Friday, October 9, 2020


Madison had begun his statements on this question in Federalist LV and LVI, published in mid-February 1788: “As there is a degree of depravity in mankind,” he then wrote, “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.” Four months later he elaborated the point in what was for him a remarkable outburst. It was touched off by Mason’s insistence, in the Virginia ratifying convention, that legislators will do everything mischievous they can think of and fail to do anything good. Why is it not as reasonable, Madison replied, to assume that they will as readily do good as evil?—not that one should “place unlimited confidence in them, and expect nothing but the most exalted integrity and sublime virtue.” And then followed this statement of his basic philosophy:

I go on this great republican principle, that the people will have virtue and intelligence to select men of virtue and wisdom. Is there no virtue among us? If there be not we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks, no form of government, can render us secure. To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical idea.

Other federalists, equally convinced of the power of self-interest, greed, and corruption, said the same. Washington wrote Lafayette that the guarantee that the American government would never degenerate into despotism lay in the ultimate virtue of the American people. John Dickinson asked, “will a virtuous and sensible people choose villains or fools for their officers? Or, if they should choose men of wisdom and integrity, will these lose both or either, by taking their seats? If they should, will not their places be quickly supplied by another choice? Is the like derangement again, and again, and again, to be expected? Can any man believe that such astonishing phenomena are to be looked for?” Similarly, the federalist Reverend Samuel West in the Massachusetts convention demanded to know whether it was likely that people would “choose men to ruin us…May we not rationally conclude that the persons we shall choose to administer [the Constitution] will be, in general, good men?”

Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (369-370). Harvard University Press. [1967, 2017] Kindle Edition.

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