Government without any virtue in the people is a chimerical idea.
- James Madison
But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?
After the US Constitution was proposed at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, there was a pressing need to explain to the American public the principles underlying its design. This was done in a series of articles published in New York during the Constitution’s ratification process, which collectively became known as the The Federalist Papers. Later, published in a single document called “The Federalist”, its importance cannot be underestimated in explaining the philosophy of the Constitution. For students of political science its five hundred pages is a frank assessment of man’s nature and how governments should be organized to reflect that reality. Two years after The Federalist’s final paper was published, Jefferson cited several books written by Smith, Hume, Locke, and Montesquieu as excellent resources to study the principles of political science, but in “descending from theory to practice, there is no better book than The Federalist.” For modern Americans it explains in direct language the vision of the Founders and how central was character to their design of the republic.
As was common practice, the Federalist’s authors used a classical pseudonym under which to publish their papers. They borrowed the name “Publius” from Publius Valerius who laid the foundation for the Roman republic after its monarchy was overthrown, signifying America’s connection to ancient republican values. John Adams was the most vocal proponent for America to emulate the “Roman constitution” because it “formed the noblest people and greatest power that ever existed.” He regarded the Roman Republic as an étalon “by the splendor of its actions, the extent of its empire, the wisdom of its councils, the talents, integrity, and courage of a multitude of characters; it exhibits the fairest prospect of our species.” That meant the Roman Publius was ideal to provide readers a primer on the fundamentals for building a democracy that could withstand the inherent dangers of the masses. While the language of the Federalist was scholarly, Publius’ message was harsh: There was to be no utopia built upon whimsical principles; history provided too many examples of failed “chimerical projects and utopian speculations.” Most sobering was the acknowledgement that man’s nature was inherently untrustworthy and relying on virtue alone to form a durable Union would eventually succumb to the Polybian cycle alternating between tyranny and anarchy.
Following classical tradition, the Federalist argument appealed both to pathos and logos, emotion and logic. But the heart of the argument embodied the rational aspects of human existence, focusing on arguments rooted in the lessons of history, sensible reasoning, and practical solutions based on the lessons of experience. As Madison opined,
What is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?
Theme 1. Experience Beats Reason
Experience is the oracle of truth; and where its responses are unequivocal, they ought to be conclusive and sacred.
—Madison, Federalist, no. 21
There were several important themes contained in the Federalist. The first was that the Constitution was a practical invention for a new form of government and not the product of untested philosophy. Thus, author Alexander Hamilton advised the fifty-five Framers’ to use history’s lessons, recent and ancient, as the only reliable source of knowledge because “experience” was proven to be “that best oracle of wisdom.” James Madison echoed this principle in the Federalist, writing that we should “consult experience, the guide that ought always to be followed, whenever it can be found.” For many delegates, this legacy of empirical politics was codified when Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence cited “self-evident” truths as its basis, and nothing is more “self-evident” than experience—personal or historical. Thus, after Federalist numbers 1 and 2 introduced the purpose of the Papers, the next three pamphlets proposed a Federal Union to best provide a common defense against foreign threats, noting the histories of 1685 Genoa, ancient Greece, and Great Britain “give us many useful lessons” that we “may profit from their experience without paying the price which it cost them.” In Federalist no. 6, Publius provided many historical examples for the causes of war bouncing between Pericles, Henry VIII, Athens, Sparta, Rome, Carthage, Venice, and Holland.
The early chapters of the Federalist illustrated how the Framers’ method for designing America’s republican constitution paralleled Rome’s effort twenty-three centuries earlier. After expelling its Tarquin Kings (509 B.C.), the Roman Republic was founded, and a delegation was sent to Greece to study the laws of Solon (630 to 560 B.C.), Lycurgus, and Greek institutions (Livy 3.32–33) for the best form of government. Now the United States, after expelling its tyrant king, was visiting the historical lessons of Greece and Rome for guidance as to the best form for its constitution. Thus replete throughout the Constitution and the Federalist are Roman terms like “Publius,” “president,” “congress” and “senate” to appeal to Americans anxious to emulate Rome’s long-surviving republic. As public debate unfolded, the experiences of the Greeks and Romans were so often referenced in writings, speeches, and correspondence that John Adams complained to Jefferson, “Lord! Lord! What can I do with so much Greek?” Overall, it was clear that Publius was articulating a distinctly American version of European Enlightenment with its Age of Reason “based upon classical “experience” first, and “reason” second. Dickinson’s admonition to the Convention echoed throughout the year:
Experience must be our only guide. Reason may mislead us.
Washington was more frank: “If we cannot learn wisdom from experience, it is hard to say where it is to be found.” Even the hotheaded Patrick Henry reported, “I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging the future but by the past.” This attitude was asserted in the Federalist when Madison recommended that all theory must be “qualified by the lessons of experience.” When the Framers wrote “experience,” they mostly meant “history,” the experiences of the Greeks and Romans.
The entire notion that experience superseded reason was grounded in the Enlightenment’s approach to science. In this case, opponents to the Virginia Plan invoked the same “experience” claimed by the Federalists. They cited Whig philosophers’ claim that truth could be uncovered only by experiments in either the laboratory . . . or history—an analogy between Newtonian physics and political order. Dickinson, arguing for state autonomy, “compared the proposed national system to the solar system, in which the states were the planets, and ought to be left to move freely in their proper orbits.” William Paterson, also supporting the New Jersey Plan, recommended that “the plan must be accommodated to the public mind” because “a little practicable virtue [is] to be preferred to theory.” Pierce Butler of South Carolina said much the same thing more succinctly: “We have no way of judging mankind but by experience.” But, upon inspection, history was inadequate to discern the superiority of either the New Jersey Plan or Madison’s. The New Jersey Plan had better safeguards against tyranny of government, while the Virginia Plan suffered from potential tyranny of the masses.
Theme 2. The Republican Remedy: “Inventions of Prudence”
If men were angels, no government would be necessary.
—Madison, Federalist no. 51
The second theme contained in the Federalist was the unambiguous observation that human nature is immutable, and strong societies cannot be built upon the chimera that good virtues alone will sustain them. Just prior to the Convention, Washington warned Federalist coauthor John Jay, “We must take human nature as we find it,” while Madison went further in no. 51 with his oft-quoted statement, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” So after the Papers proposed a Federal Union to deal with threats from external powers, it had to address the issue of history’s demonstrated menace from within the republic. This was substantially behind the structure of the Constitution—to guard against this internal peril, or as Benjamin Rush said prior to the 1787 Convention, “to guard against the effects of our own ignorance and licentiousness.” Hamilton was the most vocal of the Framers in his criticism of democratic idealism, warning (in no. 15), “the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without constraint.” In no. 9 he wrote that unchecked passions made it “impossible to not read the history of the petty republics of Greece and Italy without feeling sensations of horror and disgust . . . .”
As the Framers reviewed the lessons of history and their experiences over the past decade (including Shay’s Rebellion), confidence in public virtue waned. Hamilton bordered on the hysterical declaring, “Our countrymen have all the folly of the ass and all the passiveness of sheep in their compositions.” Consequently, he thought it was “the duty of a wise government to avail itself of those passions.” Even romantic Jefferson distrusted his fellow man’s character, reminding Madison before the Convention that in all the natural world there is not “a single species but man which is eternally and systematically engaged in the destruction of its own species.” Madison understood this reality, writing in Federalist no. 10, “passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason.” He went on to lament: "Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob."
Madison understood that the political evil of being too “democratical” required that the republic’s “passions ought to be controlled and regulated by the government.” In Federalist no. 10, he introduced the concept of “factions” as the insidious danger of the masses. He notes that the “causes of faction(s) are thus sown in the nature of man and we see them everywhere . . . .” He chronicled a list of causes including “zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points . . . an attachment to leaders ambitiously contending for preeminence and power, or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions . . . . But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property.”
He then wrote that removing the causes of factions is inconsistent with benevolent republican principles, for there are only two ways to do so: destroy liberty and squash the factions—a “remedy . . . worse than the disease”—or, give “every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests,” which is an “expedient as impractical as the first is unwise.” Diversity of opinions and of “faculties of men” is the “first object of government” even though it yields unequal distribution of wealth.
Federalist no. 10 continued that since “the causes of faction cannot be removed . . . relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its effects.” If the faction “consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote.” But in the second case, the one in which a majority faction desires to suppress the minority, we face the “great desideratum” of history as “neither moral nor religious motives can be relied on as adequate control.” Madison’s solution could be found in “the advantage which a republic has over a democracy.” First, republican government delegates power to “a small number of citizens elected by the rest” so that public wants must be filtered “through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country.” Hopefully these noble few will possess “patriotism and love of justice” and act “more consonant with the public good.” But experience instructs us that this august body may have “men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or sinister designs” which could “betray the interests of the people.” In this case, Madison pointed out the importance of building “a greater sphere of country” so that each of the republic’s representatives are elected by an larger group of citizens, making it “more difficult for unworthy candidates to practice with success the vicious arts by which elections are too often carried . . . .” Should this too fail, Madison’s extended sphere also expanded the republic’s geographic territory, increasing the “variety of parties and interests,” making it more difficult to “execute their plans of oppression” by distance and local distinctions. If all of these structural remedies fail, the last resort would be rebellion by a citizenry possessing arms or as Jefferson wrote: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”
Madison’s “Republican Remedy” on how to counter man’s weak character is sharpened from no. 10’s academic analysis when, in no. 51, he notes that upon “reflection 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.” And so the theory behind “checks and balances” is “to divide and arrange several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other . . . .” In such arrangements, the public good is served by private self-interest with its “ambition made to counteract ambition.” Madison privately summarized this concept a month before, writing in no. 10: “Divide et impera” (Latin for “divide and rule”). He applied Caesar’s saying as being the best way to limit the destructive power of factions by not trying to prevent them, but instead pitting them against each other. Early in the Convention, Gouverneur Morris articulated this concept as, “Vices as they exist, must be turned against each other.” For Madison, such an approach provided “a double security” for “the rights of the people.”
The checks and balances of the Constitution’s three branches were well explained throughout The Federalist. But less described are the differing qualities of the House and Senate chambers in Congress. Each chamber reflected the unique characteristics of the passions most likely to be invoked by their rules for representation: The attributes of the House of Representatives, for example, originated from its direct election, more frequent accountability, and larger size, giving it a populist personality more oriented toward short-tem goals. By contrast, the Senate had longer terms and institutional continuity, designed to take the longer view, thus providing “a defense to the people against their own temporary errors and delusions.” Madison explained in no. 63 that the Senate’s longer view is the best way to check “when the people are stimulated by some irregular passion . . . until reason, justice, and truth can regain their authority over the public mind . . . .” In Federalist no. 63, Madison asserted, “History informs us of no long-lived republic which had not a senate.” He then related how the Spartan and Roman Senates, whose members possessed lifetime terms, acted as an “anchor against popular fluctuations.” Jefferson went further in defining the elevated nature of the Senate. In the summer of 1776, he explained to Edmund Pendleton that the Senate should be aristocratic by virtue of its “wisest men,” not those who possessed only “the characteristic of wealth.” To ensure that truly wise men would be chosen, he proposed the senators be chosen by the lower house, believing “a choice by the people themselves is not generally distinguished for its wisdom.” The Founders clearly designed the Senate to be a repository of classical wisdom to offset democratic passions.
The Federalist brilliantly explained the theory of how to build an enduring government given the realities of man’s character. The checks and balances of the Constitution harnessed mankind’s natural self-interest, pitting faction against faction, state government against national government, federal branch against federal branch, and aristocracy against the common man. The naturalness of this republican solution was consistent with the Framers’ Whig philosophy, as when Publius declared: “What bitter anguish would not the people of Athens have often escaped, if their government had contained so provident a safeguard against the tyranny of their own passions . . . .” Madison’s Federalist no. 51 made it absolutely clear that “inventions of prudence” meant checking passions at every level: “The policy of supplying by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public. We . . . divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other; that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights.” The new Constitution would create, according to Madison’s plan, a “disinterested and dispassionate umpire in disputes between different passions and interests.”
Theme 3. Cultivating Public Virtue
To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea.
As the public weighed the Federalist’s arguments for ratification, it became apparent that the Papers were more cautionary than inspirational. Pamphlet after pamphlet described how citizen virtues could not be relied upon for political and economic stability. And as each Paper was published, another reasoned essay explained how the pitfalls of ancient Greece and Rome were becoming manifest in the new nation. The Federalist was unambiguous that America’s chaos was coming from an “enemy within,” the very souls of the American people themselves. Worse still, history taught that there was no panacea to reverse the tendency of the masses to splinter into contentious factions motivated by passion; nor was the poisonous possibility of heavy-handed tyranny to be easily avoided. So as the Federalist explained, the only hope was to be found in a Constitution that checked those very same deficiencies that destroyed the excessive democracies of Athens and the despotic Caesars of imperial Rome. The Framers, weary from years of struggle, cared much for their floundering society, searching for a solution born of desperate need. During the Constitutional debates William Livingston lamented that his fellow Americans did “not exhibit the virtue that is necessary to support a republican government.” Hamilton in Federalist no. 75 stated the obvious: “The history of human conduct does not warrant that exalted opinion of human virtue.”
But if man’s character had failed the test of time as chronicled in the first six Federalist pamphlets, what was the Constitution to do beyond checking social degradation? How could there possibly be a political fix to fickle “popular liberty” giving “the same citizens the hemlock on one day and statues on the next”? The Federalist readily acknowledged man’s natural disquietudes and proposed organizing government to limit the negative qualities of character, not in building virtuous ones. And yet the Papers did repeatedly reference public virtue as necessary for a viable republic. Madison wrote:
Government without any virtue in the people is a chimerical idea.
There was little dispute that America’s public virtue had declined even though men of extraordinary private virtue had founded the nation. This point was not lost on Americans as the most virtuous man alive, heralded by all Enlightenment nations, presided over the Convention: George Washington. Madison, who pestered the comfortably retired Washington into attending, knew that only a revered man like “the General” could bring the necessary gravitas to the Philadelphia proceedings. But he also understood that Washington exemplified all that was virtuous, and the General’s presence demonstrated that private virtue could be manifested within a well-designed government. In The Federalist, Madison and Hamilton agreed that a republican government should institutionalize a process of elevating men of worthy character, like Washington, to positions of power. Madison asserted that the Constitution was designed to go “on this great republican principle, that the people will have virtue and intelligence to select men of virtue and wisdom.”
Against the optimistic notion that republican structures could bring private virtue into the public realm, was The Federalist’s consistently pessimistic view of human nature. In number 37, Madison recalled that history was a litany of “factions, contentions, and disappointments . . . the most dark and degrading pictures which display the infirmities and depravities of the human character.” No ambiguity there. But then in number 55, he holds out hope for the brighter side of human character: “As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature, which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than in any form.”
Fortunately it was impossible for Madison to give up totally on human nature when he had shared a table with men like Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin. This frail politician, buffeted by current events, felt the burden of responsibility while American society fractured around him. With doubt heavy on his mind, guidance could only be found in the ancients. And for government, the best advice came from Aristotle when he wrote that, “The citizen should be molded to suit the form of government under which he lives.” Meaning, according to the ancient philosopher, “the better the character, the better the government,” and vice versa. This was Madison’s hope for the proposed Constitution:
For legislatures make the citizens good by forming habits in them, and this is the wish of every legislature . . . a good constitution differs from a bad one.
During the Constitutional Convention, James Wilson did “not agree that property was the sole or the primary object of government and society. The cultivation and improvement of the human mind was the most noble object.” This idea that the Constitution should directly cultivate citizens had it coming close to giving Congress the power to establish “an university . . . for the promotion of literature and the arts and sciences.” This was never included in the final version, but in subsequent years, Washington, Madison, and Jefferson vigorously advocated a national university. But Wilson missed the mark as to the fundamental issue needing resolution; he did not distinguish the difference between the two kinds of virtue. Again, Aristotle made it clear: “Virtue, then, being of two kinds, intellectual and moral, intellectual virtue in the main owes its birth and its growth to teaching, while moral virtue comes about as a result of habit.” Wilson’s desire for a better-educated citizenry was a nod to intellectual virtues, but these were not the cause for the young nation’s troubles—it was her moral virtues that were in deficit. The Founders needed a recipe to influence the character of its citizens, not its intelligence, and again Aristotle pointed the way:
Thus in one word, states of character arise out of like activities.
So now the question was what could a republic’s constitution do to implement the type of “activities” that Aristotle argued as being most conducive to cultivating virtuous character? This seemed particularly ambitious when considering the limitations of a republic to engage in heavy-handed social engineering. Jefferson said it best in 1776:
The care of every man’s soul belongs to himself.
He made it clear that “Laws provide against injury from others, but not from ourselves . . . . God himself will not save men against their wills.” The Framers, like Jefferson, knew they couldn’t legislate “their wills” or virtue. But they could design institutions of government that did two things: Create a society benign enough in its operation so that individuals could cultivate personal character on their own, as the Founders had done themselves, and, second, find ways to elevate those of noble character to serve in government so that public virtue could thrive.
Our Republic Requires Virtue