Tuesday, July 06, 2010

The Beginnings of Republicanism; It's Been Downhill Since

Colleen A Sheehan. James Madison and the Spirit of Republican Self-Government. Cambridge, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

The author presents a political theory that James Madison was a significant contributor to our country’s move to republican self-governance. Madison battled the ideas of Federalism that were expressed by George Washington, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton and break through their opposition. This was both politically and personally difficult for Madison as he deeply respected Washington and he often found Hamilton in his camp, although they often became rivals within the same political party.

Madison expressed the spirit, principles, and ethos (as Aristotle would put it) of republican self-governance. The ethos of republican government is self-governance. Madison labeled this the “spirit” of a new nation’s governing system. The spirit thus drove the principles and activities of public expression that produced public policy changes. Madison concluded that it was America’s goal “to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of self-government.”

Some scholars have concluded that Madison was suspicious of democracy. The author argues that Madison’s principles of minimizing government’s role in society, of stressing private rights, and for protections of free markets are trademarks of republicanism.

There are scholars who observe Madison moved towards states’ rights and away from a strong central government in the 1780s. The author notes that Madison was always concerned about the abuses that could result from a large government without sufficient checks and of improprieties of a majority ruling over all. Madison was always a proponent of self-government, the author argues.

Madison wrote under the pen name of Publius. Madison was a Republican leader in their battle against the Federalists, a battle that led to Republican victory in establishing a republican participatory political system.

Madison believed the power of government belonged to the desires of the public. Madison believed the Constitution protected the people. A participatory democracy would give public opinion to shape political policy making.

Madison strongly opposed a strong executive government that represented the nation’s elites. Madison preferred that the people decide how they wished their government to decide. Public participation would allow the public will to overcome any tyranny resulting from majority rule.

Madison was influenced by the French Enlightenment. Madison read their works and has stated he derived inspiration from them. He appreciated their ideas of republican government, of the importance of public opinion, and of a strong constitution. He united these theories into a concept of representative government with checks and balances. The author sees Madison, more than Jefferson, as the leading republican philosopher of their times. The author traces Madison’s views of republican self-government to Baron de Montesquieu’s views on enlightenment and to Aristotle’s beliefs of the importance of public opinion.

Alexander Hamilton and John Adams were familiar with, and respected, the British form of government with a strong central authority. Madison objected to the fights between social classes and political parties that existed within the British form of government.

Madison opposed a national bank as he feared concentrating government power over the economy. He felt it would benefit a privileged few would could misuse government economic power for their own benefits.

Madison argued that Federalists did not trust that the people could govern. He thought the Federalists believed the people lacked the intellectual capacity and ability to reason well enough to reach governing decisions. Madison called for enlightening the public so they could create, follow, and support a government of their own creation.

The Federalists also viewed themselves as republicans.

Nicolas de Condorcet wrote how a free press could educate the public. He believed a free press could also correct itself from untruths. John Adams feared that public opinion could be driven to unreasonable actions and that opinions could be manipulated to lead to tyranny.

Hamilton admitted that wealthier economic interests would benefits from the debt issued by a national government. Hamilton saw this debt as the means to create a more productive economy. Hamilton favored a national bank that could fund new corporations for a growing nation. Hamilton also feared that representative democracy would create greater power within the more popular branch of government and that a few leaders from within this popular group could emerge and distort the use of power. Hamilton saw Britain’s House of Lords as consisting of permanent leaders who could counteract the abuse of majority rule. Hamilton proposed Senators serve lifetime terms.

Jacques Necker found many followers in France with his 1784 publicaiton embracing the idea that public opinion should decide government actions. This was an idea that had been gaining strength in France since the 1760s. Several French authors argued that public opinion resulted from a general sense of moral government that would create a stable government. Madison took the argument further in his belief that public opinion had sovereignty.

Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote prominently how he saw public opinion as establishing cultural norms. Yet he was sometimes critical of public opinion, especially when the public lacked enough knowledge of an issue to form a proper norm.

Jacques Peuchet noted that printing made public opinion a more viable factor in guiding government actions than before. Many prior political philosophers recognized that political conversations were often limited to a select community. Printing made information and debates available to the masses.

Madison developed his unique ideas of public opinion by placing these ideas as central to republican governance. Many prior to then saw public opinion as ideas passed from the more literate to the public. Madison believed the general public opinion would create a consensus that could improve governance. Madison noted that self interest would motivate people’s opinions. He believed that a general good would emerge.

Madison saw public opinion as emerging from the popular notion of what is right. Madison believed a representative government would check majority rule. Representation would provide a voice for the public will.

Madison argued that the Constitution was based on enumerated abilities to act according to the public will. He argued it was not a document where government was giving rights to the public. He argued that public opinion demanded that, in order for it to support the Constitution, there needed to be a Bill of Rights added.

Claude Helvetius noted a monarch determined by ancestry would likely be immune to the corruptions of foreign influence. He also noted a monarch would more likely improperly dominate the residents. Still, he feared an elected administrator could be corrupted by competing interests. Madison urged a republican government would operate according to the public will.

Madison argued that republican government would avoid being arbitrary by reaching out and involving all of society.

Hamilton believed the U.S. needed to become economically tied to England. Madison believed the U.S, should avoid becoming economically reliant on any other country.

Hamilton foresaw American as having many competing commercial interests. Madison foresaw American as becoming a predominately agricultural nation.

Republican believes Federalists acted against the public will when the successfully fought for the creation of the Alien and Sedition Acts in the 1790s.

Vice President Thomas Jefferson led the Republican Party, assuming this role from Madison. He created an alliance with Aaron Burr to build support from New York Republicans. Jefferson and many Republicans were upset at the limitations on free speech that resulted from passage of the Sedition Act.

Madison and Jefferson wrote of “an appeal to the public”. Madison meant it as a constitutional convention. Jefferson meant it as a revolution. Madison believed there should be periodic constitutional convention to make corrections to improve government powers. He proposed there should be a constitutional convention every 19 years.

Helvetius believed self-interest is what motivated people. Jefferson argued that people also had moral senses allowing them to appreciate the needs of others.

Madison did not believe everyone was destined towards each reaching a perfect world. Condorcet believed language could tell of ideas that would bring people together. Madison did not believe a great equilibrium could be reached. He did believe a unity could be reached.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


12:18 AM  
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6:05 AM  
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6:28 AM  
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7:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


1:13 AM  
Blogger Tchaikovsky Sounds Funny said...

Anytime anyone would like to post in English, or if their computer can read and they may then translate this stirring dialogue, please let us English readers know. I suspect this is foreign spam, but, who knows. Maybe there is a stirring debate about republicanism and governmental systems that we English readers are missing.

7:58 AM  

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