. The council's record of its proceedings shows it was deeply and bitterly split along partisan lines. The council may have misconstrued its mandate. Finally, the legislature refused, at least in one case, to comply with the council's decisions.

Essay 51: The Structure of the Government Must Furnish the Proper Checks and Balances between the Different Departments

In this paper, long acknowledged to be one of Madison's finest essays in the series, the author probes anew the issue of the separation of powers. His only answer to apprehensions and vexations, he declares, is to construct the government in a way that "its several constituent parts may, by their mutual relations, be the means of keeping each other in their proper places." Members of each branch should have as little influence as possible in the appointment of members in the other branches. A system of checks and balances must be devised so that encroachment is minimized. As Madison concisely puts it, "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition." Government offices must be divided and arranged in such a manner that "each may be a check on the other." As one telling example, Madison cites the fact that, since the legislative authority tends to predominate in republican government, the new Constitution provides for a bicameral legislature comprising a House and a Senate, each designed differently.

Madison adds that the federal system, in and of itself, provides a "double security" for the people's interests. Power is divided into two distinct governments, national and state, and then it is further subdivided into distinct and separate departments.

To guard against injustice inflicted by a majority of citizens acting against the interest of a minority, society must encourage such a wide range of diversity that the emergence of an unjust combination becomes extremely improbable. A free government benefits from a multiplicity of interests, just as freedom of religion benefits from a multiplicity of sects. Madison highlights this part of his discussion by remarking, near the conclusion of the essay, that justice is the end, or goal, of both government and civil society.

Analysis

Madison and Jefferson, fellow Virginians and both born to wealth and privilege, were great friends and close colleagues, so it is notable that Madison in Essay 49 takes mild issue with Jefferson's "convention" plan. Actually, Jefferson's concept was adapted in Article 5 of the Constitution, which provides for two alternative methods of designing and proposing amendments to the document—one of which involves a convention.

Essay 50 is closely linked to Essay 49, as Madison draws once more on the example of the Pennsylvania Council of Censors in 1783–84. From a modern perspective it is instructive to learn how the work of this body was stymied by conflicts of interest and rigid partisanship—both of which are all too common in contemporary government. If, by and large, the framers were men of genius and vision, political hacks and exploiters seem to have been as common in the late 18th century as they are now. As Madison drily remarks in Essay 51, "If men were angels, no government would be necessary."

Like Essay 10, Essay 51 has enjoyed widespread analysis, citation, and popularity. It is one of the few papers in The Federalist Papers that showcases the important concept of checks and balances (which also appears briefly in the third paragraph of Hamilton's Essay 9). Madison considers checks and balances side by side with the concept of the separation of powers, with each principle complementing the other. As in Essay 10, he draws on the size of the United States and its multiplicity of interests as an advantage, which will function as a restraint on pernicious majorities bent on injustice.
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