Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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..The Constitution
Our Constitution was not a proclamation written by a convention. It was a negotiated contract for uniting thirteen sovereign independent states. Nothing like that had ever been done voluntarily, and few nations have matched it in two hundred years, even with the use of force.


{Hamilton and Burr Duel}
Hamilton and Burr Duel

Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison collaborated in 85 essays, published in the newspapers to win over New York State to ratify the proposed 1787 Constitution as written (which meant approving it without further amending it). The collected essays are now known as the Federalist Papers , authored under the collective pen name of Publius. They were written in great haste during the period before the New York ratifying convention, so there are signs of lack of coordination between the authors. Most of the articles were written by Madison, so his contributions scarcely paused for thought before going on to another topic.

Madison's paper, now called Federalist No. 10, is thought to be the most famous of the group, possibly the most influential. However, its theme is that wide diversity of opinion in a large republic will neutralize itself and therefore eliminate partisanship. Nothing could be farther from what turned out to be the case, however, since Madison himself was one of the principal actors in the drama which soon and apparently permanently established the dominance of the two-party system. As a further irony, his main opponent was his co-author Hamilton. This change of heart, never satisfactorily explained, was particularly bitter on a personal level. Washington essentially never spoke to Madison again, in spite of the close personal collaboration of the two in engineering the Constitutional Convention, the Bill of Rights, and the cultural characteristics of the republic. Unless someone discovers hidden documents from the time, it is likely we can never be certain whether Madison's change of heart was a result of Jefferson's persuasion or persuasion by events. Some conspiracy theorists have suggested that Madison never believed what he said in No. 10, while other cynics point out that Washington could merely offer him fame, but Jefferson was in a position to make him President. Unfortunately, Madison's subsequent presidency was an undistinguished one, and some have pointed to his switch as early evidence of unreliability. In any event, he did reverse positions from regarding partisanship as the main destroyer of republics to coming very close to proving it in the War of 1812. Perhaps he was merely reading the handwriting on the wall. Partisanship has been a constant feature of the nation ever since the election of 1800, and traces of it can be found much earlier than that.

It remains a possibility that Madison's switch was the result of this bookworm's faulty analysis of the roots of partisanship in a republic. His opinion was necessarily based on criteria other than personal observation. There had been no good models to examine since the fall of the Roman Republic in 44 B.C., and even these historical events had been highly mythologized. The essential activity which nourishes partisanship is vote-swapping. When many different issues are laid before a representative of a district, it is inevitable to value some more than others, even to the point of trading his meaningless votes (meaningless to him, or to his district, or both) for more valuable considerations. Sometimes these considerations can be dismissed as corruption, but most commonly the consideration is personal advancement. The congressman needs the votes of other congressmen to advance in the power structure, and it is usually in the interest of his district for him to advance. Whatever he does in the arena of party politics seldom betrays his district, but often involves betraying some fellow representative. It is in this sense that party politics are "dirty". However, the durability of two-party systems allows personal distinctions to be buried within a party label, thus constraining the main concerns of the district to an absolute minimum of choices. There is no need to debate proportional representation; an unconstrained election process itself forces compromises which drive the party toward the center in order to win. In those nations with splinter parties, it is necessary to bargain and compromise after the election in order to achieve a governing majority, so the bothersome public is shut out from participating in the "deals". The essential decisions in coalition governments are often made by a handful of leaders, many of whom achieved party leadership by highly questionable methods. Without saying one word about political parties, our Constitution drives us to a two-party system.

Madison argues in No. 10 that a multiplicity of competing interests would make it progressively more difficult for political parties to remain stable. It is a reasonable argument, which has been reformulated to mean that durable parties must engineer loyalty to a few broad enduring themes, in order to survive from era to era. Rich versus poor would seem a suitable theme, rendered somewhat unsuitable by America's ideal of the poor immigrant, rising in the scale of things to become a rich immigrant or rich immigrant grandson. In recent years, the argument emerged that we should selectively seek immigrants with talents or wealth, thereby enriching our whole nation. As such refinements of a larger theme appear, parties can change. The D's and the R's have completely switched positions on the tariff, for example, and on federal taxation. A constant state of percolation has not had the effect Madison imagined; partisanship has proved stronger than issues. Paradoxically, as parties shift their ingredients of appeal, they become more alike, and the country comes closer to a dead tie in national elections. National balloting is probably not perfected to the point where it can withstand repeated examples of nearly tied elections, so this tends to stabilize may eventually destabilize itself. Tinkering with the election process is viewed with suspicion by the public. So, in the long view of things, perhaps the Constitution has it right. The best policy about political parties is to have no policy.


The Federalist Papers: James Madison ISBN-13: 978-1936594405 Amazon

Originally published: Wednesday, October 24, 2012; most-recently modified: Monday, May 13, 2019