Federalist No. 51: Is Liberty Guaranteed by Structures?

Date01 December 2011
Published date01 December 2011
Laurence E. Lynn, Jr., is the Sid
Richardson Research Professor in the
Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs
at the University of Texas at Austin. He also
is a professor of public management at the
Manchester Business School and the Sydney
Stein Jr. Professor of Public Management
Emeritus at the University of Chicago. His
research and teaching focus on governance
and public management.
E-mail: llynn@gmail.com
Is Liberty Guaranteed by Structures? S83
Laurence E. Lynn, Jr.
University of Texas at Austin
Federalist No. 51 can be read as a statement of the
national government’s dual responsibility to serve the
public interest and to preserve liberty. It is built on James
Madison’s belief in checks and balances as a method
for keeping government’s parts in their proper places.
is essay asks whether this gridlock has gone too far in
rendering the constitutional design obsolete. Drawing on
previously unpublished fragments
of Federalist No. 51, the author
argues that Madison fully
anticipated these problems, and
he of‌f ers the unpublished text as
a salutary appendix to this iconic
defense of liberty.
Is America’s constitutional order failing to vin-
dicate the founders’ conviction that it would
serve the public interest and preserve liberty? Is
Madison’s carefully structured political design now a
gridlock too far?
e 2010 U.S. midterm elections underscored the
salience of this issue. Frustration with, and anger
toward, a political system frequently described as dys-
functional and broken—politics exaggerates our dif-
ferences rather than narrowing them, according to one
commentator—has been associated with historically
low levels of public trust in American government.
Attacks on the power of the presidency, on federal
preemption of states’ rights, on f‌i scal and monetary
policy and management, on judicial polarization, and
on a frequently paralyzed Congress raise questions as
to whether the founders’ elegant scheme of separated,
federated powers modulated by checks and balances
any longer validates their faith in our unique republi-
can form of democratic governance.
Yet, while critics of Madisonian democracy argue that
it frustrates the enactment of the popular will, the
actualization of majoritarian rule, and the preservation
of individual freedom, its defenders contend that dur-
ing a time of uncertainty and political conf‌l ict rooted
in transformation and change occurring on local,
national, and global scales, the Madisonian scheme is
performing exactly as intended: ensuring, in Madi-
son’s words, that “[our government’s] several constitu-
ent parts may, by their mutual relations, be the means
of keeping each other in their proper places” ( e
Federalist, 336).1 Widespread frustration and anger,
contemporary Madisonians argue, ref‌l ect the dis-
content of passionate interests
properly kept in their places.
is essay explores the question,
has Madisonian government
become obsolete? I f‌i rst will
review Madison’s arguments
on behalf of the Constitution’s
design as set forth in Federalist Nos. 47 and 51. Next,
the present form of this design will be described, not-
ing in particular the evolution of what Madison called
“subordinate distributions of power.” Various argu-
ments that question the appropriateness of this scheme
as it has evolved, including arguments that constitu-
tional governance in its present form, with its emphasis
on representation, is illiberal and antidemocratic, then
are considered.  e essay’s f‌i nal section reproduces a
lost fragment of Federalist No. 51 that reveals Madi-
son’s anticipation of the modern condition and con-
cludes that, all things considered, the brilliance of the
founders’ scheme continues to be fully ref‌l ected in the
ability of America’s republican democracy to temper,
although not eliminate, the defects of liberty’s virtues.
Checks and Balances: The Founders’
In Federalist No. 47, James Madison examined
“the particular structure of this government, and
the distribution of … power among its constituent
parts” (312). His purpose was to contest the claim by
critics of the Philadelphia document that its blend-
ing of legislative, executive, and judicial powers—
rather than maintaining their strict independence
from one another—both of‌f ended “symmetry and
beauty of form” (312–13) and exposed some parts
of government to domination by other parts. While
Federalist No. 51: Is Liberty Guaranteed by Structures?
is essay explores the question,
has Madisonian government
become obsolete?

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