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Quotations about Liberty and Power

About this Quotation:

In this 1792 newspaper article James Madison criticises Rousseau’s notion of a plan for perpetual peace in Europe. Madison is not against peace but is against a purely “philosophical” approach which ignores the realities of who starts wars and how these wars are to be funded. Madison attacks the idea of governments going into debt to fund a current war, thus requiring future generations to pay for it. In his view, if the current generation really knew how much their wars cost them this might disincline them to starting wars and thus help to reduce the incidence of war.

Other quotes about War & Peace:

17 December, 2007

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James Madison on the need for the people to declare war and for each generation, not future generations, to bear the costs of the wars they fight (1792)

Read the full quote in context here.

In 1792 James Madison wrote a newspaper article criticizing Rousseau’s plan for introducing "perpetual peace" in Europe. According to Madison, a better way to reduce the incidence of war, especially in a democracy like the U.S., was to make the people pay the full cost of war immediately instead of using debt to force later generations to foot the bill:

[T]hat war should not only be declared by the authority of the people, whose toils and treasures are to support its burdens, instead of the government which is to reap its fruits: but that each generation should be made to bear the burden of its own wars, instead of carrying them on, at the expence of other generations. And to give the fullest energy to his plan, he might have added, that each generation should not only bear its own burdens, but that the taxes composing them, should include a due proportion of such as by their direct operation keep the people awake, along with those, which being wrapped up in other payments, may leave them asleep, to misapplications of their money.

The full passage from which this quotation was taken can be be viewed below (front page quote in bold):

Had Rousseau lived to see the constitution of the United States and of France, his judgment might have escaped the censure to which his project has exposed it.

The other class of wars, corresponding with the public will, are less susceptible of remedy. There are antidotes, nevertheless, which may not be without their efficacy. As wars of the first class were to be prevented by subjecting the will of the government to the will of the society, those of the second class can only be controuled by subjecting the will of the society to the reason of the society; by establishing permanent and constitutional maxims of conduct, which may prevail over occasional impressions and inconsiderate pursuits.

Here our republican philosopher might have proposed as a model to lawgivers, that war should not only be declared by the authority of the people, whose toils and treasures are to support its burdens, instead of the government which is to reap its fruits: but that each generation should be made to bear the burden of its own wars, instead of carrying them on, at the expence of other generations. And to give the fullest energy to his plan, he might have added, that each generation should not only bear its own burdens, but that the taxes composing them, should include a due proportion of such as by their direct operation keep the people awake, along with those, which being wrapped up in other payments, may leave them asleep, to misapplications of their money.

To the objection, if started, that where the benefits of war descend to succeeding generations, the burdens ought also to descend, he might have answered; that the exceptions could not be easily made; that, if attempted, they must be made by one only of the parties interested; that in the alternative of sacrificing exceptions to general rules, or of converting exceptions into general rules, the former is the lesser evil; that the expense of necessary wars, will never exceed the resources of an entire generation; that, in fine the objection vanishes before the fact, that in every nation which has drawn on posterity for the support of its wars, the accumulated interest of its perpetual debts, has soon become more than a sufficient principal for all its exigencies.

Were a nation to impose such restraints on itself, avarice would be sure to calculate the expences of ambition; in the equipoise of these passions, reason would be free to decide for the public good; and an ample reward would accrue to the state, first, from the avoidance of all its wars of folly, secondly, from the vigor of its unwasted resources for wars of necessity and defence. Were all nations to follow the example, the reward would be doubled to each; and the temple of Janus might be shut, never to be opened more.

Had Rousseau lived to see the rapid progress of reason and reformation, which the present day exhibits, the philanthropy which dictated his project would find a rich enjoyment in the scene before him. And after tracing the past frequency of wars to a will in the government independent of the will of the people; to the practice by each generation of taxing the principal of its debts on future generations; and to the facility with which each generation is seduced into assumption of the interest, by the deceptive species of taxes which pay it; he would contemplate, in a reform of every government subjecting its will to that of the people, in a subjection of each generation to the payment of its own debts, and in a substitution of a more palpable, in place of an imperceptible mode of paying them, the only hope of Universal and Perpetual Peace.

[More works by James Madison (1751 – 1836)]