The Federalist Papers

The Federalist Papers Summary and Analysis of Essay 53

Summary

Madison continues his defense of biennial elections for members of the House. He rejects the notion that liberty is confined to a “single point of time” and that elections must take place annually in order to minimize the risk of tyranny. He points to the fact that elections occur with varying frequency in the different states without any discernible difference in the degree of liberty enjoyed by each state.

Madison suggests further that since the Congress cannot change the fundamental form of government (i.e. amend the Constitution) on its own, there is less risk in having elections on a biennial instead of annual basis. Madison furthermore suggests that it takes time for congressmen to understand the complex issues facing them at the federal. One year would be insufficient for acquiring sufficient knowledge to make informed decisions.

Finally, Madison points to certain practical issues, such as the inconvenience of traveling long distances to Congress to serve only a one year term. He also warns that one year would not afford enough time to remove from office congressmen who took office through fraudulent or illegitimate means in order to accomplish some corrupt agenda.

Analysis

Madison seeks to reassure his readers that their liberty will be secure under the proposed Constitution. He appeals to his audience’s pragmatism and asks them to think critically about the widely held assumption that the safest form of republican government is one in which the representatives are elected annually. He reminds them that the American Congress will be different from previous republican legislatures in that it will be limited in its powers by a supreme law, the Constitution. Unlike the British parliament, Congress cannot change the fundamental law of the land by a mere legislative act. Thus, there is little cause to fear that, in the span of two years, elected representatives of the people will succeed in imposing tyranny.

This paper illustrates an interesting tension between the ideals of republican liberty and the practical necessities of modern government. In the republican ideal, citizens would essential govern themselves in small polities with all men playing an active role in political life. Insisting on annual elections was one way of ensuring that power would always remain in the hands of voters and not become to concentrated in distant politicians. Madison does not challenge these republican virtues, but argues instead that, in order for government to actually be effective, some practical compromises are necessary.