We the People.
We the People.

On Friday, I argued (against the Washington Examiner's Philip Klein) that the best current usage is to treat “democracy” and “republic” as equivalents. Klein responded yesterday, extensively quoting James Madison. The political scientist Matthew Dickinson also argued in favor of Madison’s terminology. So I’ll try again.

Yes, it's certainly correct that Madison treated “democracy” and “republic” as different concepts. No one is disputing that, so Klein doesn’t get anywhere by simply quoting Federalist 10. Even if Dickinson is correct -- and the difference between democracy and republic (as Madison defined them) “represents a fundamental difference in kind” -- I’d still say it's more clarifying to translate the terms into modern usage. Nevertheless, I think Dickinson is wrong, and in a way that reveals what’s wrong with Klein’s view that the Senate was intended to represent the states, rather than the people in those states.

Madison argued against what he called “democracy,” but he didn’t mean what today we normally mean by “democracy.” Instead, he was talking about (what we think of as) a particular type of democracy: majoritarian, direct. And in favor of a different type: anti-majoritarian, representative.

What really matters is that Madison essentially endorsed the basic democratic (in our sense) notion that the people should rule. Not just Madison: It may be trite to point it out, but in a large sense the most important words of the Constitution are the first ones of the preamble -- “We the People.” Yes, Madison fell short of our 21st century version of who should count as “people.” But what was far more important was that he (and, almost universally, all the revolutionaries) thoroughly rejected the creation of any other estate to balance the power of the people.

Which brings us to Klein’s interpretation of the original method of choosing senators, and broadly to those who want states to be a fundamental unit of the constitutional order.

Because Madison and the other framers did not think of it that way, they were faced with an enormous problem. They were Montesquieu fans, and shared the 18th century fad for division of powers within the government. But the U.S. government presented a real challenge: what, exactly, was being balanced? In France and England, different branches of government, or different chambers of the legislature, represented different estates: the people, but also the aristocracy, or the crown, or the church.

In the U.S., however, there would be only the people. In the brand new polity, all that was needed, perhaps, was the people’s branch; even with a more prominent role for the states, the fact that authority ultimately rested in the people made any other body seem superfluous. And yet the Articles of Confederation, with only that branch, weren't working properly. What to do?

Madison’s brilliant insight was that each branch of government (yes, even the judiciary) could be a people’s branch and that they could check one another, even though ultimately they all derived authority from the same source. Thus staggered terms, various forms of election and appointment, and, yes, federalism. But underneath it all, still only the people. So when political realities required a Senate in which each state had equal representation, Madison’s scheme was able to adapt to it, incorporating a two-step indirect election system that still was nothing but an indirect form of democracy.

Klein and others who argue that the states were in this solution represented as states in the Senate are making the mistake of retroactively and artificially creating a new and different estate -- “the states” -- which is foreign to both Madison’s thinking and to the Constitution itself. It is certainly true that the small states wanted their interests (over)represented in the new government and had the political clout to force everyone else to accept it. But we should read “their interests” as the interests which happened to be found in the various states, not the interests of the states as individual actors worthy of representation.

At any rate: To the extent that states were later thought by some to be a separate estate with rights and interests of their own, that argument was settled solidly at Appomattox, and in the amendments to the Constitution that accompanied it. The method by which senators were elected was (as far as I know) not then or subsequently (until very recently) thought to be crucial to the question, and rightly so. Directly or indirectly, senators have always been representatives of the people of the several states, not of the states themselves.

Which gets us back to the question of democracy and republic. If Madison and the other framers had wanted to introduce stability into the new government by making the states into some sort of new estate, then a comparison to Rome might have been sensible, and it would have been appropriate to call the result, as Dickinson does, a "difference in kind" from a real democracy. In Rome, as in many other polities, the idea of different institutions for different fundamental sources of authority made sense. However, for Madison and the framers, there were only people; the debates revolved around how to construct a government given that fundamental fact, as well as practical political fighting of the “who gets what” variety. As much as the framers fell short, that alone makes them democrats. Whatever word they preferred to use for it.

  1. Jonathan Chait is quite right to point out that Madison and Alexander Hamilton actually wanted a much stronger federal government than the Constitutional Convention produced, and that we should be careful when reading the Federalist Papers to keep in mind that they functioned as electioneering for that Constitution. Madison, for example, wanted the federal government to be able to veto state laws. Klein has a fair point that the Constitution-as-is "counts" for the intentions of the framers much more than whatever Madison or Hamilton or any one person originally intended. But then Klein must accept that, "We the People," and not the states, are the authors.

  2. State governments, as opposed to states themselves as entities, certainly do have interests. The people living in the states have interests. The states themselves, however, do not.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net