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26 July 2009

Madison on Human Nature

Celebrations of John Calvin's birthday have brought out a flurry of pronouncements of an old idea. Many Americans in the nineteenth century accepted the idea that God extended special grace to the men who drafted the Constitution of the United States in the hot Philadelphia summer of 1787. After the emergence of history as a profession, also known as evidence-based scholarship, that idea declined in influence. Or, perhaps, it was the influence of Charles A. Beard's An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913) that rendered the old view out of fashion. Beard's views, too, have waned in their influence as new theories from intellectual history became dominant. Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967) probably remains on more graduate student reading lists than most other secondary histories of the founders.

These days, theocentric histories cite secular authorities--the writings of James Madison, for example,--as I sought to illustrate in "Calvin and the Constitution". The theocentrists argue that belief in human nature as fallen led to limited government and separation of powers.
Because of man’s sinful nature, we cannot live in a state of anarchy; we need government to maintain law and order. But because those in authority have the same sinful nature as the rest of us, we cannot trust government with too much power. This led to the system of limited government, separation of powers, checks and balances, and reserved individual rights that characterize republican self-government.
John Eidsmoe, "Celebrating Calvin's Legacy"
This argument rests upon a reading of a brief passage from Federalist 51:
It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.
Federalist 51
But, Madison's views were more complex, or they changed over time. Federalist 55, also attributed to Madison although either or both may have been written by Alexander Hamilton, offers a more benign view of human nature, one that Jonathan Rowe claims is "barely consistent with Calvinism":
As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form. Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousy of some among us faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be, that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; and that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.
Federalist 55
Self-government requires the capacity for virtue. Madison saw depravity in human nature, but he saw virtue as well. His view of human nature may have owed more to John Locke than to John Calvin. In any case, as Saul K. Padover asserted more than a half-century ago, Madison often appeared to steer a middle course between the extremes.
Moderation and balance permeated Madison's whole thought. At the Constitutional Convention he took a middle position between what today would be called the Right and the Left, between men like Hamilton who distrusted the people and those like Wilson who had confidence in them. In Madison's view, people, whether Americans or others, were neither inherently good nor naturally bad; they were, he argued, what society made them. If shown confidence, they would be likely to reciprocate it; if degraded by their rulers, they would become depraved.
Padover, The Complete Madison: His Basic Writings (1953), 11

1 comment:

Lisa said...

Thank you! This is great!

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