James Madison’s Insight Into Today’s Abuse of Power



Checks_and_balancesThe Federalist Papers is a work that every American should read, but sadly many don’t.  They were a series of articles written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay.  The primary purpose was to promote the ratification of the newly written Constitution by the states.

There is much debate as to the religious orientation of the Founders.  I won’t say all were devout Christians to be sure, but a good number were.  Most, including the deists in the group, were very biblically literate compared to your average churchgoer today… (that’s a topic of a different post altogether).  A couple of weeks ago was the anniversary of Federalist 51 written by James Madison and published on February 6, 1788.

In it he explained the checks and balances system afforded in the Constitution and why it was necessary.

But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attach. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of man must be connected with the constitutional right of the place.

It may be a reflection of human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections 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. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

Kevin DeYoung pointed out that Madison studied under the famous evangelical Presbyterian pastor John Witherspoon while at Princeton.  In Federalist 51 you see the influence of Calvinism in the form of the doctrine of the depravity of man (see Ephesians 2, Romans 3:23, etc).  We are sinful which is why we need government, but government is also run by people with sinful natures therefore we need to have checks and balances otherwise we will find ourselves under tyranny.

One would think that Madison had looked into the future and see this current administration with its propensity to circumvent Congress and also see a Judicial branch that ruled like robed tyrants.  But he didn’t.  He just knew based on sound biblical teaching exactly what we are capable of if left unrestrained and government is no different.

Photo by debaird (CC BY-SA 3.0).

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  • http://www.facebook.com/belikebunce Wm Luke Priest

    Shane – Good doctrine is based on truth, but doctrinal training is not the only way to come to knowledge of that truth. A study of history can show that men are depraved and that the natural tendency of those in power is to abuse their power. That’s why so many deists and even the odd atheist supported checks and balances.

    • http://shanevanderhart.com/ Shane Vander Hart

      I agree with that, but in Madison’s case I believe we see a Calvinist thread.