Human Nature, Government and Individual Rights

Behind the notion of checks and balances lay a profoundly realistic view of human nature. While Madison and Hamilton believed that man at his best was capable of reason, self-discipline and fairness, they also recognized his susceptibility to passion, intolerance and greed. In a famous passage, after discussing what measures were needed to preserve liberty, Madison wrote:

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, 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.

madisonIn the most striking and original of The Federalist Papers (Number 10), Madison addressed this double challenge. His central concern was the need "to break and control the violence of faction," by which he meant political parties, and which he regarded as the greatest danger to popular government: "I understand a number of citizens ... are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community." These passions or interests that endanger the rights of others may be religious or political or, most often, economic. Factions may divide along lines of haves and have-nots, creditors and debtors, or according to the kinds of property possessed. Madison wrote:

A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide themselves into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and view. The regulations of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation...

How can fair, rational and free people mediate so many competing claims or the factions that derive from them? Since it is impossible to outlaw passion or self-interest, a proper form of government must be able to prevent any faction, whether minority or majority, from imposing its will against the general good. One defense against an overbearing faction, Madison said, is the republican (or representative) form of government, which tends "to refine and enlarge the public views by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens," who are likely to be educated men of good character. Because elected representatives are at some distance from mass sentiments, they will probably also have a larger and wiser outlook.

But even more important, according to Madison, was broadening the geographic and popular basis of the republic, as would happen under the national government proposed by the new Constitution. He wrote:

As each representative will be chosen by a greater number of citizens in the large than in the small republic, it will be more difficult for unworthy candidates to practice with success the vicious arts by which elections are too often carried.... The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States.

What is being urged here is the principle of pluralism, which welcomes diversity both for its own sake as a testimony to individual variety and freedom, but even more crucially for its positive effect in neutralizing conflicting passions and interests. Just as the great variety of religious faiths in the United States makes unlikely the imposition of a single established church, so the variety of states with many divergent regions and concerns makes unlikely the national victory of an inflamed and potentially oppressive faction or party. A confirmation of Madison's argument can be found in the evolution of the major American political parties, which have tended to be moderate and non-ideological because they each encompass such a diversity of sectional and economic interests.