James Madison's Contribution of Checks and Balances

James Madison's Contribution of Checks and Balances

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James Madison didn't originate the idea of checks and balances for limiting government power, but he helped push it farther than anyone else before or since. Previous political thinkers, citing British experience, had talked about checks and balances with a monarch in the mix, but Madison helped apply the principle to a republic. Contrary to such respected thinkers as Baron de Montesquieu, Madison insisted checks and balances could help protect liberty in a large republic.
Madison, incredibly, insisted that to be legitimate, a government must coerce people. "A sanction is essential to the idea of law, as coercion is to that of Government," he wrote in his paper Vices of the Political System of the United States (April 1787). The Confederation, he continued, "being destitute of both, wants the great vital principles of a Political Constitution. Under the form of such a constitution, it is in fact nothing more than a treaty of amity of commerce and alliance, between independent and Sovereign States." Madison called the lack of coercion "a fatal omission" in the Confederation.
On February 21, 1787, Madison and Alexander Hamilton, Washington's former assistant who believed passionately in a powerful central government, persuaded Congress to name delegates who would revise the Articles of Confederation.
Madison arrived in Philadelphia May 3, 1787. He was to be among 55 delegates from 12 states (Rhode Island refused to send delegates). The delegates included attorneys, merchants, physicians, and plantation owners. Thirty-nine delegates had served in the Continental Congress, and they were inclined to seek more power than permitted by the Articles of Confederation.
The Constitution attempted to limit the power of central government through intricate checks and balances. A key principle was separation of powers: those who make laws, enforce laws, and interpret laws should be substantially independent and capable of limiting each other's power. The two houses of Congress provide a check on each other. The President can veto legislation, but he can be overruled by a two-thirds majority in both houses. The judiciary can strike down laws considered unconstitutional. Proposed amendments become part of the Constitution when approved by two-thirds of Congress and by legislatures in three-quarters of the states.
Yet the Constitution did establish unprecedented government power in America. The Constitution authorized federal taxes which never existed before. It gave the federal government power to overrule elected state and local officials who were closer to the people.

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Control over larger territory increased the temptation for U.S. presidents to become entangled in foreign wars, which had the consequence of further expanding federal power. There's some irony here, since many people supported the Constitution because of dissatisfaction with high inflation, high taxes, and other economic consequences of the Revolutionary War.
Because the Constitution proposed to expand government power, there was substantial opposition, spearheaded by the so- called "Antifederalists." They included New York governor George Clinton, Revolutionary War organizer Samuel Adams, and Virginians George Mason and Patrick Henry. Respected pro-Constitution historians Samuel Eliot Morison, Henry Steele Commager, and William E. Leuchtenburg admitted "There is little doubt that the Antifederalists would have won a Gallup poll."
The Antifederalists presented a wide range of often conflicting points against the Constitution. Most important: the lack of a Bill of Rights. Madison considered bills of rights to be mere "parchment barriers" which an oppressive majority could easily ignore. He was convinced that liberty would be best protected in a large republic with many competing interests, where it would be difficult for a single one to oppress the others.
Madison became nearly as radical as Jefferson. Both men praised Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man (1791), a clarion call for liberty which alarmed the Federalists. Hamilton unleashed nasty attacks against Jefferson in Philadelphia newspapers, and Madison together with James Monroe wrote counterattacks. Madison denounced Hamilton's view that the President should have considerable discretionary power to conduct foreign policy, even if it undermines Congressional power to declare war. In 1793, Madison spoke out against the military build-up sought by the Federalists. Three years later, Federalists wanted to suppress American societies sympathetic to the French Revolution, but Madison insisted they were innocent until proven guilty of some crime. Federalists warned that aliens posed grave dangers, while Madison introduced a bill which made it easier for aliens to become American citizens. Madison resisted Federalist demands for higher taxes. He denounced the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798), which empowered the government to silence, even deport critics. His was a crucial, courageous voice during the Federalist assault on liberty.
Jefferson won the 1800 presidential election, turning the Federalists out, and Madison became Secretary of State for two terms. Then Madison won the presidency twice himself. These years were marked by frustration as he groped for a way to discourage the warring British and French from seizing American merchant ships. He pursued an embargo which backfired, devastating American port cities. He stumbled into the War of 1812, and the British torched Washington, D.C.—retaliation against the United States, which had torched Toronto. Demands of wartime finance spurred Madison to ask for higher taxes and a second government bank, since the term of Hamilton's bank had expired. Madison was vindicated on one point, though. He relied on volunteers, not conscripts, and it was American privateers who ravaged the British coastline, forcing the British government to negotiate peace. London merchants couldn't even get maritime insurance between Britain and Ireland.
Despite his inconsistencies, Madison outlived all the other Founders and continued expressing the ideals of republican liberty. As Jefferson wrote in his most poignant letter, February 17, 1826: "The friendship which has subsisted between us, now half a century, and the harmony of our political principles and pursuits, have been sources of constant happiness to me. . . . It has also been a great solace to me, to believe that you are engaged in vindicating to posterity the course we have pursued for preserving to them, in all their purity, the blessings of self-government. . . . To myself you have been a pillar of support through life. Take care of me when dead, and be assured that I shall leave with you my last affections."
Madison's time came a decade later when, in early 1836, he began suffering from chronic fevers, fatigue, and shortness of breath. On June 27th, Madison wrote his final words, about his friendship with Jefferson. During breakfast the next day, he suddenly slumped over and died. He was buried in the family plot a half-mile south of his house.
For all their flaws, constitutional checks and balances endure as the most effective means ever devised for limiting government—al tribute to the insight, industry, and devotion of James Madison.
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