The Atlantic

How to Revive Madison’s Constitution

The American experiment requires virtuous leaders who place the public good over their own personal or partisan interests.
Source: E. R. Curtiss / Wisconsin Historical Society / Getty

“The aim of every political constitution is, or ought to be, first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society,” James Madison wrote in “Federalist No. 57,” “and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust.”

Recognizing that men are not angels, Madison identified “numerous and various” structural mechanisms in the Constitution for preventing the “degeneracy” of representatives after their election, to discourage them from pandering to partisan factions rather than serving the common good. “The most effectual one is such a limitation in the terms of appointments as will maintain a proper responsibility to the people,” he wrote.

In fact, the entire Constitution was established to prevent the selection of demagogues who would flatter factions, or partisan mobs, and rule by passion rather than reason. It contains a series of obstacles to prevent hasty decisions based on mob rule and to promote deliberation on the public good. These included: the selection processes originally designed for senators (chosen by state legislators) and the president (chosen by a deliberative Electoral College); the division of power between the federal and state governments and among the three branches of the federal government, each of which would vigorously defend its own prerogatives; and the hope that factions would check one another in Congress to prevent any one from dominating.

As Madison emphasized at

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