Federalist #51

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Federalist #51
Not at all confident that they could get all 13 states to ratify the new Constitution, and not wanting to let a couple of reluctant states stop the movement toward the creation of a new national government, the Framers in Philadelphia agreed that the Constitution would be considered valid if/when only NINE states had approved it.
After nearly four months of work, the Convention adjourned in September of 1787 and the ratification battle was taken out to the states. Nine months later, in the middle of June of 1788, New Hampshire became the ninth state to approve the Constitution and shortly thereafter, Virginia became the tenth. While according to the rules made in Philadelphia this was more than enough to start the new government, one key state had not yet ratified – NEW YORK.
Because New York split the country in two geographically, and because New York harbor was the best natural port on the East Coast, a special effort was made to get New York to come on board. Three dedicated supporters of the national cause (known as FEDERALISTS), JAMES MADISON, ALEXANDER HAMILTON and JOHN JAY, decided to publish essays in New York arguing in favor of ratifying the Constitution, to convince the people there that sticking with the United States (and not becoming a separate independent country) was their best course of action.
These arguments took the form of 85 essays (now known as the FEDERALIST PAPERS) published anonymously over an eight-month period in a New York newspaper. While no one at the time knew exactly who the authors of these essays were, it was clear that whoever was writing them had a very good idea of how the new government was designed. Collectively, these essays provided a powerful argument that the new Constitution was the best idea for saving the country from the chaos of the Articles of Confederation period.
Those who opposed the ratification of the Constitution have been labeled ANTI-FEDERALISTS, and they made TWO main arguments:


The Framers in Philadelphia neglected to include a Bill of Rights in the new Constitution, believing that since every state had its own Bill of Rights, that it was not absolutely necessary to include one in the national Constitution. When confronted with the argument that this oversight was a strong enough reason to reject the new Constitution, the Federalists quickly promised that if the Constitution was approved, that they would push to have a Bill of Rights added as Amendments. This promise effectively took this issue off the table.


Many Anti-Federalists opposed the new Constitution because they felt that the central government – and especially the new Congress – would simply be too powerful. A central government that could tax, regulate trade, maintain a standing army and enforce its own laws reminded a lot of people of the oppressive British system from which they had fought to rid themselves during the War for Independence. It was this point of opposition to the new Constitution that the authors of the Federalist Papers attempted to address.

The two-part thesis of the Federalist Papers was as follows:

  1. Indeed the central government under the new Constitution will be much more powerful than the current one under the Articles of Confederation, but this is out of necessity. The country is spinning out of control with the 13 states acting like 13 independent countries and a more powerful central government is needed to prevent anarchy.

  1. Although the central government will be more powerful under the new Constitution, it will certainly not be TOO powerful. In fact, the Framers have included many provisions in the new Constitution to ensure that the power of the new government will be strictly limited.

In short, the two-part thesis of the Federalist Papers was:


need one!

BUT, TOO POWERFUL? No, we’ve taken steps to prevent that

from happening.

FEDERALIST #51 was written by JAMES MADISON, and its about CHECKS & BALANCES. Here, Madison tries to convince the reader that a more powerful new government is necessary to prevent anarchy, but that checks and balances within the system will keep those who govern from becoming too powerful.
First he argues that the key to creating a good constitutional system is creating a government in which “ambition is made to counteract ambition.” In other words, we have to create constitutional arrangements that pit power-hungry, ambitious people in the government against one another so that none can become too powerful.
From a philosophical standpoint, he states that “if men were angels, no government would be necessary.” In other words, if we could all be counted on to do the right thing all the time, ANARCHY would work. But since men are clearly not angels, the existence of a strong government is a necessary evil to keep the people in line.
Madison goes on to argue that “if angels were to govern men,” then no controls on the power of the government would be necessary. In other words, if we could find leaders to put in charge who would be perfect in their wisdom, we would not have to put any limitations on their power. We could simply give them the power of a DICTATORSHIP and it would work. However, since there are no angels among us to run the government, dictatorship, like anarchy, won’t work either.
Madison says that when you are in the real world, men (who are generally greedy, self-interested and power hungry), have to govern over other men (who have the exact same flaws). In this imperfect environment, government has essentially TWO jobs:
First, the government must have enough power to “control the

governed, but in the next case, it must be obliged to control itself.”

In other words, Madison is arguing that we have to give the new government more power than the old, because without a powerful government controlling them, men will abuse one another (as can be seen during our experience under the Articles of Confederation). However, as soon as you give the government this kind of power, you have to set up a system of checks and balances so that the different branches of the government will work against each other to ensure that no one branch becomes dictatorial (as Parliament was perceived to have been after the Seven Years’ War).
In his essay, Madison gives TWO specific examples of the kinds of checks and balances that have been woven into the fabric of the new government. He focuses particularly on checks on the Congress because he says “in republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates”:


Madison argues that the two houses of Congress, being different in so many ways, will often disagree making it difficult to pass laws. The House of Representatives is elected by the people for very short 2-year terms, and the states are represented in it based on their populations. The Senate, on the other hand, is chosen by state legislatures, for much longer 6-year terms, and every state is represented in it equally with two Senators. Since the two houses are by design so much different from one another, Madison predicts that they will often disagree. And since no law passes unless it passes through BOTH houses with a simple majority vote, the two houses will check and balance each other by often refusing to pass each other’s ideas. In this way, it will be difficult for the members of Congress to pass laws and this will help keep them from becoming too powerful.


Madison argues that even with the above-mentioned obstacle of bicameralism the Congress is still potentially so powerful, that the “executive magistrate” (the President) needs to have the ability to say NO if he thinks they have passed a bad law. Although this VETO power is not absolute (Congress can override it with a 2/3 vote in each house) our experience tells us that 2/3 votes are very hard to get and that most presidential vetoes will stand. The veto power of the president will help keep the power of the Congress in check.

In sum, in Federalist #51, Madison makes the argument that we certainly need a more powerful central government, but that the Framers in Philadelphia were not blind to the fact that giving power to a government is dangerous and that it must be checked and balanced lest the government become too oppressive.

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