Sunday, November 20, 2011

James Madison Had A Dream

The summer of 1787 changed the world when a group of men came to Philadelphia to take a look at the weaknesses that had been exposed in the Articles of Confederation. Uprisings such as Shay's Rebellion, a group of farmers who were threatening to overthrow the local governments,and courts to stop foreclosure proceedings on their farms.

The Convention was called, and it carried enough weight to actually see the states to assemble their representatives, probably due to learning that George Washington himself endorsed it and would himself attend. Obviously the General by his very presence and reputation made him a key player without saying hardly a word in session. Washington was a strong believer in throwing the Articles of Confederation out and creating a more robust document that gave much more power to a central government. He believed that the Union hung in the balance of just that. In his own experience of fighting the Revolutionary War he knew the destructive flaws in the Articles of Confederation and it's weakness to override the states by the central government when needed. His army starved and froze and was often understaffed due to states not contributing their promised provisions and recruits unless the battle was near them and threatening their own interests.

Another attendee whose very name and reputation was key to the eventual outcome and to the seriousness of the Convention was Philadelphia's own Dr. Benjamin Franklin. Franklin had spent twenty five of the previous thirty years before the Convention overseas. His experience during the decade following independence had convinced him of the need for a central government with the requisite "energy." He had learned that American diplomats abroad operated in a world of fierce rivalries and struggles for dominance. France and Spain, though nominally America's allies in the struggle for independence, were ultimately guided by their sense of national self-interest. Franklin came to realize that the new American nation would have to present a united front if it were to hold its own in the treacherous world of European diplomacy.

The youngest delegate, at 28, James Madison was the scholar. He had been working in the Congress under the Articles of Confederation and knew of its weaknesses and was the major driving force for throwing it out and starting all over with a new Constitution. He believed that those weaknesses posed at least an equal threat to liberty and, equally important, American unity. He watched frustrated as many of the independent state governments thwarted efforts to give the Confederation government the power to levy taxes or regulate commerce. In the spring of 1786, he began making extensive notes on the history of "ancient and modern confederacies," a project that led him across more than three thousand years of history, from ancient Greece to the cantons of Switzerland. In April 1787, he composed a private memorandum - thought one he obviously intended to circulate to others, which he titled,"The Vices of the Political System of the United States." It laid out in systematic fashion both his assessment of the weaknesses of the existing American governments, state and confederated, and his thoughts on the best remedies for those weaknesses. It was this writing that moved Washington to attend the convention after Madison had mailed him a copy. Washington wasn't interested in attending a convention of half-measures of trying to "fix" the current government, he wanted an entirely new one as did Madison.

Madison identified a dozen "vices" he believed to be fatal to the health of the republic. Several of those vices lay in the ways the newly independent states had overreacted to prior abuses of power by British royal governors. It wasn't surprising that state constitution makers deprived their new governors of the power to dissolve assemblies or to exercise and absolute veto over legislation, but Madison believed they had gone too far. Most of the new state constitutions vested the legislatures with the power to elect governors and most denied the chief executive even a limited veto. The result, in Madison's view, was that states frequently enacted "vicious legislation," too often prompted by the whims of public opinion rather than sober reflection. He was horrified by the irresponsible actions of the Rhode Island legislature, which allowed its citizens to pay off their debts in depreciated state currency.

The problem didn't lie with irresponsibility of state legislatures alone. Much of Madison's analysis focused on weaknesses in the Confederation government that allowed the self-interests of any one state to overwhelm the public interest of the nation. He chronicled the instances to which states had ignored their obligations to the union. He spoke of the many times that states wouldn't support their financial obligations to the war effort. "This evil, has been so fully experienced both during the war and since the peace," that he believed it could well be "fatal" to the very existence of the union. Equally upsetting to him were frequent instances in which the states encroached on the authority of the continental government,as in the case of Georgia's brutal war against the Creek Indians, waged without the Confederation government's consent. There were routine cases of individual states violating the terms of the Treaty of Peace with England, as in continued persecution of Loyalists, when it suited their interests.

Madison was also troubled by the tendency of "courtiers of popularity" - men like Patrick Henry, who possessed all the oratory skills that Madison lacked, to please their local constituencies while at the same time pursuing policies harmful to the broader interests of the Confederacy. Madison accepted the inevitability that citizens would work to promote their interests at the expense of others. However, contrary to the widely accepted view that liberty could best be protected in republics of limited geographic size, Madison argued that only in a large republic, where "society becomes broken into a greater variety of interests, of pursuit of passions, which check each other," could one prevent the provincialism and attendant injustice that afflicted states like Rhode Island, where Madison believed, a small faction of self-interested politicians had gained control of the legislator and subverted the public good. Only a shift in power from smaller state governments to a larger and stronger federal government would "render {government} sufficiently neutral between the different interests and factions, to controul on part of society from invading the rights of another, and at the same time {remain} sufficiently controuled itself, from setting up an interest adverse to that of the whole society." He believed that this shift of power was essential if America was to become a unified nation rather than a chaotic assemblage of quarrelsome states.

Madison's acknowledgement of the existence of "interests" in society and his desire to create a large, energetic government designed to neutralize - but not eliminate - those interests pointed in an entirely new direction. In Madison's conception, governments were designed not to embody virtue and the public good, but, rather, to mediate among the various interests in society and, in the process, allow the public good to be served. However, in other ways his vision of the virtues of an extended republic was distinctly traditional, reflecting classical republican attitudes about the importance of selecting virtuous political leaders. Voters who selected their leaders from larger districts would be choosing from a much wider pool of talent, a circumstance that would encourage the voters to select only "the purest and noblest characters," thereby ensuring that their representatives would be more likely to rise above purely provincial concerns and petty self-interest, and to represent the concerns of all the people.

Madison's "Vices of the Political System" ended on that conservative note. Never an optimist about human nature, he nonetheless hoped that he could persuade the delegates to the Philadelphia Convention, who, after all, were more likely to resemble to the pure and noble characters he hoped would govern the extended American republic, that it was time to transform a weak confederation into a strong unified nation.

Wouldn't you love to see those values come back again? Wouldn't be nice to have men and women of "the purest and noblest characters?"

No comments:

Post a Comment