On the roots of American-style republicanism in the Scottish Enlightenment.
On 4 October 2019 Hillary Clinton, tweeted a 1974 quote by Rep. Barbara Jordan. It reads: “If the impeachment provision in the Constitution of the United States will not reach the offenses charged here, then perhaps that 18th-century Constitution should be abandoned to a 20th-century paper shredder!”1 Surely, this is not the veneration for the supreme law of the United States which James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution,”2 would have wished for.3 While the Constitution is indeed an eighteenth-century document, it encompasses ideas that are much older, and at the same time stunningly up-to-date. The 1787 debates recorded by said James Madison reveal the delegates’ deep knowledge of political theories ranging from those of Greek and Roman antiquity up to those characterizing their present day. Not only were they familiar with the European Enlightenment ideas popularized first and foremost by John Locke, David Hume and Montesquieu, but also with the works of the Renaissance thinker Niccolò Machiavelli. Other influences can be traced to Thomas Hobbes as well as to the Puritans’ Calvinist theology.4
Two main dichotomies between the most eminent Founding Fathers have been discovered and highlighted by scholars: the dichotomy between Federalists (most notably Alexander Hamilton) and Jeffersonians on the one hand, and that between Constitutionalists and Democrats, the former sometimes termed Madisonians, on the other.5 Walter F. Murphy ascribes a stark pessimism about human nature to Constitutionalists and asserts that “they are concerned, sometimes obsessed with humanity’s propensity to act selfishly and abuse power.”6 In the opinion of men like Madison, this abuse of power was not limited to monarchies or oligarchies. It may also occur in democracies in the form of mob rule when a tyrannical majority tramples on the rights of a minority. The Encyclopaedia Britannica therefore divides civic republicanism into neo-Athenian republicanism (Jefferson) and neo-Roman republicanism (Madison).7 I will argue in this essay that although both Jefferson and Madison expressed ideas which Bernard Bailyn and Gordon S. Wood, among others, have described as republican ideology,8 Madison had even more in common with Scottish Enlightenment thinkers than with his fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson. While I am fully aware of the fact that this assertion goes against the grain of some contemporary scholars’ works, which have instead highlighted the life-long friendship and collaboration of the two Founding Fathers,9 I find the evidence of Scottish Enlightenment thought in Madison’s writings too compelling to be brushed aside.
Just a few weeks ago I visited Edinburgh, the “Athens of the North,” and was swept off my feet by the old city’s charm. During Madison’s time, the Reformation and the insistence on reading the Bible in vernacular had produced a literacy rate in Scotland that was probably unrivaled in Europe at the time. Literate people were reaching for other (better) books, and philosophers as well as ingenious inventors sprouted up out of the ground like mushrooms in Scotland’s cities. While my friend John Bruce Leonard, with whom I had a conversation about “republicanism” on the Arktos podcast channel a little while ago,10 is not particularly fond of the humanistic Enlightenment, I view it as a glorious part of our history. I would be as much opposed to any traditionalist system that would rid itself of all Renaissance and Enlightenment ideas as I am opposed to this current system in which ethnic Europeans are being replaced by non-whites. I believe it is possible to find a middle ground (Richard White) between tradition and the Faustian spirit displayed by modern (not postmodern) Europeans. William Luther Pierce describes the Faustian element in one of his speeches as follows: “The Faustian urge in our race-soul says to us: ‘Thou shalt not rest or be content, no matter what thy accomplishments. Thou must strive all the days of thy life. Thou must discover all things, know all things, master all things.’”11 This being said, all I wish to do in this essay, is to prove one of the points Leonard makes in his excellently written book The New Prometheans: Even the more conservative figures among the Founding Fathers (as well as European conservatives such as Edmund Burke, the “father of conservatism”) viewed the world through the progressive lens of the Enlightenment.12 I will start this examination of Madisonian thought by outlining the political philosophy that informs his Federalist No. 10.
The Federalist Papers consist of eighty-five essays published under the pseudonym “Publius” in New York City during the ratification debate. They were mostly authored by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, while John Jay only contributed a few.13 James Madison’s Federalist No. 10 “ranks as perhaps the most significant contribution to the theory of government ever written by an American.”14 Madison deals with the troublesome topic of factions and the possibility of a tyrannical majority not only imposing its will on a minority but invading the rights of other citizens. He holds the emergence of factions to be inevitable on account of human nature, for “[a]s long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed.”15 Furthermore, he deems the diversity in faculties of men “not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests,” by which the emergence of factions might be avoided. Since the causes of faction therefore cannot be removed without depriving citizens of their liberty, only one method of “curing the mischiefs of faction” remains: one has to simply control its effects.16 This, James Madison argues, can be better achieved in a large republic than a small one. He explains:
Either the existence of the same passion or interest in a majority at the same time must be prevented, or the majority, having such coexistent passion or interest, must be rendered, by their number and local situation, unable to concert and carry into effect schemes of oppression.17
He then goes on to say:
From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.18
The main differences between a democracy and a republic in Madison’s view are “first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended.”19 Moreover, in a larger republic there will be a greater number of fit characters to elect as government officials, and the possibilities of intrigues and corruption are likely do decrease.20 The more the merrier is the name of the game, so to speak. While this statement appears to stand in stark contrast to what most political philosophers from Aristotle to Montesquieu (and one may add: Thomas Jefferson) had insisted – namely, that self-government might work in small city states but was impractical in large countries21 – it happens to echo the words of Scottish philosopher David Hume. Not only had he anticipated Madison in seeing factions springing from human nature, but he had also proposed a similar solution. Roy Branson notes that “at points where they differed from contemporaries Madison and the Scotsmen agreed with each other.”22
In Federalist No. 51 James Madison sketches the political system of the United States under the Constitution, dwells on checks and balances and advocates for a strict separation of powers.23 In order to ensure that laws were not enacted and enforced by a small group of individuals alone, each branch would have the authority to impact the legislation procedure. Madison, being yet the realist we have encountered examining Federalist No. 10, states that “ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.”24 Since men are not angels (no government would be necessary if they were), one has to “first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”25 Madison also reiterates the main point he had made in Federalist No. 10, asserting that
[w]hilst all authority in it [in the federal republic of the United States] 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. … In the extended republic of the United States, and among the great variety of interests, parties, and sects which it embraces, a coalition of a majority of the whole society could seldom take place on any other principles than those of justice and the general good.26
Let us now turn to one of the most important figures of the Scottish Enlightenment: David Hume. In his essay on an “Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth” he writes:
We observe … the falsehood of the common opinion that no large state … could ever be modeled into a [republic] commonwealth, but that such a form of government can only take place in a city or small territory. The contrary seems probable. Though it is more difficult to form a republican government in an extensive country than in a city, there is more facility, when once it is formed, of preserving it steady and uniform, without tumult and faction. … Democracies are turbulent. For however the people may be divided or separated into small parties, their near habitation in a city will always make the force of popular tides and currents very sensible. … In a large government … the parts are so distant and remote, that it is very difficult, either by intrigue, prejudice, or passion, to hurry them into any measures against the public interest.”27
The striking similarities between Hume and Madison are more than obvious from this quote. Roy Branson has also stressed parallels between Madison and Adam Ferguson, John Millar as well as Adam Smith. He finds these similarities with the Scotsmen to be “dramatized by the way the positions they held in common differed from those of Madison’s life-long friend from the Revolutionary era, Thomas Jefferson.”28 But perhaps this Scottish-Enlightenment influence comes as less of a surprise when we bear in mind that when Madison attended Princeton University, its President John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian minister, had recently come over from Scotland. He would become the only active clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence. In spite of his being a conservative evangelical, he nonetheless put Hume, Smith, and Ferguson on his reading lists.29 Douglass Adair asserts that “The syllabus of Witherspoon’s lectures …, which has been preserved with the list of recommended readings, explains the conversion of the young Virginian to the philosophy of the Enlightenment.”30 The fact that Witherspoon was an evangelical clergyman and probably certain that we are all “sinners in the hands of an angry God” (Jonathan Edwards), sheds some light on the question of why Madison’s Federalist Papers are informed by a combination of European-Enlightenment ideas and a rather bleak perspective on human nature.31
2 Douglass Adair, “James Madison,” in Fame and the Founding Fathers, ed. Trevor Colbourn (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1974), 124.
3 Perhaps his life-long friend Thomas Jefferson would have been more understanding of such a radical attitude. In a letter to Madison he wrote that every constitution and every law were to expire at the end of nineteen years. “If it be enforced longer,” Jefferson stated, “it is an act of force and not of right.” Jefferson to Madison, September 6, 1789, Papers 15, 396; cited from Roy Branson, “James Madison and the Scottish Enlightenment,” Journal of the History of Ideas 40, no. 2 (1979), 238.
4 Cf. Paul S. Boyer, American History: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 26-7.
5 Jeremy D. Bailey, James Madison and Constitutional Imperfection (Cambridge University Press: New York, 2015), 2. Note, however, that Bailey argues that the second dichotomy was “flawed or at least under-examined” (ibid., 4) and that the importance of stability for Madison had long been overestimated in the light of the Federalist Papers (ibid., 11).
6 Walter F. Murphy, Constitutional Democracy: Creating and Maintaining a Just Political Order (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2009), 9.
7 Thomas Jefferson is not mentioned in the article while the two examples of neo-Roman writers given happen to be Niccolò Machiavelli and James Madison: Encyclopaedia Britannica, s.v. “Civic republicanism,” accessed October 6, 2019.
8 While historians such as Charles A. Beard and Vernon L. Parrington had downplayed the role of ideas in the events that led to the creation of the American republic, Louis Hartz emphasized the importance of Lockean liberalism. Emerging in the 1960s, two new schools put emphasis on the primacy of ideas as opposed to mere self-interest: the “St. Lois School”, led by J. G. A. Pocock, and the “Cambridge School”, which was led by Bailyn and Wood. Bailyn’s book won the 1968 Pulitzer Prize: Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967); Gordon S. Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1969). The defining features of this particularly American republicanism are a vilification of corruption and a strong emphasis on civic virtue. Deeply suspicious of big government (esp. Thomas Jefferson) and commerce (Jefferson and John Adams), it idealizes the yeoman farmer as the basis of a healthy society. In Query XIX in Notes on the State of Virginia, 175, Jefferson wrote: “Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts He has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. […] The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government as sores do to the strength of the human body. It is the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigor.” And John Adams asserted that the spirit of commerce was indeed “incompatible with that purity of Heart, and Greatness of soul which is necessary for a happy Republic.” John Adams; cited from Paul A. Rahe, Republics Ancient and Modern: Classical Republicanism and the American Revolution, vol. 2 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), 23.
9 See especially Jeremy D. Bailey, James Madison and Constitutional Imperfection (Cambridge University Press: New York, 2015). But even as early as 1954, long before Bailyn and Wood appeared on the scene, Neal Riemer had stated the “frequently distorted picture of his [Madison’s] political philosophy as a whole” was “not attributable to a total neglect but rather to a myopic preoccupation with certain aspects of his thought at the expense of his dominant republican ideology.” Neal Riemer, “The Republicanism of James Madison,” Political Science Quarterly 69, no. 1 (1954), 45.
11 William L. Pierce; cited from John B. Leonard, The New Prometheans (London: Arktos, 2019), 119.
13 See Paul S. Boyer, American History: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 28.
14 Ralph L. Ketcham, “Notes on James Madison’s Sources for the Tenth Federalist Paper,” Midwest Journal of Political Science 1, no. 1 (1957), 20; cf. David F. Epstein, The Political Theory of the Federalist (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 59.
15 James Madison. Federalist No. 10.
19 Ibid. My personal definition of a republic deviates somewhat from Madison’s, since I hold democracies to be republics as well. “Mixed government” is, in my view, not a sine qua non for a republic; the absence of a king or dictator is. Any form of government which excludes one-man rule is thus inherently republican. John Adams seems to have favored a similar definition when he stated that a republic was a “government whose sovereignty is vested in more than one person.” Adams to Roger Sherman, July 17, 1789, Works VI, 437, cited from William R. Everdell, “From State to Free-State: The Meaning of the Word Republic from Jean Bodin to John Adams,” dhm.pdp6.org. Accessed October 8, 2019.
20 Cf. ibid.
21 Cf. Ralph L. Ketcham, “Notes on James Madison’s Sources for the Tenth Federalist Paper,” Midwest Journal of Political Science 1, no. 1 (1957), 25.
22 Roy Branson, “James Madison and the Scottish Enlightenment,” Journal of the History of Ideas 40, no. 2 (1979), 235.
23 This strong emphasis on a separation of powers has, of course, been linked to the French judge and political philosopher Montesquieu. Ketcham even speculates that Montesquieu was one of the thinkers who most profoundly influenced the Founding Fathers, second only to John Locke: Ralph L. Ketcham, “Notes on James Madison’s Sources for the Tenth Federalist Paper,” Midwest Journal of Political Science 1, no. 1 (1957), 21. However, also Ketcham acknowledges that there are many possible sources on the idea of separation of powers: ibid., 23, f.n. 9; see also Marshall D. Lloyd, “Polybius and the Founding Fathers: The Separation of Powers,” mlloyd.org, accessed October 8, 2019, http://www.mlloyd.org/mdl-indx/polybius/intro.htm. Donald S. Lutz has demonstrated that, in terms of referencing, Montesquieu ranks above all other European writers, including John Locke. However, referencing does not imply agreement, but sometimes even quite the contrary: Donald S. Lutz, “The Relative Influence of European Writers on Late Eighteenth-Century American Political Thought,” American Political Science Review 78 (1984), 189-90; Colleen A. Sheehan, “Madison and the French Enlightenment: The Authority of Public Opinion,” The William and Mary Quarterly 59, 4 (2002), 925, f.n. 3.
24 James Madison. Federalist No. 51.
27 David Hume, “Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth,” Essays, Literary, Moral, and Political (London, 1870), 307-8; cited from Ralph L. Ketcham, “Notes on James Madison’s Sources for the Tenth Federalist Paper,” Midwest Journal of Political Science 1, no. 1 (1957), 24.
28 Roy Branson, “James Madison and the Scottish Enlightenment,” Journal of the History of Ideas 40, no. 2 (1979), 238. For a different opinion see Colleen A. Sheehan, The Mind of James Madison: The Legacy of Classical Republicanism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015). He examines Madison’s 1791 “Notes on Government” and finds that Madison happened to have been more of a civic republican than proposed in this essay. According to Sheehan, Madison was dissatisfied with the Scottish school of thought and its emphasis on “institutional arrangements and economic self interest” while neglecting ethos and paidea. Ibid., 17; Alissa M. Ardito, review of The Mind of James Madison: The Legacy of Classical Republicanism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), by Colleen A. Sheehan, Perspectives on Politics 14, no. 1 (2016), 222; see also Colleen A. Sheehan, “Public Opinion and the Formation of Civic Character in Madison’s Republican Theory,” The Review of Politics 67, no. 1 (2005), 44-8. In contrast to Sheehan, John R. Bauer asserts that the Madisonian republic did not provide for civic education, and “the promotion of virtue was never listed by Madison as one of the objects of government,” since he would have deemed this an interference in the “private spheres of the individual”. John R. Bauer, “James Madison and the Revision of Republicanism in Post-Revolutionary America,” PhD diss., (Duke University, 1984), 168.
29 Roy Branson, “James Madison and the Scottish Enlightenment,” Journal of the History of Ideas 40, no. 2 (1979), 236.
30 Douglass Adair, “James Madison,” in Fame and the Founding Fathers, ed. Trevor Colbourn (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1974), 127.
31 John R. Bauer concludes in his 1984 dissertation that “Madison’s attempt to ground republicanism upon a more ‘realistic’ view of human nature and society, sacrificed certain positive values inherent in the republican tradition.” John R. Bauer, “James Madison and the Revision of Republicanism in Post-Revolutionary America,” PhD diss., (Duke University, 1984), 180.