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‘A Government of Laws, and Not of Men’: The Electoral College

by Nancy Salvato on Friday, April 29th, 2011

This is article 11 of 183 in the topic US Constitution

James Madison (1751 – 1836), Fourth President of the United States, and an author of the Federalist Papers.

In Federalist 51, James Madison writes,
“In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”

Madison’s concern is that, even though the people are sovereign, hold the ultimate authority over the government, there need be additional mechanisms to assist in preventing the possibility of power becoming consolidated within a particular faction of those charged with governing on our behalf. Should power become consolidated under one entity, and the faction abuse its authority, the people would be ruled through tyranny, denying them their ultimate sovereignty unless they take drastic measures to remove the authority from power.

Perhaps what Madison is saying here is better understood through an analogy of what can happen when those charged with looking after our best interests give greater concern to selfish motives. Until a child grows into an adult, he or she cannot make all the decisions associated with being grown up. In such a case, all power is vested in one or two parents who are expected to make decisions in the best interest of the child. Sometimes one or both parents make really bad decisions that can cause irreparable damage to a child. This might require a drastic measure, such as a child protective services agency stepping in to remove the child from the situation. James Madison feared that those in a position of power may not always put our rights first. This problem would become much worse, and more drastic measures would need to be taken, when all authority is vested in one entity that is in charge of all decision making, as in the situation of a child with abusive parents.

The Framers built a number of checks and balances into the government to prevent authority from being held by one entity where it could quickly develop into tyranny; kind of like the fail safe systems we put in place to protect ourselves and others from possible dangers. Did you ever wonder why lawnmowers have a hand-closed lever that must be held down at all times? When it’s released, the blade stops or the motor shuts off automatically. There are many examples of fail safes, they shut down reactors in nuclear plants, automatically brake some of the more expensive cars when they’re too close to another object, prevent missile launches from deploying, prevent children from being able to open cabinets with hazardous materials, prevent surges of electricity from harming electronic equipment. All sorts of mechanisms can be employed to help prevent something from going terribly wrong, in a rapid progression.

In Federalist 51, Madison continues,
“In republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates.

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