James Madison's Large Republic

James Madison's Large Republic
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Madison’s theory of the large republic—that better government decision-making would occur over a larger geographic area, both because a greater multiplicity of interests would exist and because representatives would have greater opportunities to “refine and enlarge” their constituents’ views through a system of indirect elections, large constituencies, and lengthy terms in office—was in fact mainly inspired by his wish to design a system that would suppress paper money emissions and debtor relief laws. Madison essentially admitted as much during one very candid moment at the convention, when he noted that the fundamental challenge facing a republican form of government was figuring out how to prevent power “slid[ing] into the hands” of those who “sigh for a more equal distribution of [property].”

To an astonishing degree, the drafting and ratification of the Constitution were shaped by conflicts of interest that derived from fairly transient episodes and disputes. While such conflicts would quickly recede in significance, the Constitution they shaped has lasted for centuries.

The controversy over Jay’s willingness to bargain away the American claim to free navigation of the Mississippi River profoundly influenced southerners’ thinking on issues as diverse as the value of the union, how to apportion representation in Congress, and the limits that should be placed on the national government’s powers over commerce and treaty making. Yet the issue itself was largely a moot point by the time the ratification process had concluded. Opposition to British creditors’ collecting on their prewar debts—another fairly transient issue—rendered the federal court system, in the words of Edmund Randolph, “the most vulnerable and odious part of the Constitution” to Virginians. New York’s ability to extract tax revenue from neighboring states through import duties—not a transient issue but an intensely particularistic one—had an enormous effect both on the ways in which delegates to the Philadelphia convention from New Jersey and Connecticut thought about expanding congressional power over taxes and trade and on the posture of those states toward ratification of the Constitution.

The rebellion of taxpayers and debtors led by Daniel Shays and others in Massachusetts in 1786– 87 profoundly influenced the Philadelphia convention and the Constitution. The insurrection generated vital support in Massachusetts for sending a delegation to the convention, and it may have determined Washington’s decision to participate. Still more important, Shays’s Rebellion influenced the views of many convention delegates on how powerful and responsive to populist influence the new federal government should be. In his conversations with New England congressional delegates on the eve of the convention, William Grayson of Virginia had been shocked to discover the extent of their support “for a very strong government” and their “wish to prostrate all the state legislature[s] and form a general system out of the whole.” Mason, too, was astonished when he arrived in Philadelphia at the “extraordinary” extent to which the New Englanders had become antirepublican. At the convention itself, delegates constantly alluded to Shays’s Rebellion. Gerry was referring to it when he declared that the people of New England had “the wildest ideas of government in the world,” and so was Hamilton when he noted “the amazing violence and turbulence of the democratic spirit.”

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