Commentary

Constitution Day 2021: What Would James Madison Think? | Fletcher McClellan

Madison would be disappointed at how faction has penetrated the federal government

September 17, 2021 6:30 am

WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 21: The U.S. Capitol is shown at dusk.(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Though many great American leaders took part in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, the most important figure was James Madison

Fletcher McClellan (Capital-Star file)

The future President of the United States is credited with drafting the Virginia Plan, which became the blueprint from which the delegates worked. Madison advocated a strong national government with independent powers, more than what it was granted under the nation’s first constitution, the Articles of Confederation.

In addition to his role at the convention in Philadelphia, Madison, along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, wrote The Federalist Papers, a series of 85 essays or newspaper columns, arguing that the states should approve the framework.

During the ratification campaign, Madison’s Federalist #10 provided what is still the strongest case for having an active federal government.

In Federalist 10, he expressed concern that a faction – a group “united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community” – could gain control of government.

Madison considered ways in which the influence of factions could be eliminated. One method was to outlaw factious opinions or groups.

The problems, of course, are determining what a dangerous view is and who makes that decision. For many people, white supremacy is the definition of faction. However, conservatives say other kinds of controversial perspectives, such as critical race theory, should be banned.

Madison believed it was neither practical nor desirable to ban certain opinions or groups, saying that liberty is to faction as air is to fire. You would have a better chance of annihilating air than of prohibiting contentious speech, he argued.

Another method of dealing with faction, Madison said, was to give everyone the same opinions and interests. Factions arise out of conflict, whether it is Protestants vs Catholics or Whites vs Blacks. 

Frankly, the conflict Madison was most worried about was class division. He said the most durable source of faction is the unequal division of property, leading to “wicked” laws favoring debtors and the poor

Rather than eliminate faction at its source, Madison contended, the Constitution aims to control its effects by establishing a republican government with control over the entire American territory. 

How? First, national representatives have the widest lens through which to view the people and their problems. State or local officials possess, at best, a partial outlook.

Second, a national perspective means that federal officials can take into account a multitude of interests and viewpoints. Covering a smaller area, state officials are more likely to be beholden to the interests of the few.

Think of Jim Crow in the South. Or, the dominance of railroad and oil interests in Pennsylvania in the early 20th century, fossil fuels in Texas, copper in Montana, and DuPont in Delaware. Consider, too, evangelical Christians in the Bible Belt, Mormons in Utah, and Catholics in Boston

However, privileged interests in the states cannot overcome the mosaic of groups across America. National politicians can play interests against each other, promote compromises, or forge a common interest. 

Therefore, Madison claimed, a strong national government is better able to protect basic freedoms from factious intrusions than are state governments.

Today, the assertion of states’ rights has confirmed Madison’s observations.  Depending on the state or locality where you live, you have better or worse odds of experiencing defense from the coronavirus, affordable health insurance, easier access to voting, reproductive freedom, and protection from discrimination on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity. 

On the other hand, Madison would be disappointed at how faction has penetrated the federal government. He and the other Framers hoped that political parties would not form, and that constitutional devices such as checks and balances would prevent that from happening.

Nevertheless, a two-party system emerged, leading to the polarized politics of now. Polarization means that office-holders tend only to their base, ignoring the concerns of opponents and centrists.

Furthermore, polarization in Washington, D.C. has nationalized state and local politics. Meetings of state legislatures and school boards are arenas for partisan debates over election “integrity” and anti-COVID masking.

Back in Madison’s time, when communication and transportation were relatively primitive, he believed that people with factious views would be relatively isolated in a vast land

Nothing could be further from the truth today. Following President Trump’s defeat in the 2020 election, hate groups quickly organized Stop the Steal rallies and coordinated the 1/6/21 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

The only solution, it seems, is for like-minded lovers of democracy to form their own antifaction, asserting a more open, inclusive vision of America and pressuring government to impose it. 

Not the way Madison expected the American experiment would unfold, but it may be our constitutional republic’s last hope.

Opinion contributor Fletcher McClellan is a political science professor at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may email him at  [email protected], and follow him on at Twitter @mcclelef.

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