University of Wisconsin–Madison

Publius/James Madison: The Vision of American Republicanism

One of the fundamental ideas at issue during the ratification debate was the nature and extent of republican government.  The Founders had generally accepted classical theorists’ notions regarding the size of republics; that republics be small in size so as to insure homogeneity among the citizens. Small republics informed by the actions of virtuous citizens were the surest hedge against a tyrannical government.

As a congressman from 1780-83, Madison saw firsthand how representation under the classical republican theory was not suited to the situation facing Americans in the 1780s. In fact it had an adverse impact on policy making at the national level. Throughout the 1780s there were efforts within Congress to amend the Articles of Confederation to address the pressing national financial situation. These attempts to empower Congress were constructed narrowly so as to be temporary grants of power to tax or to regulate commerce. Madison witnessed these efforts as each failed to get the requisite approval of all thirteen state legislatures required by the Article of Confederation. The reality of local interests of individual states superseding national interests was a continuous source of frustration for Madison. Later in 1786 in his Vices of the Political System of the United States he noted that “The practice of many States . . . is certainly adverse to the spirit of the Union, and tends to beget retaliating regulations, not less expensive & vexatious in themselves, than they are destructive of the general harmony.” He continued by lamenting that many of the proposals that might enhance national dignity and honor were “defeated by the perverseness of particular States whose concurrence is necessary.” For Madison, a different representational paradigm was necessary for the United States to be viable among the nations of the world.

Madison first altered the definition of what a republic was and how representation worked within it. His clearest explanation is often cited as being in The Federalist 10 and 39. Instead of being a small homogeneous entity, he proposed that a large diverse nation like the United States could in fact still be considered a republic. But, for this to succeed, Madison initiated a second essential definitional switch. Madison simply reconfigured how representation functioned within an extended republic. All prior political theories regarding representation assumed that it was essential for people to democratically and directly elect their representatives. They then would require their representatives to mirror and vote their specific interests. Madison proposed that in large republics which had many factions, republican representation needed to be different since homogeneity of interests was not possible. He suggested that representatives should still be democratically elected but then they should filter and winnow the interests of the various factions within their constituencies. This flew in the face of accepted belief since factions were deemed to be the bane of all republics. Madison simply accepted the existence of factions but sought to neutralize them rather than attempt to eliminate them.  America was simply to complex and diverse for such an effort. Thus, in a large and complex nation, it was preferable for elected officials to filter interests in the process of representing their various constituencies. There would be local interests directly represented in the new system under the Constitution. To varying degrees, the House of Representative and Senate would both function in this manner. But there would also be national interests represented and refined as well in the judiciary, and the executive.

For Madison, the national complexity of the United States posed both a difficulty and a solution. Those operating under the old classical republican theory acknowledged this complexity but suggested that the solutions was creating a system featuring representation within the context of local entities–the states. Others suggested that the size and complexity of the nation meant that the future necessitated representation within the context of a single consolidated system–the nation. Madison proposed that the situation facing the nation meant that a combination of local and national interests meant that representation was to both sets of interests concurrently–the federal republic.

James Madison to Edmund Randolph, New York, 8 April 1787 (pdf)

James Madison to George Washington, New York, 16 April 1787 (pdf)

James Madison Speech in the Constitutional Convention, 6 June 1787 (pdf)

James Madison Speech in the Constitutional Convention, 26 June 1787 (pdf)

James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, New York, 24 October, 1 November 1787 (pdf)

Publius: The Federalist 10, New York Daily Advertiser, 22 November 1787 (pdf)

Publius: The Federalist 37, New York Daily Advertiser, 11 January 1788 (pdf)

Publius: The Federalist 39, New York Independent Journal, 16 January 1788 (pdf)

Publius: The Federalist 49, New York Independent Journal, 2 February 1788 (pdf)

Publius: The Federalist 46, New York Packet, 29 January 1788 (pdf)

Publius: The Federalist 51, New York Independent Journal, 6 February 1788 (pdf)

Publius: The Federalist 58, New York Independent Journal, 20 February 1788 (pdf)

Publius: The Federalist 63, New York Independent Journal, 1 March 1788 (pdf)

James Madison Speech in the Virginia Convention, 20 June 1788 (pdf)

Consolidation, New York National Gazette, 5 December 1791 (pdf)