Words From The Past: James Madison On The Role Of Elected Leaders

Editor’s Note: As mimetic creatures, we are connected to one another not only in the present, but also across time. Being able to think historically helps us to understand how we are shaped by what we have deemed worthy of memory, while an understanding of mimetic theory helps us to look back at our history and search for the unheard voices. Dr. Tracy McKenzie’s articles provide us with a rich, complex understanding of the past that neither romanticizes nor scapegoats those who came before us. This deeper understanding can inform our present.

In this installment of his series of articles drawing on the wisdom of the past to reflect on our current election cycle, Dr. McKenzie recalls the words of James Madison cautioning against fleeting passions that may cause people to act irrationally and dangerously, and proposing that it is part of the Senate’s job to calm rather than antagonize the passions of the public.


“Think of your forefathers! Think of your posterity!”

The former president (and now U. S. congressman) John Quincy Adams made this impassioned plea at the conclusion of an antislavery speech late in 1844 as the U. S. Congress considered the annexation of Texas.  As he shared with his constituents his fears that the annexation of Texas would enlarge the empire of slavery, Adams exhorted them to consider their ancestors as well as their descendants in deciding how to respond to the political turmoil of their day.  It was good advice then, and it’s good advice now, which is why I’ve promised to share words from the past from time to time that might be relevant as we make sense of this year’s contentious presidential campaign.

Here then, is another favorite passage from the Federalist Papers, that compilation of eighty-five essays that Alexander Hamilton and James Madison (with the brief assistance of John Jay) wrote in defense of the newly-proposed Constitution.  It’s taken from Federalist no. 63 and comes from the pen of James Madison, the slight Virginian often remembered as the “father” of the Constitution.  In context, Madison was making a case for the proposed structure of the U. S. Senate.  In the passage below he makes no bones about the role that he hoped the Senate would play:

I shall not scruple to add that such an institution may be sometimes necessary as a defense to the people against their own temporary errors and delusions. As the cool and deliberate sense of the community ought, in all governments, and actually will, in all free governments, ultimately prevail over the views of its rulers; so there are particular moments in public affairs when the people, stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage, or misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn. In these critical moments, how salutary will be the interference of some temperate and respectable body of citizens, in order to check the misguided career and to suspend the blow meditated by the people against themselves, until reason, justice, and truth can regain their authority over the public mind?

To understand what Madison is saying here, we need a sense of his view of human nature.  Madison, like the Founders generally, thought that men and women were guided by three different faculties.  The rarest was reason, a logical quality of mind that points reliably toward virtuous decisions that promote the general welfare of the larger society.  More common was what he called interest, which is essentially the rational calculation of individual self-interest.  Most common, and most dangerous, was passion, an irrational faculty dominated by prejudice and emotion.

To oversimplify, reason rationally promotes the common good, interest rationally promotes individual self-interest, and passion may irrationally (if unintentionally) undermine both.  Because the majority would not always be guided by reason, the role of the Senate would sometimes be to counter popular passions.

Bottom line: In Madison’s view, the role of the responsible government leader was typically to moderate popular passions, not inflame them.

Image: “James Madison by Chester Harding.” Photograph by Billy Hathorn. Available on Wikimedia Commons via Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Dr. Robert Tracy McKenzie is the chair of the Department of History at Wheaton College. He is the author of The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History ​from Intervarsity Press, along with two books pertaining to the American Civil War (published by Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press). He blogs at http://faithandamericanhistory.wordpress.com. 

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