Reading Project

Federalist Paper No.39

The Conformity Of The Plan To Republican Principles

Wednesday, January 16, 1788

James Madison


Madison addresses the question of whether the Constitutional Convention’s proposed Constitution is sufficiently republican in its character. He begins by arguing that there are several modern countries which purport to be republican but their constitutions bear stark differences to republican ideals. In particular he mentions Holland, Venice, Poland and England. He then defines a true republican model as being one which bestows power to elected representatives for fixed periods by a vote of the people, or in the case of the judiciary, tenured offices on the provision of good behaviour.


In the case of the proposed Constitution, the House of Representatives is elected directly by the people for a term of two years under this original Constitution. In the case of the Senate, it is indirectly elected by the people for a period of six years, and the president is indirectly elected through State representation for a term of four years.


The rest of Madison’s paper undertakes to make distinctions between federal forms and national forms of government. Opponents suggest that the new Constitution should have preserved the federal form, which regards the Union as a confederacy of sovereign states, while a national government … regards the union as a consolidation of the States.


First, Madison points out that the ratification of the Constitution will take on a federal flavour, given that each State is considered as a sovereign body. And if a majority of states ratify the constitution, that would be taken as representative of a will of a majority of people whom the States represent.


The form of government, itself, will be an amalgam of federal and national characteristics. While the people will directly elect the House of Representatives (national) the president and Senate will derive their powers from representative State votes (federal). But the reality is, the national government’s powers will be clearly defined and limited, beyond which State governments will retain independence. And while an arbitration committee that oversaw disputes concerning areas of overlapping power would necessarily fall under the direction of the national government, it would be directed to be impartial and bound by the rules of the Constitution. Madison argues that it is in everyone’s interest that it should be so, since such a tribunal is clearly essential to prevent an appeal to the sword and a dissolution of the compact.


Madison ends by suggesting that not only has the Constitution been framed as a compromise between national and state concerns, so too has the vote on the matter of adopting the Constitution. It protects State interests because the vote is to be ratified through State bodies. But it protects national interests by assuming that the States are representative of the will of the people, and that a decision by the majority of States will bind the minority

17 January 2019

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