Representation Matters: The Still-Relevant Legacy of President James Madison

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“It was politic as well as just that the interests & rights of every class should be duly represented & understood in the public Councils. It was a provision every where [sic] established that the Country should be divided into districts & representatives taken from each, in order that the Legislative Assembly might equally understand & sympathise [sic], with the rights of the people in every part of the Community” James Madison, July 26, 1787

It is clear that James Madison — America’s fourth president — believed in equal and fair representation. He made the above statement when asking that the term “landed” be struck from the requirements for participating in politics. Madison, furthermore, authored the Bill of Rights. He foresaw the possibility of corruption in representation and the executive branch and insisted on a system of checks and balances.

Madison was also against a large House of Representatives, advanced the formation of state and local governments, and believed that no one “faction,” as he put it, should dominate the assembly. He disagreed with much of what English philosopher Thomas Hobbes had to say regarding the inefficacy of republicanism. But he did agree that governance is ultimately about power and therefore must be balanced among different groups and interests.

As set out in his Federalist Papers essays, the main thrust of Madison’s philosophy is that governmental and political stability and balance are achieved by equal representation and a heterogeneity of perspectives. In №55 he states: “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.” He seemed not to like the Senate because it gave too much power to less populous states. But he was also insistent that the House of Representatives not simply increase in size with the population, but be representative of it. He believed in the fair representation of a diverse population.

In №10, Madison confronts his contemporaries’ fears of faction and argues that diversity of perspective and equal representation will lead to arguments. But such representation will also protect minority groups and positions from oppression and thereby keep the Union from fracturing.

Madison understood the possibility of corruption in politics and the manipulation of extreme views. The term “populism” was not coined until after his death, but he seemed to plan for the eventuality of ideological rigidity and fractionality leading to “executive manipulation.” What he tells us he wants is a system of representation in which local interests are decided by local government and well represented in the federal system — a system in which multiple perspectives are presented.

As president, Madison would lead his country through the very nearly disastrous War of 1812 during which British soldiers temporarily occupied Washington, D.C. His experiences tried his faith in the checks and balances system as well as his understanding of the unitary executive. He was imperfect in the execution of his duties and should not have attempted to ride into battle — Madison was the only sitting president to put himself in the line of fire. He wrote the Bill of Rights and lobbied for individual freedoms, (even while, like many of the Founding Fathers, he also kept enslaved people.)

But it is clear that Madison’s primary concern in the formation of American democracy was equal representation. To his mind, this form of republicanism would not only foster debate and philosophical heterogeneity but also protect Americans from fractionality or oppression.

James Madison’s philosophy as well as his fears for the longevity of the Republic still resonate today.

Representation matters! The best thing you can do to protect the country and your interests is to ensure that you are registered to vote. Go to votefromabroad.org to get state- and district-level information and fill out your FPCA (federal post card application) today!

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