Madison and Hamilton: The Legacy of US Federalism

Continuing our series on the historic origins of federalism, Daniel Schade examines Madison and Hamilton’s Federalist Papers which were crucial the foundation of the American republic.

James Madison, co-author of the Federalist Papers and later President of the United States

James Madison, co-author of the Federalist Papers and later President of the United States

The oldest systematic and analytical consideration of federal principles is a series of documents known as The Federalist Papers. Written at the end of the eighteenth century, these essays and articles were written around the time at which the constitution of the United States of America was conceived, and served as a promotional tool for its ratification. Although co-written by two of the main authors of the constitution itself, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, as well as John Jay, a proponent of a strong federal government, the papers were published under the pseudonym ‘Publius’ at the time. Today, these documents provide an insightful commentary to the constitution itself and the thoughts of the founding fathers as to the function and utility of the different constitutional principles.

When considering the role of a future senate for a federal and democratic Union in Europe, some of the federalist papers provide analysis of important elements that will equally need to be addressed in the European context. The key sections of the Federalist Papers that deal with the Senate can be found in two essays attributed to James Madison, as well as two essays on the powers of the senate, written by John Jay and Alexander Hamilton. A last essay by Alexander Hamilton considers possible objections to the powers given to the senate by the constitution and immediately refutes them.

Before considering relevant passages and thoughts from these essays it is important to note that this work deals equally with issues that are not as politically salient today. Core sections are, for instance, devoted to a discussion of the necessity of Union citizenship and age criteria to be eligible for senatorial positions. Some of the procedures defended in the relevant papers have also been altered afterwards: the original constitution foresaw senators being appointed by different state legislatures, whereas these are elected nowadays.

Overall, the Federalist Papers recognise that a balance has to be struck between the proportional representation of (electoral) districts, while at the same time recognising that each sovereign state out of which the Union is composed must have an equal say in the Union’s political system. This is based on the assumption that there can be no hierarchy of sovereignty between (formerly independent) states.

The authors argue that the establishment of a second parliamentary chamber which represents states serves as a safeguard to protect the residual sovereignty of the states within the Union. Equal representation of the states within the senate is particularly necessary to reach a compromise between small and large states within the Union. It is argued in the Federalist Papers that a senate composed according to the principle of equality of state representation will help protect the legitimate interests of small states, while larger states retain other material capacities, described as the “power over the supplies” to ensure that they are not overruled by smaller ones. It is equally implied that their larger number of elected members in the House of Representatives will protect larger states.

The idea that the senate has an important role in the legislative process is seen as a congenial safeguard for legislation, as it will pass two checks before it is passed, namely one by a majority of the country’s population, and one by a majority of the country’s composite states. The idea that this will help to defend the government against corruption seems particularly important to the authors in this regard.

Another key consideration as to the senate concerns the duration of a mandate for individual senators. The constitution foresaw this to be greater than that of the House of Representatives. The authors argue that this will help senators to be more independent from day-to-day politics and that they can thus take decisions that will not “yield to the impulse of sudden and violent passions”. This is meant as an important safeguard against the volatility of public opinion and the fact that members of the House of Representatives will be much more influenced by these changes in political mood due to their short electoral cycle. The additional factor of institutional memory and government continuity that the senate represents is equally considered important. The authors thus argue that the stability of the senate will help induce confidence in government.

The continuity of the senate is also what led James Madison to believe that it should be primarily responsible for foreign policy, as this is an area of policymaking where political continuity and experience is most important. This is reaffirmed by the fact that treaty-making power is divided between the president and the senate. The authors argue that this policy area is so important that there need to be additional checks and balances for the government in place.

To support the idea of the senate Madison also uses examples from history to illustrate its necessity. He particularly cites the successes of prior republics such as Athens and Sparta, which had a similar senate appointed for lifetime. The fact that US senators would be elected for relatively long periods of time, rather than appointed for lifetime, represents a combination of necessity of the liberty for the people with that of a necessary stability of government in a republic.

Overall, the federalist papers provide a strong intellectual underpinning for the necessity of a chamber that represents the interests of states and provides an institutional memory, while making a strong claim for the establishment of strong checks and balances between the different branches of the legislative. A future European senate, to compliment the existing European Parliament, could be designed along similar lines.

Image: ‘James Madison’ courtesy of OZinOH via Flickr, released under Creative Commons.

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