The Federalist Papers

The Federalist Papers Summary and Analysis of Essay 50

Summary

Madison rejects the proposal to allow for periodical, or regular, appeals to the people as a means of “preventing and correcting infractions of the constitution.” At the time, some had proposed adding to the constitution certain provisions allowing for the government to be subjected to some sort of public examination on a regular basis to ensure that it is not violating the constitution. However, Madison doubts that this will be successful. He suggests that if the intervals between the examinations are too short, it will be difficult for the people to be impartial since “the measures to be reviewed and rectified…will be connected with all the circumstances which tend to vitiate and pervert the result of occasional revisions.” If the intervals are too long, however, the distant possibility of public censure will not be an adequate check on the behavior of government officials.

Madison supports his position with the example of a council of censors that met in Pennsylvania in 1783 and 1784 for the purpose of revising the state constitution “in order to correct recent breaches of it.” This failed in part because the members of the council were not impartial, were motivated by passion rather than reason, and were themselves been members of government within the period to be reviewed.

Analysis

Madison appears to be very careful in rejecting these calls for periodic public examinations of government conduct. He must be careful because such a proposal is deeply republican in character. The anti-federalists had been accusing the federalists of trying to undermine republican principles with the creation of an overly powerful national government. Therefore, if Madison appears to be staking out an anti-republican position, he risks losing public support.

Madison recognizes in this and previous papers the value of holding government accountable to the people. However, he asserts that the kind of public censuring proposed here will be ultimately ineffective. Although an advocate of the separation of powers and checks and balances, this is one check on government power that Madison does not support.