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madison's metronomeAn excerpt from Madison’s Metronome: The Constitution, Majority Rule, and the Tempo of American Politics.

Twelve-year-olds do not read Michel de Montaigne anymore, much less take notes. James Madison did both, and a circa 1763 entry in his childhood commonplace book indicates that one of the French essayist’s observations made a particular impression: “Time,” Montaigne wrote and Madison transcribed, “is the Sovereign Physician of our Passions, & gains its End chiefly by supplying our imaginations with other & new Affairs, wearing out the Old by new impressions.” To this, Madison added an observation of his own: “Our passions are like Torrents which may be diverted, but not obstructed.”[1]

History provides no direct support for a dramatic link between the boy’s reading that day and the statesman’s political theory decades later. Madison did not quote Montaigne in writing again. But the sentiment he formulated in his own hand bears a striking resemblance to his lifelong assumption about popular majorities—that they were bound to get their way sooner or later, and hence could be diverted but not obstructed—while the quotation he recorded from Montaigne presaged his view of time as central to the proper operation of republicanism: Because time defuses the passions, majorities should prevail only after cohering for an interval sufficient to ensure that reason rather than impulse guides their will. This study argues that these elements of Madison’s thought—the centrality of time and the inevitability of majority rule—converge to form an implicit doctrine that may be called “temporal republicanism.”

Both elements have received substantial attention in the extensive literature on Madison. Madison’s commitment to majority rule has been carefully documented in a redemptive strain of late twentieth-century scholarship, epitomized by the work of Lance Banning, that reasserts his republicanism against decades of interpretation that cast the Founder as a reactionary aristocrat who sought to shield the propertied few from the landless masses.[2] Martin Diamond, George W. Carey, Alan Gibson, James Read, Gary Rosen, and many others have also highlighted the importance of deliberation, and hence of delay, in Madison’s thought, while Colleen Sheehan has emphasized his belief in a sort of civic education that instilled the habits of tolerance and reasonableness necessary for republican life. Michael Zuckert’s scholarship casts Madison as a “natural rights republican,” although of a “less strenuously republican” bent than Jefferson. The study that follows aspires to refine these interpretations by establishing the following features of Madison’s democratic theory.

First, at no time did Madison contemplate either the possibility or desirability of any mode of government other than majority rule. He criticized the decisions of majorities with which he disagreed; he believed certain kinds of majorities under certain kinds of conditions were prone to error or abuse; he denied that a decision was just merely because a majority had reached it. But he never questioned the majority’s rightful authority to make decisions, and his criticism of certain majorities in certain situations does not impeach his majoritarian credentials any more than a critic of the Congress or the president today could be accused of opposing Articles I or II of the Constitution.[3] On the contrary, I hope to show that many of the passages in which Madison criticizes majorities most harshly also affirm their ultimate right to bind the community.

This normative commitment to popular government must be understood in the context of Madison’s empirical belief that majority rule was inevitable, something like a law of nature, in republican societies. Perhaps the most consistent assumption behind his political thought was the futility of what he dismissed as “parchment barriers” that attempted to impose rules without regard for the political and sociological realities in which they would operate. This fact is overlooked if Madison’s political thought is evaluated as though it were an abstract philosophical enterprise whose object was identifying the ideal regime. His intent, rather, was to overlay political mechanisms onto existing sociological forces he accepted as unalterable in their essential characteristics. Institutions, rules, and compacts worked within the boundaries set by political reality; their chief purpose was to channel rather than dam the energies of popular majorities; and if they were to succeed, they had to establish a more or less self-regulating and self-perpetuating mechanism that drew its power from the inherent conditions of republican society. This self-regulating character of the constitutional order is crucial to an accurate understanding of Madison’s thought. He never understood himself to be engaged in a debate about the advisability of majority rule per se; the question was always under what circumstances majorities would prevail.

Hence, and second, Madison maintained a lifelong concern about impulsivity in politics. The majorities he criticized were almost always those that formed, spread, and prevailed quickly, a point underscored by his frequent portrayal of them with metaphors like fire and contagious epidemics that connoted sudden eruptions of sentiment sweeping across populations or political institutions before there was time for thoughtful consideration. Political decisions, institutions, or majorities that concerned Madison were “impetuous,”[4] “hasty,”[5] “precipitate,”[6] “overheated,”[7] and contaminated by “contagious passion.”[8] A majority acting under such circumstances was prone to error because it was unlikely to perceive its long-term interest in treating minority groups justly—what Tocqueville called the American doctrine of “self-interest well understood.”[9] Moreover, impulsive majorities were apt to change their minds quickly and repeatedly, so enshrining their views as policy at any one moment during such turmoil would be arbitrary.

Third, Madison’s solution to the problem of impulsivity was to harness what he saw as the inherent power of time to dissipate passions. One purpose of delay was to facilitate deliberation, but in another and perhaps broader sense, its usefulness lay not in what occurred in the interval between impulse and decision. The interval itself was the point. Time would ensure that passion subsided, reason resumed its throne, and transient appetites yielded to long-term interests. My intent in identifying this feature of Madison’s thought is not to deny the importance of either deliberation or civic education. This study does argue, however, that this cooling process was necessary for both, and that Madison regarded it often to be sufficient for reasonable behavior. Moreover, a majority that cohered for a sufficient duration was probably settled and thus unlikely to change its mind, barring changed circumstances. As a result, institutions or majorities that Madison saw as seasoned with time and ripe to prevail were “cool,”[10] “deliberate,”[11] “settled,”[12] and focused on “permanent” needs rather than immediate desires.[13] He wrote in Federalist 63: “As the cool and deliberate sense of the community ought, in all governments, and actually will, in all free governments, ultimately prevail over the views of its rulers: so there are particular moments in public affairs, when the people, stimulated by some irregular passion . . . may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn.”[14]

Madison can be cast as antimajoritarian only by excising the first half of the passage. Taken as a whole, it provides a synopsis of his democratic thought. To begin with, the normative and the empirical intersect: the people’s “cool and deliberate” sense both should and will prevail. Impulsive measures are apt to arise at “particular” moments brought about by “irregular” passions, formulations that suggest such will not be the normal course of events, and that it is therefore a mistake to interpret the entire Constitution as a project to thwart popular majorities. But such moments will arise; such majorities will be likeliest to be unjust or unsettled if they impose their will in a hectic rush; and, conversely, they will be liable to reflect liberal values if they persist long enough to survive the series of constitutional processes necessary to prevail.

Consequently, one function of the Constitution was to serve as a metronome setting the proper tempo for republican politics. The natural and sometimes appropriate pace was allegro; often, though, Madison utilized constitutional mechanisms to slow the pace of politics to a leisurely andante. Thus the idea of temporal republicanism: majorities should prevail when they have cohered for a duration appropriate to a given set of circumstances. From this perspective, progressive commentators like James Allen Smith, Charles Beard, and James MacGregor Burns misplace their criticism in describing as antidemocratic institutional arrangements that require supermajorities or seemingly redundant consensuses from multiple branches of government. Madison’s perspective is lateral rather than vertical: rather than asking how many people agree with a given view at one discrete point in time, the decisive question is how long a majority has cohered. The relevant measure is a time-lapse photograph, not a snapshot.

This dynamic rather than static perspective helps to illustrate why many otherwise persuasive analyses that portray Madison as concerned with what kind of majorities prevailed risk confusing the issue. Such a framework more accurately captures his perspective than does the claim that he was antirepublican, but simply asking which majorities prevail might reasonably be understood to place Madison in the hardly republican position of endorsing majority rule so long as the majorities in question were ones with which he agreed. Madison did not look out at the overlapping majorities—those that Federalist 10 suggests exist in an extended republic and that David Truman[15] depicts as a defining feature of a pluralistic society—and, at one static moment in time, select those that ought to prevail and dismiss those he viewed as unjust. Such a position might be liberal; an adherent of liberalism might describe it as preferable to majority rule, but it would be difficult to call it majoritarian. A dynamic rather than static perspective—one that projects each individual majority across time—more accurately characterizes Madison’s beliefs: any majority was to prevail if it cohered for a sufficient interval.

Crucially, any majority that cohered for a sufficient interval was to prevail even if Madison believed it to be unjust. He could comfortably espouse this view because he remained confident that the most virulently unjust majorities—such as those bent on violating religious liberty—would never cohere, so that to the extent unjust majorities would prevail, they would likely pertain to ordinary questions of policy. Indeed, Madison thought it highly unlikely that unjust majorities would persist, so much so that their persistence itself might be taken as strong evidence of their justice. But here as in other cases we shall encounter, the decisive question is not whether Madison would have endorsed any given majority, but rather whether he would have endorsed some other principle for making decisions.

This question helps to illustrate why the prevailing liberal–republican paradigm in Madison scholarship substantially muddies the inescapably majoritarian character of his thought.[16] The redemptive strain of literature, for example, has largely concluded that Madison sought to balance his liberal and republican commitments. Lance Banning’s view is typical: “Convinced that neither [popular control nor individual rights] could be secure without the other, temperamentally unable to decide between his ‘liberal’ and his ‘republican’ convictions, Madison set out to rescue both of the ideals enunciated in the Declaration at a time when growing numbers of Americans believed that they might have to choose.”[17]

Banning is clearly correct that Madison cherished liberalism and republicanism and that he was aware of the tension between the two.[18] Still, his claim that Madison was reluctant to choose between liberalism and republicanism is accurate history but unsatisfying democratic theory. The entire point of the tension between majority rule and individual rights is that sooner or later, situations will arise—and, in Madison’s life, more than once did—in which majorities behave unreasonably despite all institutional or cultural precautions. In these situations, one must choose, and to see the issue from Madison’s perspective, it is vital to focus on the actual alternatives among which the choice must be made. These are not, on his view, majority rule or liberalism. The alternatives are majority rule or some other decision-making mechanism.

This choice is obscured if we pit liberalism against republicanism as if both were two points on the same axis. To understand Madison’s democratic theory, we must recognize that liberalism and republicanism are, instead, different vectors altogether. Majority rule is a mechanism for making decisions, while liberalism is a criterion for evaluating them. Joseph Schumpeter makes the distinction: “Democracy is a political method, that is to say, a certain type of institutional arrangement for arriving at political—hence legislative and administrative—decisions and hence incapable of being an end in itself, irrespective of what decisions it will produce under any given historical conditions. And this must be the starting point of any attempt at defining it.”[19]

Isolating majority rule as a decision-making mechanism clarifies the essential question: did Madison ever endorse any other means of making decisions? The emphatic answer is that he did not—not even the present-day conception of judicial review, which Beard wrongly imputes to him,[20] and not even in those cases in which he criticized the particular decisions majorities made. To be sure, Madison endorsed the right of revolution in the very worst circumstances, but this extremity constituted a departure from political society, not a legitimate act within it. The fact that majority rule and liberalism operate on different vectors enables Madison to say without contradiction that the former is the only just means of making decisions, while the latter indicates the value to which he hopes those decisions conform. His “Memorial and Remonstrance,” directed, significantly, against a violation of the right he held to be most sacred— that of conscience—states: “True it is, that no other rule exists, by which any question which may divide a Society, can be ultimately determined, but the will of the majority; but it is also true, that the majority may trespass on the rights of the minority.”[21] This statement deals with two separate issues. The first was how decisions were made; the second, the character of those decisions. There is no instance in which Madison claimed that unjust majority decisions altered his views on how decisions should be made. Because there was no alternative to majority rule—indeed, it is safe to assume Madison would have feared that any other decision-making mechanism, such as variations on monarchy or aristocracy, would have yielded even less liberal ones—the challenge was to make it likelier that majorities would behave justly.

This was hardly an unusual view; on the contrary, Madison’s contemporaries would have been surprised to hear that criticism of the outcomes of majority rule was in any sense incompatible with the belief that majority rule was nevertheless the only just mechanism for decision making. Consider a famous statement of Jefferson, who surely was a more ardent adherent of individual rights than almost any other founder, Madison included: “Although the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable.”[22] By this, Jefferson meant no more than the hardly surprising fact that majorities sometimes made unjust decisions. That did not mean there was any more just method of decision making.

Rather than Banning’s formulation—that Madison was unwilling to choose between his liberal and republican commitments—it is therefore more precise to say he sought to reduce the number of occasions in which such a choice would be necessary. This was the power of time. Madison never articulated this doctrine of temporal republicanism systematically, nor does it explain the totality of his thought. This study does contend, however, that temporal republicanism is one important feature of Madison’s thought and that it is latent in views to which he adhered more or less consistently over the course of his career.

The implications of this interpretation of Madison are myriad, this chief among them: to the extent Madison’s democratic theory depends on time, the virtue on which it hinges is patience. If so, fundamental features of Madison’s democratic thought stand in tension with a twenty-first-century ethos of instant gratification and communication—what William E. Scheuerman has called “the social experience of speed.”[23]

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.  Introduction of Madison’s Metronome reprinted with the gracious permission of the author and University Press of Kansas.

Notes:

1. Madison, Papers of James Madison, ed. Hutchinson and Rachal, 1:16 (hereafter PJM). The precise date of the notes cannot be conclusively ascertained. The first heading in the book reads “December 24, 1759),” when Madison was eight years old, but no subsequent entry is dated. The initial entries are a lengthy series of aphorisms and other observations from the memoirs of Cardinal DeRetz. The entries on Montaigne immediately follow these. The editors note that the Latin translations included in these early entries, as well as the fact that Madison also recorded some of Montaigne’s reflections on romance, suggest that they date to the time of his study with the Scottish tutor Donald Robertson. See PJM, 1:4-6. Madison’s autobiographical reflections late in life indicate that this study commenced around the age of 12. For the quotation from Montaigne, see his essay “On Diversion,” in Complete Essays.

2. The progressive historian Charles Beard pioneered the aristocratic view of Madison, while Lance Banning typifies the redemptive strain. See Beart, Economic Interpretation, and Banning, Sacred Fire.

3. Willmoore Kendall observes of Madison and Hamilton: “We err greatly when we confuse their animus against the popular majority bent on injustice with an animus against the popular majority, the majority of the people, as such.” “Two Majorities,” 334. The contemporary assumption that justice cannot be objectively defined obscures this distinction; see Carey, “Majority Rule.”

4. Madison to John G. Jackson, December 27, 1821, in Writings of James Madison, ed. Hunt (hereafter WJM), 9:70-77. I use Hunt’s edition for those of Madison’s writings that are not yet published in the University of Virginia’s Papers series.

5. Virginia Report of 1800, PJM, 17:310.

6. Madison to Edmund Randolph, June 11, 1782, PJM, 4:333-334.

7. Madison to the Marquis de Lafayette, November 25, 1820, WJM, 9:35-38.

8. Madison’s unaddressed 1833 letter on “Majority Governments,” WJM, 9:520.

9. Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 501-506.

10. Federalist 63:327.

11. Madison in Convention, June 5, 1787, PJM, 10:26. All references to the convention are to Madison’s notes unless specified otherwise. For simplicity, rather than referring to a separate volume of Madison’s notes, I cite them as they appear in his published papers.

12. Madison to Judge Spencer Roane, May 6, 1821, WJM, 9:59.

13. See Federalist 10:43 and 42:219, among others.

14. Federalist 63:326.

15. Truman, Governmental Process.

16. Alan Gibson makes a compelling case for discarding, or at least transcending, this dichotomy. See Gibson, Understanding the Founding, 156. Many analyses of republicanism during the Founding era refer to it as a broader doctrine including public-spiritedness and civic virtue in addition to majority rule. Rather than entering the long-standing debate over civic republicanism and the Founding, the present study is concerned with the dimension of majority rule alone.

17. Banning, Sacred Fire, 10.

18. It is less clear precisely how many Americans actually believed a choice would be necessary. The number may well have been growing, but to judge from the debates in Philadelphia, it was not large enough to register with the overwhelming number of delegates to the convention. The closest any delegate came to suggesting that majority rule might have to be sacrificed to individual rights was Alexander Hamilton’s speech of June 18, 1787, which is notable chiefly for having been totally ignored by his colleagues. I am aware of no substantive debate in which the delegates actually contemplated a material choice between majority rule and individual rights. In fairness, Hamilton believed his own proposal to be republican, and it complies with the criteria Madison elucidated for republicanism in Federalist 39.

19. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, 242 (emphasis in the original).

20. Beard, Supreme Court.

21. “Memorial and Remonstrance,” PJM, 8:298-304.

22. Jefferson, First Inaugural, March 4, 1801, in Jefferson, Papers, 33:134; emphasis added.

23. Scheuerman, Liberal Democracy, xiii.

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2 replies to this post
  1. Love the thought of a twelve year old reading The Essays of Montaigne. It shows what latent potential lies within us and our children today but for some reasons remains untapped and unrecognized if not positively discouraged. Is it low expectations? I believe it is low expectations as a result of evolved expectations but that does not explain the change which is the crux of the matter. I believe the change is explainable but inexcusable.

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