Saturday, September 4, 2010

Madison as an Argument

Today's flap seems to be an argument about the Senate, Madison, the Framers, and etc., all coming out of a panel at the political science meetings on the filibuster.  Since I happened to have been there* I figured I'd blog about it eventually, but in the meantime I'm always interested when people talk Madison.   Basically, I think Bruce McQuain's claims about Madison are quite weak, and fully demolished by both James Joyner and Steven Taylor.  McQuain (and Brian Darling) rest on Federalist 37 to understand what Madison really believed not only about federalism, but also about the specific role of the Senate within the system.  Of course, we know very well that, as Joyner and Taylor point out, the Constitution was the result of a series of compromises that hardly conformed to anyone's ideas, and the Federalist Papers were pieces of political propaganda, intended to sell the Constitution they had, not the one that they would have wanted.  Indeed, not only did Madison not want a Senate (mal)apportioned equally by states, but Madison wanted the national government to have a veto power over ordinary state laws, and considered is failure to secure such a veto a major defeat. 

I do believe that while Madison's arguments in the Federalists were constrained by the necessity of supporting whatever institutions were created in Philadelphia, his arguments on grounds of democratic theory were, generally, sincere (and complex and contested) -- they were consistent with his private correspondence and notes pre-Philadelphia.**  That is, I think the abstract arguments about majoritarian democracy in (most famously) Federalists 10 and 51 were what Madison really thought, but it's also certainly true that as Taylor says, "They are certainly not the reflection of what Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay thought were the most ideal collection of institutions that could have been devised" (emphasis his).  At any rate, however much we appreciate Madison and the rest -- and we should appreciate and honor them quite a bit -- their arguments, at the end of the day, must rise or fall on their own strength, not on the reputations of their authors.  It would hardly be difficult to make a disturbingly noxious stew of the odder beliefs of Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Washington, and the others (did I mention Jefferson?  Oh yeah.  And yes, I know he's not implicated in what happened in Philadelphia; the luckiest thing that ever happened to the USA, in my opinion).  Indeed, there's a strong point to be made here about democracy.  Venerating the Framers of the Constitution is a terrific democratic ritual; fetishizing their every word as fully binding on us is thoroughly anti-democratic.  Americans are, of course, bound by the Constitution -- but because it is law, not because of who wrote it.

About the rest: more to come, later.

*No, I wound up not asking a question about Superbill! for the C-SPAN cameras.  I did, however, discuss Superbill! with several Congressional scholars, and I'm still convinced it's a winner, along with several other reforms -- if one's goal is, as mine is, to make the Senate less disfunctional while also retaining minority, and minority party, rights.

**Sorry, no citations...the constraints entailed in blogging from the lobby of a political science conference.  Also, there are distractions.


  1. I'd love to hear why Jefferson's absence was such a stroke of luck .... plus, what kept him away?

  2. @Martin, Jefferson subscribed to a zero-sum theory of liberty: every increase in federal power corresponded with a decrease in popular freedom. This belief was common to the point of ubiquity in the colonial and Revolutionary periods. Thankfully, it was "refudiated" by Madison and others during the Constitutional debates.

  3. Jefferson was serving as ambassador to France at the time of the Convention.

    He was on the return voyage when the first Congress created the offices for the first cabinet, and Washington made his choices to fill them. It was decided that the foreign secretary would have little to do, so his department would also have miscellaneous responsibilities, and be styled 'Department of State', a new term. When Jefferson disembarked, one of the first things he learned was that he was to be 'Secretary of State', but he didn't know what it meant.

    I read a biography of Jefferson a few years ago, and I thought that was an amusing anecdote.

  4. Yes, the McQuain-Darling position is weak (I just read those posts). They just ignore Federalist #62, where Madison, or at any rate Publius, makes clear that the Senate was a compromise that it is "superfluous" (i.e. useless) to "try" (i.e. attempt to justify) on the basis of theory. Indeed he uses the term "lesser evil" and says the theory-free nature of the exercise was admitted on all sides ("allowed on all hands").

    I think that one passage alone is fatal to the claim that there's some great "Madisonian" wisdom in the construction of the Senate. The best you can do is what Madison/Publius went on to do, which is to say, well, it's messy and not theoretically sound, but here's why it might work out well anyway. The problem for the Constitutional fundamentalists (which is what I would call the "fetishizers") is that we now have several generations of experience with it, so there's no "might" anymore -- we can look at the thing and actually SEE how it works. The fundies don't want to do that, for reasons that are probably obvious.


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