The System Worked

As irritating as the last three years of political turmoil have been (especially the bizarre and idiotic impeachment fiasco), Americans can rejoice that the Madisonian constitutional system of “checks and balances” has proven its wisdom once again.

This system of divided and overlapping powers in branches and levels of government (unitary executive, bicameral legislature, and a judicial branch; along with national-state federalism) is the wonder and envy of the world: other countries right now cannot believe how the United States managed this crucial political battle without a bloody revolution or merciless dictatorship, but relatively peaceably and rationally.

This American system of “separation of powers” provides that if one branch of government, representing some major interest or “faction” tries to force its will over all the rest of society, there will be push-back, as “ambition checks ambition” and balance is restored.

Such Madisonian pluralism comes from a long history of political philosophy and theology that informed the Founders about the “reality” of human nature, society, and politics. Aristotle’s “mixed regime” of the one, the few, and the many—creating in England the monarchy, House of Lords, and Commons, and in the United States the presidency, Congress, and the courts, which also drew from Roman law and Biblical truth. Our tradition of the rule of law, reason over passion, due process, rules of procedure and evidence, all contributed to this happy situation.

But for Madison and several other Founders, it was a Christian appreciation of human evil, sin (especially when tempted by money and power), and the “reality” of admitting that you couldn’t rely on the “virtue” of anyone, even the best, when temptations of domination and abuse of power threaten. Ironically, this perspective holds that you have to accept a certain amount of constant tension and conflict (within bounds) to avoid total warfare and tyranny. We have to accept the reality of human weakness and evil in order to maintain overall strength and goodness.

For James Madison, often called “Father of the Constitution,” this realization came from his education in Christianity from devout Anglican tutors at the “New Light” Presbyterian College of New Jersey (Princeton). As I show in my book, The Political Philosophy of James Madison, Madison imbibed an Augustinian/Calvinistic appreciation for the human sin and frailty that historically caused social turmoil, political tyranny, unrest, and economic and military disaster. The solution was to recognize the truth of flawed human nature and harness it for good.

Madison noted in Federalist 10 that “the latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man . . . self-love . . . different leaders ambitiously contending for preeminence and power . . . more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.”

Such “depravity in mankind,” he observed in Federalist 55, commends a “distrust” of everything he does, especially in politics, where his “imperfections and weaknesses” cause “quarrels, jealousies and envy” prompted solely by “love of preeminence” and “wounded pride.”

Accepting this reality requires us to structure a system that pits “ambition against ambition” acknowledging and allowing many conflicts to avoid total oppression and tyranny of one person or group.  “The only remedy” Madison wrote to the Constitutional Convention “is to enlarge the sphere . . . divide the community into so great a number and parties, that in the first place a majority will not be likely at the same moment to have a common interest separate from that of the whole . . . and in the second place, . . . they may not be apt to unite in pursuit of it.” So “divide the [public] trust between different bodies of men, who might watch and check each other.”

What we have seen over the past week is that our constitutional system worked. Even all the powers of a concentrated, entrenched establishment; corrupted political institutions (even federal law-enforcement); almost monopolized media and education systems; enormous economic and criminal influences, did not defeat the Madisonian constitutional system.

And another benefit of these trying times, which a faith believing that Good can be brought out of Evil helps to mitigate, is that the American people (and the world) got a practical civics lesson in these principles. The eloquent and learned Republican lawyers during the impeachment trial reminded us of our precious heritage in reason, the rule of law, due process, and justice.

The system worked.

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About Garrett Ward Sheldon

Garrett Ward Sheldon is professor emeritus at the University of Virginia and an ordained Christian minister. He taught political theory, American political thought, law, and religion. He has published 10 books, including The History of Political Theory: Ancient Greece to Modern America, Religion and Politics: Major Thinkers on the Relation of Church and State, and The Political Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson. He was in residence at and commissioned by, Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University, and a visiting scholar at the University of Vienna, Trinity College (Dublin), Moscow University, the University of Istanbul, and Princeton.

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