Bench Memos

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The Perennial Publius, part 53


“[W]here annual elections end, tyranny begins.”  This revolutionary-era slogan (origins obscure, use widespread) is quoted by James Madison at the beginning of Federalist No. 53.  But is it true, he muses?  Maybe under some circumstances, but not all.  In the Great Britain of his day, Madison notes (alluding to William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England), “it is maintained that the authority of the parliament is transcendent and uncontroulable, as well with regard to the constitution, as the ordinary objects of legislative provision.”  There the “votaries of free government” have turned to the “frequency of elections” as an essential guard against the abuse of power–and this would also explain why the American revolutionaries, ten and twenty years earlier, had adopted their “annual elections” proverb.

“But what necessity can there be of applying this expedient to a government, limited as the federal government will be, by the authority of a paramount constitution?”  This is not exactly Blackstone’s world on our side of the water, not in this crucial respect anyway.  The great innovation of the Americans–the invention of written constitutions issuing from the consent of the people, and controlling those who govern–is a better security than constant electoral monitoring of the legislative power.

So biennial House elections, Madison concludes, are perfectly safe for republicanism.  Are they “necessary or useful?”  You bet they are.  From the standpoint of the knowledge that legislators for the nation will require as they deliberate on the laws they make, the longer the term of office, the better.  What we would today call the “learning curve” of a member of Congress is pretty steep, and two years may be as short as a term we can reasonably impose for climbing that hill:

“Some portion of this knowledge may no doubt be acquired in a man’s closet; but some of it also can only be derived from the public sources of information; and all of it will be acquired to best effect by a practical attention to the subject during the period of actual service in the legislature.”

(For explanation of this recurring feature, see here.)


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