A Compound Republic: Federalist no. 51

In a previous article, we encountered Madison’s thoughts on how to control faction within a community. We touched on the idea of letting groups flourish to counteract each other. Finally, we touched on how the structure of a federal republic might control the bad effects of faction. As we turn to Federalist no. 51, we look more deeply at how the structure of our government, what Madison calls a compound republic, can prevent tyranny.

Federalist no. 51 is generally thought to be written by James Madison. Both Madison and Alexander Hamilton ultimately claimed authorship. Scholarly consensus, however, is that it is the work of Madison. We have no reason to disturb that consensus.

Separation of Powers

The Constitution divided power among multiple branches of government. Law-making, or legislative, power is vested in the Congress. Executive power is vested in the presidency. Judicial power is vested in the Supreme Court and such lower courts as Congress might create.

Madison’s initial concern is how we can keep that division of power in place. In today’s language, he is asking how we can keep these governmental institutions in their own lanes. He notes that it is generally agreed that the division of power is key to preserving liberty.

In order to keep each branch of government in its proper place, he writes

it is evident that each department should have a will of its own; and consequently should be so constituted that the members of each should have as little agency as possible in the appointment of the members of the others.

Note that when Madison is referring to the departments of government here, he is referring to the three branches of government outlined above. He is not referring, for example to the State Department, the Treasury Department, etc.

Checks and Balances Among Branches of Government

While each branch is made as independent as possible, a threat still remains that one may encroach on the role of another. One branch may try to get out of its proper lane and do the job of another. Each branch, therefore, must be able to defend itself.

But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.

Here we see one of Madison’s most famous propositions, that ambition must counteract ambition. But, why? If we were to assume that those in government were motivated by good and honorable intentions, this would not be necessary. Madison goes on in another famous passage.

It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.

The framers of the Constitution assumed that people in public office would be fallible. Indeed, they planned for it. Madison does note the fundamental threat to a free society, however. It rests in the need for government to both be able to control the government (by which, he meant maintain an orderly society) but must also control itself to not abuse that power. In practice, this is a difficult balance to maintain.

Legislative Power Dominant

Each branch of government is to be independent of the others as much as possible, but the branches are not equal. Madison writes that

But it is not possible to give to each department an equal power of self-defense. In republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates. The remedy for this inconveniency is to divide the legislature into different branches; and to render them, by different modes of election and different principles of action, as little connected with each other as the nature of their common functions and their common dependence on the society will admit. It may even be necessary to guard against dangerous encroachments by still further precautions. As the weight of the legislative authority requires that it should be thus divided, the weakness of the executive may require, on the other hand, that it should be fortified.

The legislative power, since it is dominant, must itself be divided. Division of legislative power can be seen in Congress with a division of power between the House of Representatives and the Senate.

State Governments to Similarly Divide Power

Just as power is divided into three branches for the national government by the Constitution, Madison believes a similar division of power is necessary at the state level. Beyond that, though, Madison sees “two considerations particularly applicable to the federal system of America.” While Republican government divides power among branches to prevent tyranny, a federal system further divides power to provide greater protection against tyranny.

A Compound Republic Further Divides Power

We have previously written about the general federal structure of American government. There, we contrasted it with Unitary or Confederal systems. Madison points out that in a unitary system (he calls it a “single republic”), all power that the people give to the government is placed in the hands of one government. Madison calls our federal system a “compound republic.” While that power is divided among competing branches, that is a power that may be still be abused.

In the American system, however, power is divided in two ways.

In the compound republic of America, the power surrendered by the people is first divided between two distinct governments, and then the portion allotted to each subdivided among distinct and separate departments. Hence a double security arises to the rights of the people. The different governments will control each other, at the same time that each will be controlled by itself.

Checks and balances, thus, work not only between the branches of the national government but also between the national and state governments. In the original Constitution, the Senate provided an institutional state check on national government power. The state legislatures chose the Senators. In the name of democracy, the Seventeenth Amendment was ratified in 1913, ending that check on national government power.

Here we see a key difference between democratic and republican government. Democracy is based upon maximizing participation. Republicanism is based on dividing power to preserve liberty. Note that the use of “democratic” and “republican” here do not refer to contemporary political parties, but rather to competing ideas of how to properly organize government.

A Compound Republic to Control the Reach of Faction

Liberty may be threatened by groups within society. Madison writes

It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part.

There are two ways to address this risk that the majority may infringe on the liberty of the minority.

First, we might create “a will in the community independent of the majority.” How would this work? We can see examples, Madison, says in monarchies. A monarch has a will independent of the majority in the community. This is no safety, though. The monarch may have a will just as harmful to the liberty of the minority as any popular majority. In short, there is really no safety in this idea. There is no practical way to create such a will and assure that it is good. Remember that for Madison and the Framers generally, men are not angels and we can’t count on them to behave as angels.

The second option he sees in the compound republic structure of American government. All government authority is ultimately derived from the people. The institutions of government, however, rest upon different parts of the population. As Madison says it

Whilst all authority in it will be derived from and dependent on the society, the society itself will be broken into so many parts, interests, and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority.

In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects. The degree of security in both cases will depend on the number of interests and sects; and this may be presumed to depend on the extent of country and number of people comprehended under the same government. This view of the subject must particularly recommend a proper federal system to all the sincere and considerate friends of republican government. . .

Control of Factions

While harmful factions may gain control in a specific place, it is unlikely that they will be able to gain control generally. In a federal system, we see a relatively large number of republics (states) compounded into one. Justice is ultimately the end of government. In a governmental system with power divided among many branches and levels, it is difficult to know that any group will dominate and particular region, let alone the nation generally.

The threat that a majority might oppress the minority should further motivate people to seek true justice from government. An enlightened populace will see this as a reason to not oppress others, since they should see that the tables could easily turn. Are we, however, sufficiently enlightened to comprehend that in today’s environment of angry discourse?

Protecting Liberty Today

The way to protect liberty is to multiply centers of power. It is to multiply competing interests in the populations. Within government and within society, if ambition is made to counteract ambition, a majority with oppressive intent is not likely to sweep the nation as a whole and not likely to hold power for long.

In the last century, we have seen power dramatically shift from states to the national government. We have seen government in general take a much larger role in society. Government action has replaced private action, diminishing civil society, and replacing it with the wisdom of government. As the real of civil society is reduced, the opportunity for ambition countering ambition is also reduced.

For liberty to be protected, power must not be concentrated in government at any level. When ambition is left to counter ambition, government moves more slowly. Is it not worth having slower government to better preserve liberty? Is it not worth taking more responsibility in civil society for community matters and reducing concentrations of power in government to better preserve liberty? We believe it is worthwhile to reinvigorate the principles of the American founding, including dividing and limiting governmental power, to better secure liberty and bolster civil discourse in our communities and in the nation.