Another Word on the Federalist Papers: What about Virtue?

After a highly critical essay on the Federalist Papers, I do want to say something more about them, but in a more positive light, focusing on Federalist Papers No. 18 & 19. Written by Madison with the assistance from Hamilton, these two essays offer an historical perspective and critique on European politics in the decades leading up to what would become the Revolutionary War in the United States. They go through the history of Germany, France, and Great Britain, explaining why (in Madison’s view) the feudalistic system (Germany), the modified monarchial system (France) and the developing Republican system (England) failed to work. Madison claims they didn’t work because of the series of wars (both internal and external) that plagued Europe through this whole period.

This is an overly simplified explanation, but in a sentence, European government failed, in Madison’s view, because the central government was not strong enough (this was especially evident in Germany) and/or the representatives (whether dukes, landowners, or appointed officials) didn’t have enough influence to make the system work. What Madison fails to deal with was the growing moral failure of the ruling class in Europe and the possible causes of that moral failure.

It is clear, given the character of Madison’s critique, that the American federal Republic was crafted specifically with the European failures in mind. (Of course, the influence of Montesquieu, especially in the three branches of government, is also quite evident, but the European intellectuals, whether Montesquieu, Locke, or others, aren’t given credit for their influence.)

In the previous essay I said that it was obvious that the authors of the Federalist Papers didn’t take European history seriously. Am I contradicting myself in this essay? Not at all. Madison and Hamilton were clearly very careful students of history (Greek, Roman, Italian, and European history). But because they believed that it was possible to build a secular republic, they failed to understand (and thus, take seriously) the root cause of democratic breakdown throughout history.

And this brings me back to Madison’s failure to deal with the moral failure of Europe’s ruling class. The Reformation was a small part of what might be called a fracturing of religious sensibilities in Europe. There were a variety of reform movements and religious revivals which undermined the traditional religious authority. At the same time, as a result of the Renaissance, Europe (or at least the ruling class) was becoming more wealthy. So it is the ruling class became increasingly self-satisfied (and thus corrupt) and, at the same time, were able to distance themselves from religious oversight. Systems of governance that used to work began to break down because of this lack of virtuous leadership.

Human liberty is not guaranteed by an adequate system of governance, it is rather rooted in an understanding of the human predicament (sin) and a commitment to dealing with that predicament by the only means possible. In other words, human liberty is only possible when a nation has the spiritual liberty that comes from a commitment to God. The problem in Europe was not the form of government nor the specific bureaucratic structures; the European problem was a spiritual breakdown.

What Madison and Hamilton should have realized (but failed to) is that every form of government, no matter how perfect, when left in human hands, will be twisted to give more power and wealth to the powerful while taking liberty away from the common man. Once ultimate authority was taken away from God (for that’s where the ultimate authority was placed in twelve of the thirteen state constitutions) and given solely to “we the people,” it was inevitable that the structures of the Republic would be used to pervert liberty into servitude. Why? Because that is the fundamental nature of sin, and in a secular republic there is little to nothing to stand in the way of sin.

As our system of governance continues to break down, it’s important, as Christians, to understand what the Federalists did well and (far more importantly) what they failed to do well. Returning to constitutional principles will fix nothing that is currently wrong. As I observed in the previous essay, the Federalists preferred a very strong central government. Strong central government with an internal separation of powers, answered many of the problems that they saw in Europe at the time.

But that has nothing to do with the need for virtuous leaders, and there’s nothing in the constitution to encourage virtuous leaders. In fact, the Federalists unwittingly discouraged virtue and assumed a government built on a balancing of various forces of vice because they rejected the idea of true religion altogether and called for a secular government.

Once that decision was made, our history was largely written. The government would become increasingly corrupt and increasingly messianic in its relationship to its people. It was not a matter of what would happen, only when it would happen. As it turned out, it didn’t take long at all. In a matter of 22 decades we have witnessed the loss of liberty and have willingly turned in our preference for freedom because of our new posture of fear.

Returning to the constitution changes none of that. The only thing that can is a change it is a radical spiritual change in the hearts of the people, and more importantly, in the hearts of America’s ruling class.

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2 thoughts on “Another Word on the Federalist Papers: What about Virtue?

  1. So completely wrong, I’m very religious, and so were they, but they saw what happens to an overly oppressive religious body with the Puritans, and didn’t believe that the nature of man was to seek for the good of the whole, but to look after selfish desires first, principally being wealth and power. They put the checks in place to assure the government would check itself (Federalist 51) and they were careful to consider what powers were granted to each house to prevent wicked men from controlling government (Madison’s notes, Benjamin Franklin pg. 102). They very much prided virtue and morality. They did not make conscious efforts to quell virtue from the governing body, and if you’ve read the Federalist papers, accompanied by the other constitutional texts, you’d see that.

    • You are correct that Madison, Hamilton, and to a lesser extent, Jefferson, Washington, and Jay took the importance of virtue seriously. You are also correct that they did not make a conscious effort to “quell virtue” (your term) from the governing body. Rather they assumed that people would continue to believe that virtue was important as they thought it important. But because the founding principles are secular there is no foundation for authentic virtue. Rather than a higher power (the Christian Trinity, the Greeks pantheon of gods, etc.) they placed ultimate authority in the people. This turned out to be a vicious circle rather than a virtuous circle. There was no foundation for virtue. There were attempts, such as the Second Great Awakening, Temperance, and the Civil Rights movements to infuse virtue into the system, but being secular, there is nothing to which virtue can stick. But again, their failure was not a conscious choice against virtue, it was rather a benign neglect which has ultimately turned fatal.

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