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Quotations about Liberty and Power

About this Quotation:

We continue our exploration of the thought of James Madison with this quotation again from The Federalist (1788). The greatness of the American Revolution in the 18th century was to attempt to solve two of the most significant problems in political theory: how to guard against the very people who were created to guard us (previously discussed by David Hume and others); and the problem of keeping a government with limited powers, limited to those powers over the course of time. The solution the Founding Fathers came up with was one taken from the thought of the French theorist Montesquieu - namely, “separating the powers” of the state into different “branches” with the intention that each different branch, jealous of its own powers, would keep the other branches limited in their powers. The question is, has the 20th and early 21st centuries proven or disproven Madison’s great hope?

Other quotes about Politics & Liberty:

22 September, 2008

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James Madison on the need for the “separation of powers” because “men are not angels,” Federalist 51 (1788)

Read the full quote in context here.

In Federalist Paper no. 51 James Madison (1751-1836) worrries about how to create institutions which would check personal ambition and the "encroachment" of one branch of government by the other

But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department, the necessary constitutional means, and personal motives, to resist encroachments of the others… Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man, must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government.

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

But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department, the necessary constitutional means, and personal motives, to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defence must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man, must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. 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.

This policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public. We see it particularly displayed in all the subordinate distributions of power; where the constant aim is, to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other; that the private interest of every individual may be a centinel over the public rights. These inventions of prudence cannot be less requisite in the distribution of the supreme powers of the state.

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