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James Madison and an ungovernable America

Blame the ‘father of the Constitution’ for the mess in the US, says Alan Ryan

Protected as we are in the pseudo-Gothic enclave of Princeton, buttressed by an endowment of $17 billion (£10.6 billion), the lunacies of Washington politics pass us by in a narrowly material, pocketbook sense. Our pay cheques will arrive on time; our classes will meet; and the campus itself, which was virtually untouched even by the Revolutionary War of 1776-83 (although a badly aimed cannonball did smash a window and damage a portrait of George II), will continue as before.

But living in an oasis of cosseted and cocooned sanity within a lunatic asylum disguised as the oldest democracy in the world has its strains. I have a particular, wholly non-material and self-centred reason for finding the current condition of American politics depressing. Until now, my admiration for James Madison has barely remained on this side of idolatry. (Of course, I knew he owned slaves, but so did Thomas Jefferson – who also fathered at least one child and perhaps as many as six with one of them.)

Madison had what every political theorist from Plato onwards would have thought of as an opportunity to die for. In 1787, he contrived, astonishingly, to convert what was supposed to be a convention to amend the Articles of Confederation, under which the 13 rebellious colonies fought the Revolutionary War, into a fully paid-up constitutional convention, with the results we are now living with. And I say “we” advisedly, since the ill-effects of the Constitution agreed in September 1787 impinge on just about every member of the human race. For all his intelligence, Madison bequeathed his country a governmental disaster.

Obama can kill whomever he cares to by launching drone strikes in foreign countries but cannot get legislation through Congress except by a process of bribery, wheedling and cajoling

Americans, of course, believe that the Constitution is Holy Writ. Members of the Tea Party seem to believe that in a literal sense; on their reading, it enshrines Christianity as the official religion of the US while somehow never mentioning God and explicitly outlawing religious tests for federal office and (in the First Amendment) an established national church. No matter. As many people have observed, the US is a deeply religious country, in which the only people who have any idea what is in the Bible are the atheists, followed by the Catholics, with the fundamentalists bringing up the rear.

The trouble is less with what the population thinks is in the Constitution but isn’t (even the Speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, confuses the Constitution with the Declaration of Independence) than with what is really there. It’s all too easy to forget that the problem facing the creators of the Constitution was that of stopping any of the states bolting from the union. Ensuring a government that could produce sensible social and economic policies was much less salient (as it was, Jefferson grumbled from Paris that he was “not a friend to very energetic government”). The problem that everyone remembers was the problem of slavery, resolved by, among other things, giving the slave states more seats in the lower house than the number of their free inhabitants entitled them to, and requiring states in which slavery was not permitted nonetheless to return escapees to their Southern masters.

That issue was more or less resolved by the civil war, although its legacy persists in ways both visible and invisible. What isn’t resolved, and can’t be because a wholesale revision of the Constitution is simply unimaginable, is the effect of an obstinate adherence to the doctrine of the separation of powers: the hangover of an 18th-century terror of a strong executive. Glue that on to a federal system in which the central government possesses only the powers enumerated in the Constitution and you have a set-up uniquely unsuited to the management of a modern industrial society.

Politicians who had grown up on the history of the Roman Republic feared the arrival of a Sulla or a Caesar. Having persuaded themselves that George III was a tyrant in the mould of such ancient bugbears, they went to all lengths to dilute the power of the president – except in his role as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. As a result, Barack Obama can kill whomever he cares to by launching drone strikes in foreign countries but cannot get legislation through Congress except by a process of bribery, wheedling and cajoling that ensures that the legislation is either enfeebled or simply a mess.

Anyone looking for a prize example has had one readily to hand in the first few weeks of the Affordable Care Act, known to friends and foes alike as Obamacare. It was obvious from the get-go that a so-called “public option” was essential to making a national medical insurance scheme work, to fill in gaps left by both the unwillingness or inability of private companies to offer affordable coverage and the patchwork nature of the existing Medicaid system that serves the very poor.

The sceptics who think the government can’t manage a healthcare system chronically forget that about 40 per cent of Americans actually get their healthcare through the federal government, via Medicaid, Medicare for the over-65s or the Veterans Health Administration for ex-servicemen and women. Members of Congress, on the other hand, don’t forget who contributes to their campaign expenses. So a gallant attempt to insure the millions of uninsured has ended up full of holes, disabled by software glitches and so complex that thousands of “navigators” have been hired to help would-be consumers sign up. Do I blame James Madison? Reluctantly, I think I do.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Any constitution will occasionally fail where others might have succeeded but it is the long term one has to judge them by. The modern Swiss constitution of 1848 was clearly strongly influenced by that of America. It was created as a solution to the Swiss civil war of 1847 but ironically its model failed to prevent civil war in America a dozen or so years later. The modern Swiss consitution also has numerous checks and balances and the executive has even less power than the US President, requiring approval through referenda of much of what it attempts and being frequently directly challenged by initiatives . However, on the whole the country is assumed to function. I think that Ryan assumes rather too readily that the source of the current American malaise is the constitution. Constitutions need goodwill and intelligence to apply them. Perhaps this is the source of the problem.

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