America Is Living James Madison’s Nightmare

The Founders designed a government that would resist mob rule. They didn’t anticipate how strong the mob could become.

JEFFREY ROSEN  |  The Atlantic 
James madison traveled to Philadelphia in 1787 with Athens on his mind. He had spent the year before the Constitutional Convention reading two trunkfuls of books on the history of failed democracies, sent to him from Paris by Thomas Jefferson. Madison was determined, in drafting the Constitution, to avoid the fate of those “ancient and modern confederacies,” which he believed had succumbed to rule by demagogues and mobs.

Madison’s reading convinced him that direct democracies—such as the assembly in Athens, where 6,000 citizens were required for a quorum—unleashed populist passions that overcame the cool, deliberative reason prized above all by Enlightenment thinkers. “In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the sceptre from reason,” he argued in The Federalist Papers, the essays he wrote (along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay) to build support for the ratification of the Constitution. “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.”

Madison and Hamilton believed that Athenian citizens had been swayed by crude and ambitious politicians who had played on their emotions. The demagogue Cleon was said to have seduced the assembly into being more hawkish toward Athens’s opponents in the Peloponnesian War, and even the reformer Solon canceled debts and debased the currency. In Madison’s view, history seemed to be repeating itself in America. After the Revolutionary War, he had observed in Massachusetts “a rage for paper money, for abolition of debts, for an equal division of property.” That populist rage had led to Shays’s Rebellion, which pitted a band of debtors against their creditors.

Madison referred to impetuous mobs as factions, which he defined in “Federalist No. 10” as a group “united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” Factions arise, he believed, when public opinion forms and spreads quickly. But they can dissolve if the public is given time and space to consider long-term interests rather than short-term gratification.

To prevent factions from distorting public policy and threatening liberty, Madison resolved to exclude the people from a direct role in government. “A pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction,” Madison wrote in “Federalist No. 10.” The Framers designed the American constitutional system not as a direct democracy but as a representative republic, where enlightened delegates of the people would serve the public good. They also built into the Constitution a series of cooling mechanisms intended to inhibit the formulation of passionate factions, to ensure that reasonable majorities would prevail.

The people would directly elect the members of the House of Representatives, but the popular passions of the House would cool in the “Senatorial saucer,” as George Washington purportedly called it: The Senate would comprise natural aristocrats chosen by state legislators rather than elected by the people. And rather than directly electing the chief executive, the people would vote for wise electors—that is, propertied white men—who would ultimately choose a president of the highest character and most discerning judgment. The separation of powers, meanwhile, would prevent any one branch of government from acquiring too much authority. The further division of power between the federal and state governments would ensure that none of the three branches of government could claim that it alone represented the people.

According to classical theory, republics could exist only in relatively small territories, where citizens knew one another personally and could assemble face-to-face. Plato would have capped the number of citizens capable of self-government at 5,040. Madison, however, thought Plato’s small-republic thesis was wrong. He believed that the ease of communication in small republics was precisely what had allowed hastily formed majorities to oppress minorities. “Extend the sphere” of a territory, Madison wrote, “and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other.” Madison predicted that America’s vast geography and large population would prevent passionate mobs from mobilizing. Their dangerous energy would burn out before it could inflame others.

Of course, at the time of the country’s founding, new media technologies, including what Madison called “a circulation of newspapers through the entire body of the people,” were already closing the communication gaps among the dispersed citizens of America. The popular press of the 18th and early 19th centuries was highly partisan—the National Gazette, where Madison himself published his thoughts on the media, was, since its founding in 1791, an organ of the Democratic-Republican Party and often viciously attacked the Federalists.

But newspapers of the time were also platforms for elites to make thoughtful arguments at length, and Madison believed that the enlightened journalists he called the “literati” would ultimately promote the “commerce of ideas.” He had faith that citizens would take the time to read complicated arguments (including the essays that became The Federalist Papers), allowing levelheaded reason to spread slowly across the new republic.

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Will Farrell's Ghost

We are living in troubled times. “Certainty” is mistaken for “truth” and “righteousness”.

Or not, I don’t know.