Federalist Paper XXXIX part 1 – Are we a republic?

Posted by Jason | Posted in Government, History | Posted on 29-03-2010

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Over the weekend, I was reading some of the Federalist Papers. In particular, I was reading Madison’s Federalist Paper XXXIX, which discusses whether the proposed Constitution would create a national government, basically a democracy where the majority rules, or a federal government, where the government in broken down into a “confederacy of sovereign States”. He begins by discussing whether the proposed government is a republican government.

The first question that offers itself is, whether the general form and aspect of the government be strictly republican. It is evident that no other form would be reconcilable with the genius of the people of America; with the fundamental principles of the Revolution; or with that honorable determination which animates every votary of freedom, to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government. If the plan of the convention, therefore, be found to depart from the republican character, its advocates must abandon it as no longer defensible.

After highlighting how many other nations claimed to be republics, while at the same time having all or parts of their government ruling over the people without the people bestowing those powers unto them, Madison explains that the Constitution is not just claiming to be a republic in words but in action.

If we resort for a criterion to the different principles on which different forms of government are established, we may define a republic to be, or at least may bestow that name on, a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people, and is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure, for a limited period, or during good behavior. It is ESSENTIAL to such a government that it be derived from the great body of the society, not from an inconsiderable proportion, or a favored class of it; otherwise a handful of tyrannical nobles, exercising their oppressions by a delegation of their powers, might aspire to the rank of republicans, and claim for their government the honorable title of republic. It is SUFFICIENT for such a government that the persons administering it be appointed, either directly or indirectly, by the people; and that they hold their appointments by either of the tenures just specified; otherwise every government in the United States, as well as every other popular government that has been or can be well organized or well executed, would be degraded from the republican character.

So, how are we stacking up as a republic these days? Do we have people administering the offices for a limited period of time and good behavior? Does Ted Kennedy or Robert Byrd ring a bell as to if our officials serve for limited time periods and good behavior? Madison explains what happens when you do not have time limits on those serving, when he says it “would be degraded from the republican character”, meaning those serving would no longer represent the people.

Also, does our government get it’s powers from the “great body of society” or from “inconsiderable proportions, or a favored class”? Between Wall Street and the enslaved entitlement recipients, I’d say it now gets it’s powers from the latter. What does Madison say that leads to? If it’s the latter “a handful of tyrannical nobles, exercising their oppressions by a delegation of their powers, might aspire to the rank of republicans, and claim for their government the honorable title of republic.” Sounds about right to me. While our government still claims to be a republic, it does not represent the people. It now has structured privileged classes that do not look out for the “great body of society” but enslaves a large enough portion to maintain the appearance of a republic, while at the same time favoring those who grease the palms of elected officials.

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[...] part of Federalist Paper XXXIX, Madison talked about what a republic is, and I posed the question “Are we a republic?” While in the first part Madison talks about what a republic is, in the second part of the paper he [...]

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