I’ve written an article on this topic once already, but since I’m reposting my Federalist posts, I have to revisit the MOST well-known and important Federalist paper: Federalist 51. I want to remind you of the ingenious way Madison structured the government to prevent tyranny. America is built in such a way that no matter how much people in government may want to change that government, they will be met with resistance from every facet of government and society.
There are many reasons why this great American Republic has lasted as long as it has. From an unprecedented love and respect for the Constitution, to a fervent love of liberty and responsibility, to divine providence and allowance. This list goes on and on.
Notice that these reasons have little to do with government itself, but rather the citizenry. Should the citizenry not respect the Constitution or no longer love liberty, there’s very little government could do to stop a tyrannical government from being established, and honestly, what government would try to prevent that anyway?
However, there is one small, albeit large, additional reason for the American Republic’s survival and it does have to do with government.
The use of man’s human nature against itself.
Ambition Must Be Made to Counteract Ambition
Madison brilliantly understood human nature and used this understanding of human nature when structuring the U.S. government. He did not fall for an overly optimistic understanding of humans, government and love of power. If anything, some may say that he was overly pessimistic, always seeing the potential for abuse, subversion, and tyranny at every turn.
So, let’s look at his seminal piece on this topic in his Federalist Paper 51.
He sets up his argument with this statement:
“…that as all these exterior provisions are found to be inadequate, the defect must be supplied, by so contriving the interior structure of the government as that its several constituent parts may, by their mutual relations, be the means of keeping each other in their proper places.”
By exterior provisions, he means the Constitution and/or the people at large. He acknowledges that just the mere presence of the Constitution’s existence does not guarantee the protection of liberty. Thus, the Constitution itself structures the make up of the government in a way that also provides an adequate defense against tyranny. In other words, the interior, the government itself, is designed to keep itself in its proper place.
But this seems to be an impossible task, why would government ever want to prevent itself from growing in power?
Madison says, in his flare of personality: “I will hazard a few general observations, which may perhaps place it in a clearer light, and enable us to form a more correct judgment of the principles and structure of the government planned by the convention.”
I find this comical. He will hazard a few general observations? He plays down the power of these “general observations”. Little did he know, these “general observations” would reverberate in the American public for the next two and a half centuries.
He proceeds: “In order to lay a due foundation for that separate and distinct exercise of the different powers of government, which to a certain extent is admitted on all hands to be essential to the preservation of liberty, it is evident that each department should have a will of its own; and consequently should be so constituted that the members of each should have as little agency as possible in the appointment of the members of the others.”
First, notice the goal in mind?
He contends that the preservation of liberty lies in breaking up the government into different departments that each have a will of their own and as little influence on the appointment or election of the members in the other departments—to keep them as independent as possible. Make each department feel as if it’s it’s own government within itself. Doing so leads to each separate and distinct department developing its own ambition for power.
“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.”
Beautifully stated. Each department must have the Constitutional means combined with the personal motivation (ambition and hunger for power) to resist the encroachments of the other branches.
Which leads to the famous quote:
“Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.”
Here Madison admits the truth of what he is attempting to establish. Yes, the Constitution is of supreme importance, but mere deference and respect for the Constitution is likely not sufficient to keep the branches of government in line. No, each individual and their own department’s personal and individual ambitions must be linked to the Constitution. In other words, each branch will resist encroachments from the other branches because of their own ambition and love of power and will be able to lawfully resist such encroachments because of and by using the Constitution. Thereby establishing the power of the Constitution.
Powerful stuff right?
He takes and uses man’s darkest trait, the trait that most threatens liberty, and uses it as a weapon against itself. So much so that without this dark human trait, Madison’s system would crumble. He banks on, he fully expects, such ambition to exist. Without it, every department and branch of government would realize…”Oh, if we merely worked together and gave up some of our power, we could consolidate all this power swiftly and easily and create a dictatorial oligarchy”. But that’s never going to happen because the Constitution has structured the branches in such a way that consolidating power would require certain individuals and branches to give up power, something that they are not willing to do.
“It may be a reflection on 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.”
He draws attention to the reality that he is willing to face but fewer and fewer people today seem willing to face: the fact that such precautions are necessary in government speaks to the bleak state of human nature. He establishes the foundational principle and reason for government. Men are not angels and therefore need government to exact justice and to protect private property from other men. Therefore, since men are not angels, government is necessary. However, government must be created and made up of these same flawed men.
A problem that Madison struggles to remedy. He continues:
“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.”
Ah, auxiliary precautions. If government were made up of angels, of perfect virtuous men, there would be no need to create internal and external controls on the government to prevent it from abuse and tyranny. The crux of the issue he is grappling with is not government necessarily, but people. He struggles designing a good government because of the fact that government is made up of people and people are corrupt, ambitious, selfish and fundamentally, not good. How do you make something good out of pieces that are not good?
Human nature is the core problem. So, what does he do? He designs not only a government, but an entire system on the presumption, the underlying belief, that humans are, by nature, bad. If people are bad, the best way to prevent this corrupt human nature from corrupting everything, is to pit it against itself every step of the way. And that’s just what he does. Ambition counteracting ambition doesn’t exist only in the three different branches. No. It exists in every facet of American politics and society.
He even breaks one of the branches apart in order to amplify ambition counteracting ambition:
“In republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates. The remedy for this inconveniency is to divide the legislature into different branches; and to render them, by different modes of election and different principles of action, as little connected with each other as the nature of their common functions and their common dependence on the society will admit.”
Congress is so big and so powerful that is needs to itself be split in two and those two parts given independence from each other so that their individual and unique ambitions will counteract each other.
“In the compound republic of America, 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.”
In other words, he’s saying, “Not only have I pitted ambition against ambition in the internal structure of the federal government itself, but the federal government will also be met with resistance and ambition by the state and local governments—who also have internal checks and balances built into them.” So, the governments will be controlling themselves and each other, creating yet another layer of protection for the citizenry.
Finally he says:
“Whilst all authority in it will be derived from and dependent on the society, the society itself will be broken into so many parts, interests, and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority.”
He even addresses the fact that the society, also made up of corrupt people, will not be able to—by proxy of government—hinder the rights of others in society because there will be so many different factions, groups, and classes in the citizenry itself that ambition will also counteract ambition in the citizenry at large. For instance, while a pro-gun group may pop-up in society to push for their beliefs, it will almost certainly be met with resistance from an anti-gun group that pops up in response.
You may as well say that liberty is protected in America because at every turn, whether in government or the citizenry, ambition counteracts ambition.
Friends, our Republic is built upon, nay, depends upon, the existence of disagreement, friction, and counter-action. It is what Madison banked on happening. If you follow American history, our history is fraught with controversy, divisions, and discord. Discord has existed from the very start of the nation when factions of the country fought vehemently for the new Constitution and others against it. American citizens and government have always counteracted each other, both internally and externally.
That’s the consequence of liberty. Liberty allows for constant and free expression and therefore the discord that is sure to occur as a result. Madison knew that in order to preserve liberty, he must use the consequence of liberty to his advantage.
Try to imagine a world where our government was not slow, cumbersome and hampered by the constant bickering back and forth that exists between the branches and inside the branches themselves?
Friends, if our government is dangerously close to tyranny now, imagine what it could have been had it not been hampered by ambition counter-acting ambition?
That’s the beauty of the system Madison orchestrated. It’s supposed to be fraught with division and discord. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
And don’t let anyone tell you that one’s understanding of human nature doesn’t underpin the creation of governments. The reason our founders created a government where ambition counteracts ambition is because of their belief that human nature is bad.
And ultimately, the only thing standing in the way of a fully materialized oppressive government is ambition counteracting ambition. Government’s mission is daily met with resistance from every level of government, from the chambers of Congress itself, to the different parts of the executive and judicial branches, to the state and local governments and from the citizenry itself.
So, don’t again ever underestimate the power of ambition being made to counteract ambition.
The Liberty Belle
6 thoughts on “Federalist 51: Ambition Must Be Made to Counteract Ambition”
Wow I think my brain is swelling after all that. I got to have another cup if coffee. Thank you for all the time and work you put into all this.
Thank you for making the time and effort worth it!
Totally agree with your assessment. That’s why socialism is a lie. The only perfect world will be one where God rules. Man is inherently evil, but the good pops up when needed. Thanks for your wonderful essays.
Great, in depth article!
We all witnessed “Ambition” warring against “Ambition” with the Senate Republicans ALL voting in unison to filibuster the Federlization of Elections. The Act would have produced more fraud like we saw in 2020 (Democrats cleverly named it “For the People” Voter Empowerment, etc., but would not be fair to all voters).
It’s not that all of them are good by any means. Reality says, Republicans knew if they didn’t resist (the ambition for unilateral power via) mass mail in voting and no voter ID, Republicans (RINOs included) would forever be out if a job! Thank the Lord for insight and wisdom found in the works of Madison and our Founders!
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