Bench Memos

The Perennial Publius, part 14

James Madison returns to The Federalist for only his second essay in No. 14, and devotes it to revisiting the argument he had made in No. 10.  There he had made the novel case that a republic can only be saved from the “violence of faction” if it is built on a grand scale—big country, big diverse population—so that no single passion or interest will steadily animate a majority with the democratic power to be tyrannical.

The question now is: But how big is too big?  What is “the practicable sphere of republican administration”?  Like the question Hamilton addressed in No. 13, this is not a matter where a precise formula is available.  The geography of the country must “allow the representatives of the people to meet as often as may be necessary for the administration of public affairs.”  And “new improvements” in roads and the means of transportation will permit this principle to accommodate the country’s territorial growth.  If his reader is worried, on the other hand, not about geography but about the representation of a great and growing population, Madison reminds him that “the general government is not to be charge with the whole power of making and administering laws,” but that the people will continue to have state governments closer to themselves and their most immediate concerns.

In the end, though, Publius knows that what may worry resistant readers the most is that the proposed experiment is an untried innovation.  We know that the definition of “conservative” is not exhausted by saying it means attachment to tradition and resistance to change.  But if that is part of what it means to be a conservative, it is a part that Publius is willing to jettison when prudence dictates it be jettisoned:

“But why is the experiment of an extended republic to be rejected merely because it may comprise what is new?  Is it not the glory of the people of America, that whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience?”

Once again I am reminded of Lincoln, who said in his annual message to Congress in 1862: “As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”

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


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