Summary and Analysis of James Madison's Federalist No. 51

Federalist No. 51 advocates the balance of power in the US government by the principle of 'checks and balances'. For better understanding, this Historyplex post gives you the summary of Federalist No. 51, as well as the analysis of its main points.
Historyplex Staff
Last Updated: Mar 26, 2018
Did You Know?
The identity of the authors of the Federalist Papers was kept a secret. James Madison published his essays using the name 'Publius'.
Federalist No. 51 was an essay published by American politician and statesman, James Madison, on February 6, 1788. It was the fifty-first paper in a series of 85 articles that are collectively known as the Federalist Papers. These articles were aimed at modifying public opinion in favor of ratifying the new US Constitution.
James Madison
James Madison
These papers had several authors besides Madison, like Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, who were all federalists, giving the essays their name. Despite the contributions of these authors, James Madison alone was given the most credit for publishing these papers. His fame increased after he became President, and was later given the title of 'Father of the American Constitution.' On the other hand, a group of people called the anti-federalists campaigned against the new constitution, believing that it would lead to a corrupt government. Finally, the federalists won, and the new constitution was ratified on June 21, 1788.

Federalist No. 51 tries to explain how the new constitution will prevent departments of the government from intruding into each others' domains, besides giving citizens the power to prevent their elected representatives from abusing their powers. It believes in the system of 'checks and balances', in which the government is divided into different departments which have conflicting powers that balance out each other. What is really interesting in this essay is the detailed analysis of various institutions, which is known today as 'the theory of institutional design.' Federalist No. 51 also gives an explanation about how the rights of minorities will be protected by the constitution. Here are the main points of this essay.
Summary of Federalist No. 51
In the essay, James Madison says that there is a need to partition power amongst the various departments of the government as the US Constitution mandates. This has to be done by creating a government that establishes such mutual relations between its departments, which prevents one from interfering in the affairs of the other.

Madison further adds that without going into intricate details, he will try to point out what is the ideal division of power that the constitution envisioned. He says that the independence of the departments is only possible if members of each department have as little control as possible over the appointment and tenure of the members of other departments. This would probably mean that the members of all the three branches of the US Government―the legislative, the executive, and the judiciary―should be elected by the citizens. However, there has to be some deviation to this rule in case of the judiciary, since the judges need to have certain educational and moral standards that the common public may not understand. Besides, the judges hold tenure for life, which makes it difficult for other departments to control them.

The remuneration offered to the members of one department must also not be controlled by any other department. To prevent encroachment of one department on another, certain constitutional powers should be provided. The ambitions of members should be in sync with the independence of their departments, as is required by the constitution. Madison also points out that the need to make departments independent from each other is because of man's nature to usurp others' powers. The principle of creating divisions and subdivisions to keep each other in check is present in all endeavors, both public and private.

Madison further adds that a perfectly equal division of power is against the Republican nature of the US Government, since the legislature has to be the most powerful arm of the government, according to this system. However, any misuse can be checked by dividing the legislature into various branches; the members of which are elected by different channels, thus making them independent. The executive wing of the government has to be strengthened to counteract the effects of the strong legislature, but giving it absolute power to completely annul the decisions of the legislative may be counterproductive. This power may either not be imposed firmly or it may be abused to cripple the legislative.

After giving these observations, Madison points out a few interesting things about the Federal nature of the American Government. This system divides the government into two parts; each is then divided and subdivided further into various departments that keep a check on each others' excesses. This provides a 'double security' to the citizens. Further, society has to be handled in such a way that its major faction does not stifle the rights of the minority. This can be done either by creating a powerful, authoritarian government which cannot be dissuaded by the majority, or by dividing the society itself into so many different classes that any single group cannot impose its own views. The later method is granted to the US Government by its constitution.

Madison says that the security of citizens will depend on the diversity of sects and interests throughout the country. A federal republic is in the interests of the citizens, since a country which consists of many states and confederacies will lead to oppression by the majority in each, and the laws of the republic grant enhanced powers and independence to a certain department or member to counteract against this oppression. He further adds that the main aim of any government is to establish justice, where both the weaker and stronger sects of society are protected and there is no oppression. In a state where members of the majority rule and oppress the minority sects, there is a tendency to tilt the balance in favor of a power independent of either the majority or the minority.

The federal nature of the American Government guarantees that it possesses the will to deliver justice, irrespective of the power of the strong or weak sections of society. A country of many large groups will benefit by self-governance, and despite being too large to follow a federal plan, this plan can be modified to make it both possible and practical for the United States.
Analysis
Problems
☞ A department in the government may try to influence the working of another by controlling appointments, tenure, or emoluments of its members.

☞ The majority class in the society may hold sway over the government, using it to oppress the weak or minority classes of society.

☞ Giving increased powers to any one department to prevent other departments from becoming excessively powerful may backfire, as this power may be misused or used less firmly.
Solutions Given by Federalist No. 51
➤ The structure of the government should be designed in such a way that departments have their own powers, and are independent from encroachment by others.

➤ The personal interest of every member should lie in keeping members of other departments out of their way. In Madison's own words, "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition".

➤ Different departments should have contrasting powers and responsibilities to keep each in its place. For example, the US President, as the head of the executive, has the power to prevent the legislature from becoming too powerful. But if the president is found guilty of misdemeanor, i.e., he misuses his powers, he can be impeached. Thus, the legislature and executive can keep each other in check.

➤ The members of departments of the government can be elected by the citizens. Thus, the greatest control on the departments is in the hands of the people themselves, who can remove any representative who abuses his powers.

➤ The members of the judiciary, such as judges of the Supreme Court, are to be appointed by the executive, rather than the public, keeping in mind their moral and educational qualifications. These members keep the legislative and judiciary in their proper place, as they solve disputes regarding distribution of power between the two departments. Members of the judiciary also cannot be impeached by the other two branches. However, the constitution has placed controls on the judiciary, by stating that their judgments are not binding on the members of either, the legislative or the executive. It has also not given control of finances in the judiciary's hands, which is under the control of the legislative.

➤ Checks have been placed on the executive and the legislative to prevent them from ignoring the judiciary's interpretation of the constitutional laws. The main control is again, the people, as by ignoring the constitution, the members of the government risk insulting the people's respect for their constitution.

➤ The legislative is prevented from becoming too powerful, by dividing it into two parts, and then subdividing each part into various subdivisions. The members of each are elected by the public via separate channels, keeping them independent from each other. Their contrasting powers also help keep each other in check.

➤ The influence of the majority faction in society can be curtailed by subdividing it into various factions, each with different aspirations. This way, any single faction is kept away from power.

➤ In a country of many states or confederacies, the members of the majority faction tend to be empowered. To keep this at bay, the powers of a specific member of the government can be increased proportionally, so as to impose a system of checks and balances.
Federalist No. 51 is one of the most popular federalist papers, because it tries to give more power to ordinary citizens, and upholds the principles of liberty and justice, which are applicable even today.