Have you ever heard or read the phrase, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition”? Most of the students I’m teaching right now never had. As an American and lover of liberty, you should know this phrase and be able to explain it. Why? It is fundamental to preserving liberty because it is the theoretical basis upon which our government is based.
Growing up like I did, home-schooled and reading source material (i.e. the actual Constitution; the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist papers), “ambition counteracting ambition” was a familiar phrase.
It’s fundamentally what the entire American government experiment was based upon and it is still at work in American government today. I had a moment recently in one of my classes where I had to pause and smile. During an in-class discussion, one of my students utilized the phrase “ambition counteracting ambition” as part of his argument. He didn’t even know the phrase existed prior to my class. Yet, there he was, using it in context, to make an informed political argument about term limits for Congress.
So, this blog post is about one of the most important theoretical assumptions that the US government is based upon.
What is ambition really? Here’s a fancy excerpt for an academic paper of mine:
“The 1828 Webster dictionary describes ambition as denoting “an inordinate desire of power, or eminence, often accompanied with illegal means to obtain the object”. Ambition can be a good trait but, as the definition above exemplifies, can also be a harmful trait that leads to pernicious methods of attainment. Someone with ambition, according to the meaning attributed in 1828, is someone who has a corrupt craving for power and is willing to use illegitimate means to gain that power. James Madison was likely aware of this definition when writing his Federalist papers and discussing ambition counteracting ambition.”
So, based on this explanation, ambition is not necessarily a positive trait but it is a powerful trait and one that Madison believed would corrupt government. Therefore, he decided that, since ambition exists, he may as well design a government that uses this negative human trait against itself and to his advantage. Again, take a look at another excerpt from the same paper.
“James Madison says in Federalist 51 ‘Ambition must be made to counteract ambition’. Without context, this quote means little. Madison first says that ‘members of each department…’—in this context, he means each branch of government— ‘…should be as little dependent as possible of those of the others’. In short, each branch of government should operate distinctly and independently, while still connected to each other.
He explains that the reason for this is to provide security ‘against the gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department’. His plan was to give ‘to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others’ and to provide a defense that is ‘commensurate to the danger of the attack’. At this point in Federalist 51, Madison says that ‘ambition must be made to counteract ambition’.
Why It Matters:
You may be asking by now, why does it matter than I understand what “ambition counteracting ambition” means? It matters because everything about the way the entire American government works is based upon the assumption that men are ambitious. It is this ambition that leads each branch of government to fight for power in their respective branch, which ultimately prevents any ONE branch from becoming too powerful. And if you don’t know this, you don’t know why our government is the way it is and you certainly can’t defend it if anyone begins to berate the system for being too slow, or corrupt, or not socialist enough.
Understanding the theoretical concept is particularly important for my conservative friends out there. You need to know the fundamental theories behind our system of government in order to have a chance when the socialists and liberals start arguing for economic systems that are based on the assumption than men are good. All governments are based some belief about human nature. You either base government on the assumption that men are good or bad. The US government is based upon the assumption that men are bad and will abuse power if it is given to them.
Friends, history is on our side here as there has never been any government that hasn’t abused power and been ambitious in some way. The U.S. government is one of the only governments to ever be created on the expectation, no, the HOPE, that this power hunger and ambition not only would occur, but should occur in order for the US government to work appropriately.
If the Constitution was going to adequately do its job of protecting us from government, it needed to establish a government that would be so distracted by trying to keep and take power from itself, it would never be equipped to strip the people of liberty.
Get it? James Madison’s ingenious plan was to make a system that used human nature AGAINST itself. Technically, if the US government wanted to become a dictatorial oligarchy, all the branches could just come together and abolish the Constitution and create one unitary government. But that’s not going to happen. Why? Because the people in each branch want all the power for themselves. They aren’t willing to share their power with the other branches. Therefore, no single branch is ever able consolidate all the power!
It’s beautiful. Perhaps one of the most important theories in American history and perhaps the most important aspect of the US government.
Think About It:
Imagine, what if the US was founded without checks and balances? How long before the government would have become abusive?
Our government is cumbersome and slow for a reason. Ambition counteracts ambition and therefore, no law or act can be passed without deep consideration and compromise. The next time you, or someone around you, want to argue and complain about Congress being slow, pause and think to yourself: what if Congress passed laws QUICKLY? What if ambition did NOT counteract ambition? How many laws would Congress have passed by now and just HOW BIG WOULD THE GOVERNMENT BE?
I’ll leave you to ponder that question.
The Liberty Belle
Oligarchy: a form of government in which the supreme power is placed in a few hands; a species of aristocracy
5 thoughts on “Ambition Counteracting Ambition? What It Means and Why It’s So Important”
Been thinking on this one for a few days and wanted to throw something out to you. Madison is absolutely correct about human ambition, and the system he helped create has sort of worked for, what 240+ years. So ambition counteracting ambition is necessary for our Federal Republic to work, but is it also sufficient? Is it enough to keep the Republic going? If the Romans are any guide, opposing ambitions are not sufficient. Progressives convinced enough Americans in 1913 to amend the Constitution. The 17th Amendment severed the ambitions of the states ( as realized through their representatives) from the ambitions of the Federal government. This has tilted the playing field in favor of the Federal Government just as Wilson and his ilk desired. I believe it has mortally wounded the balance originally established by the founders between the States and the Federal Government. There is little interest in amending the Constitution these days. I doubt it will ever happen again. Can out Republic survive the rapacious Federal leviathan? Or are we inexorably headed towards Empire. Interested in your thoughts.
Robert, thank you so much for the comment and I apologize for the delayed response! I’m still getting used to having my own website and it does not alert me to comments, so I am just now seeing this.
This is a very intriguing thought and one that I’d not really considered before. I think the states still have a decent amount of power (albeit untapped at times) that allows their ambition to sometimes collide with federal ambition. I think that the Civil War and and McCulloch vs Maryland (1819) changed the balance far more than even the 17th Amendment…although, I am curious to study more and find out if the 17th Amendment did change the federal/state dynamic than I’ve previously believed. Research shows that very little changed about who was elected Senator after the 17th Amendment passed, leading some to believe the change was pointless.
While I do believe we already live in a Federal leviathan of sorts, the leviathan is still limited by practical "implementation" power. In other words, even if Congress or the Supreme Court passes law upon law or mandate upon mandate telling states to do certain things…the states do not have to obey. There is very little the federal government can do to forcibly make a state comply (besides withholding money); on top of which, if enough states agreed to refuse to do something the federal government mandated, the states would win. The states hold more power they we realize and I believe the federal government does know this and this simple knowledge does keep their power ever so slightly at bay.
I will think on this more and respond with more later. I’m getting ready to write another post so I’m limited on time at the moment. Thank you so much for the comment and I’ll endeavor to be more quick to respond next time!
I agree completely with this paper. Until now I had never really given any thought on the quote “ambition must be made to counteract ambition” but with the way that you lay it out I understand it a lot more now. Madison essentially had set a trap for any and all presidents to come later down the line who would want to have the power all for themselves. Because everyone would be so busy trying to keep their own smaller forms of power, or were not wise enough or too greedy, they wouldn’t see that if they were to band together like you say they could have all the power collectively. So yes, I agree, Madison is quite the genius for creating a figurative landmine for any greedy presidents, politicians or representatives down the line.
It is rather ingenious isn’t it? He used the negative part of human nature that could corrupt government to his advantage. Now, that ambition is what prevents too much power from ever being consolidated into one single tyrannical force.
I agree that Madison’s idea was ingenious, they found a way around this when the President proposed a bill which was then written by those in his party. When it was brought to Congress, they were told “You have to pass the bill to see what is in the bill.” Sadly, they did just that and the Supreme Court refused to admit that that was unconstitutional.