Introduction to Congress 3

The following is an extract from Lesson 1 of An Introduction to the U.S. Congress. You can get the whole thing here.

The delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 remained quite wary of creating a new national government with too much concentrated power. At the same time, the framers knew that “we the people” could be problematic too.

Then, as now, people quarreled over what problems needed government attention and how those problems should be solved. As James Madison said in Federalist 10, “A zeal for different opinions … have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to cooperate for their common good.”  

‘The framers expected that people would naturally divide themselves into various factions, especially when advocating for their rights and privileges under the law. They saw several factional issues:

  • Some members of the land-owning class worried that the more numerous poor citizens might use the government to expropriate their property.
  • Some did not trust that the leaders of a new federal government would understand the needs of all the citizens in a territory as large as the 13 former colonies. Some were inclined to give more trust to their state governments.
  • Some members of the less populous colonies did not trust the larger population colonies not to dominate them.
  • Some members of colonies whose economies were built on enslaved labor worried that slavery would be outlawed.
  • Some of the framers were concerned about respect for religious differences. Many of the original colonies were set up as refuges from European persecution. Maryland, for example, was established as a refuge for English Catholics but was tolerant of its many Protestant settlers.
  • Some of the factional tensions had a regional flavor:[i] most of the northern colonies were established for religious reasons, while most of the southern colonies were set up as business ventures. The southern states were mainly rural and relied heavily on enslaved Black people to labor on their farms, while the northern states were a bit more urbanized with more diversified economies.

Each of those factions were necessarily wary of their rivals. As Madison observed, any faction gaining control of the national government through majority rule could tyrannize its opposition.

Madison and the other framers were not against majority rule, but they did seek a way to prevent majorities from becoming tyrannical.

As Madison said in Federalist 10, “When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government, on the other hand, enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens. To secure the public good and private rights against the danger of such a faction, and at the same time to preserve the spirit and the form of popular government, is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed.” Overall, the framers faced a fundamental challenge.[ii] How could they set up a new form of national government strong enough to defend the nation and enforce its laws while also avoiding the tyranny made possible by centralized power and majority factions?

[i] This section draws on summaries of the colonies found in

[ii] Coming up with a solution was not easy. For some insight into the frustration of those involved, read Federalist 37 and 38.

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