July 7, 2010 – Federalist No. 51 – The Structure of the Government Must Furnish the Proper Checks and Balances Between the Different Departments, From the New York Packet (Hamilton or Madison) – Guest Blogger: Professor John S. Baker, Dale E. Bennett Professor of Law at Louisiana State University

Wednesday, July 7th, 2010

Federalist #51 is the most important of the essays in The Federalist, after #10. It completes the discussion of the general structure of the Constitution before Publius turns to a consideration of its particular elements. It ties together the main points of the previous essays.

Federalist #47 and #48 outlines the challenge of keeping the departments of government within their proper bounds; then Federalist #49 and #50 considers and rejects the suggestion of occasional or regular appeals to the people for that purpose.  Federalist #51, therefore, begins with the question: “To what expedient then shall we finally resort, for maintaining in practice the necessary partition of power among the several departments, as laid down in the constitution?”

Importantly, the answer is NOT a bill of rights! Rather, Publius writes, “[t]he only answer that can be given is, that as all these exterior provisions are found to be inadequate, the defect must be supplied by so contriving the interior structure of government, as that its several constituent parts may, by their mutual relations, be the means of keeping each other in their proper places.” (emphasis added).

As elsewhere, the analysis of the problem and the solution rest on an understanding of human nature. Each department must have a “will of its own,” which requires having “the means and personal motives” to defend its powers. Why the emphasis on power rather than “the common good.”  Isn’t this just a cynical approach to government?  Publius explains that enlisting private interests to protect the public good is the only method actually of achieving the end of government, which is justice.

The “preservation of liberty” requires “that each department should have a will of its own and consequently should be so constituted, that the members of each should have as little agency as possible in the appointment of the members of the others.” Rigorous adherence to this principle “would require that all the appointments for the supreme executive, legislative, and judiciary magistracies, should be drawn from the same found of authority, the people, through channels having no communication with one another.” (emphasis added). The federal judiciary, in particular, does not meet this test.  Publius says this deviation is justified because the mode of choosing judges ought to be the one best designed to produce the peculiar qualifications required of judges. He also presciently observes, as so many later presidents have learned to their dismay, that lifetime appointments for judges “must soon destroy all sense of dependence on the authority [i.,e., the President] conferring them.”

This passage reminds us that a republic, as defined in Federalist #39, “derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people.” The judiciary, along with the President and the Senate (prior to the 17th Amendment’s substitution of popular election for election by state legislatures), draws its powers “indirectly” from the people because judges are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. The judiciary and the President — who is actually elected not by the people, but by the Electoral College — are both somewhat removed from the people and in need of protection from the legislative branch.  Thus, if as to their salaries they were “not independent of the legislature in this particular, their independence in every other, would be merely nominal.”

What follows are some of the most insightful and widely quoted observations about the relationship between human nature and government.  With so much packed into one paragraph, each thought deserves to be separated out for separate consideration.

  •        “the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department, the necessary constitutional means, and personal motives, to resist encroachments of the others.:
  •        “The provision for defence must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack.”
  •        “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”
  •         “The interest of the man, must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.”
  •        “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 men, 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.”

The notion that, at its core, the Constitution is a structure to control the self-interested tendencies of both the people and those in government may be a new idea for many Americans.  To those who think that the citizenry and government require no restraint other than popular elections, Publius responds that “experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.” The Constitution reflects the “policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives.”

Federalist #51 then reiterates and extends the argument of Federalist #47 and #48 concerning legislative dominance and the practical implementation of separation of powers. Besides strengthening the weaker branches, Federalist #51 makes clear the need to weaken the legislative branch. “The remedy for this inconveniency is, to divide the legislature into different branches; and to render them, by different modes of election, and different principles of action, as little connected with each other, as the nature of their common functions, and their common dependence on the society, will admit.” That explains the phenomenon that even when the same party controls both houses of Congress, the two bodies nevertheless do not cooperate very well.

It is often said in the media that the American people want the branches of the Federal government to work together.  The Constitution, however, guarantees conflict among the branches and between the federal and state governments in order to protect the liberty of the people.  Federalist #51 emphasizes the Constitution’s “double security” of separation of powers and federalism.

In the compound republic of America, the power surrendered by the people, is first divided between two distinct governments, and then the portion allotted to each subdivided among distinct and separate departments.  Hence a double security arises to the rights of the people.  The different governments will control each other; at the same time that each will be controlled by itself.     Federalist #51 then ties the constitutional structure back to the fundamental argument of Federalist #10. For it is necessary “not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers; but to guard the one part of society against the injustice of the other part.”  The way to avoid the “oppressions of factious majorities” is a federal system which encourages the multiplication of factions.  As a result, in the United States, “a coalition of a majority of the whole society could seldom take place upon any other principles, than those of justice and the general good.”  Thus, change is intended to be difficult as demonstrated by the fact that legislation cannot pass simply on the basis of “the majority” in Congress. A vote in the House of Representatives reflects one majority and a vote in the Senate represents a different majority. So, too, the President, who represents yet another majority, has the opportunity to sign or veto legislation.

The original Constitution operates on the basis of producing a legislative consensus through conflict and compromise.  This reflects the Framers’ view that structured conflict among the departments of government, rather than simple majorities, is more likely to produce a just consensus protective of minority interests. In such a system, there must be less pretext also, to provide for the security of the [the minor party], by introducing into the government a will not dependent on the [majority]; or, in other words, a will independent of the society itself.” (emphasis added).

This structure of “double-security” has been changed in important ways. The initial addition of the Bill of Rights did not actually change the structure, as Madison explained it would not do so when he introduced the amendments for adoption by the first Congress.  The Bill of Rights applied to the federal government, not to the states. The post-Civil War amendments did immediately change federalism by abolishing slavery and imposing important and just limits on the states. Nevertheless, federalism remained largely in tact as long as states continued to have a direct voice within the federal government by virtue of the election of U.S. senators by their state legislatures. See Federalist #62. The Seventeenth Amendment, however, changed that by requiring popular election of senators. Not that long thereafter, the Supreme Court became much more deferential to Congress and less so to the states.

One of the effects of the Senate no longer representing the residual sovereignty of the states, see Federalist #62, has been that the Court has had a relatively free hand – and indeed encouragement from some in Congress – to erode federalism. While there have been struggles among its members over federalism, the Court certainly has affected federalism through the manner in which, through the Fourteenth Amendment, it has applied the Bill of Rights to the states. In the course of doing so, the Supreme Court has arguably become “a will independent of the society itself” as it tends to prefer the minor party as against the states.  As a result of these constitutional amendments and judicial interpretations, the states no longer offer much security against the federal government.

For Publius, “the enlargement of the orbit” through federalism (see Federalist #9 and #10) made republicanism possible.  The Anti-Federalists, on the contrary, argued that such a large country was incompatible with a self-governing republic and would grow into imperialism. Despite “contrary opinions,” Publius concluded “that the larger the society, provided it lie within a practicable sphere, the more duly capable it will be of self-government.” As Publius predicted, self-government has flourished in the United States because “happily for the republican cause, the practicable sphere may be carried to a very great extent, by a judicious modification and mixture of the federal principle.” Publius’s prediction, however, became a reality because predicated on the premise of the double-security of separation of powers and federalism.

Professor John S. Baker is the Dale E. Bennett Professor of Law at Louisiana State University


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