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The Federalist Papers: No. 51

On this day in 1788, Federalist Paper No. 51 is published. Publius has been following a train of thought regarding “separation of powers” since paper no. 47. This essay is the last in that series.

As discussed in these essays, separation of powers is a vital characteristic of good government. (“Separation” means, for example, that the legislative and judicial powers should not be in the same hands.) However, our Constitution does not *completely* separate these governmental functions. Instead, they are blended just enough so one branch of government can “check” another. (The President, for instance, can veto a law.)

At the time, the Constitution was being attacked for its failure to completely separate powers. Publius’s defense against these attacks is finalized in this essay.

How can a healthy separation of power be achieved? The “only answer,” Publius believes, is “contriving the interior structure of the government” so that the three branches of government are, themselves, “the means of keeping each other in their proper places.”

Human nature practically demands such a solution. “If men were angels,” Publius argues, “no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” But since humans (and the governments created by them) are imperfect, Publius notes that the structure of government should redirect that potentially harmful self-interest for the greater good. As he puts it: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” If it is done correctly, then “opposite and rival interests” can make up for bad motives. Every man’s “private interest” can be a “sentinel over the public rights.”

To put it in modern terms, we need to create a situation where House and Senate leadership (on both sides of the political aisle) have personal, selfish reasons for pushing back against a President when he exceeds his authority—and are also given tools to push back in a constitutional manner. As they push back against a President’s excesses, even for selfish reasons, it serves the public.

Publius notes that Americans have one extra protection: The state governments will serve as a check on the national government. “In the compound republic of America,” Publius writes, “the power surrendered by the people is first divided between two distinct governments, and then the portion allotted to each subdivided among distinct and separate departments. Hence a double security arises to the rights of the people. The different governments will control each other, at the same time that each will be controlled by itself.”

Sigh. So, where, exactly, did we fall apart in all this? Personally, I think part of it is lack of education about the structure of our government. Elected officials can slack off more, without harming their own selfish interests, when voters are uninformed. It used to be that congressional leaders would be punished at election time if they refused to hold the President within his proper sphere. But, in modern times, these leaders are rarely punished at the polls for failing to enforce the structure of our Constitution.

Logistical note for those who care:

As with the last essay, the authorship of this paper is disputed, and it is included in both the Hamilton and the Madison papers. However, the editors of the Hamilton papers write that “Madison’s claim to the authorship of this essay outweighs” Hamilton’s claim. Thus, I have gone with Madison as the author in the attached picture.



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