James Madison Papers

James Madison to Unknown, March 1836


Dear Sir

The precise obligation imposed on a representative, by instructions of his constituents, still divides the opinions, of distinguished statesmen. This is the case in Great Britain, where such topics have been most discussed. It is also now the case, more or less < >d was so, at the first Congress under the present Constitution, as appears from the Register of Debates, imperfectly as they were reported.

It being agreed by all, that whether an instruction be obeyed or disobeyed, the act of the Representative is equally valid & operative, the question is a moral one, between the Representative, and his Constituents; with him, if satisfied that the instruction expresses the will of his constituents it must be his to decide Whether he will conform to an instruction, opposed to his judgment or incur the displeasure of his constituents by disobeying it (by following his own judgment if opposed to it) and with them to decide in what mode they will manifest their displeasure. In a case necessarily appealing to the conscience of the Representative its paramount dictates must of course be his guide.

It is well known that the equality of the States, in the Federal Senate was a compromise between the larger, & the smaller states; the former claiming a proportional representation in both branches of the Legislature, as due to their superior population; the latter, an equality in both, as a safeguard to the reserved sovereignty of the States, an object which obtained the concurrence of members from the larger States. But it is equally true tho’ but little adverted to, as an instance of miscalculating speculation, that as soon as the smaller states, had secured more than a proportional share in the proposed Government, they became favorable to augmentations of its powers; & that under the Administration of the Govt. they have generally, in contests between it, & the state Governments, leaned to the former. Whether the direct effect of instructions which would make the Senators dependent on the pleasure of their Constituents, or the indirect effect inferred from such a tenure by Mr Leigh, would be most favourable, to the General Government, or the State Governments, is a question wch not being tested by practice, is left to individual opinions. My anticipation I confess does not accord with that expressed in the letter.

Nothing is more certain than that the tenure of the Senate, was meant as an obstacle to, the instability, which not only History, but the experience of our own Country had shewn, to be, the besetting infirmity of popular Govts. Innovations therefore impairing the stability, afforded by that tenure, without some compensating re-modification of the powers of the Government, must affect the balance, contemplated by the Constitution.

My prolonged life has made me a witness of the alternate popularity, & unpopularity of, each of the great branches of the Federal Government. I have witnessed, also, the vicissitudes, in the apparent tendencies in the Federal & State Governments, to encroach each on the authorities of the other, without being able to infer with certainty, what would be the final operation of the causes as heretofore existing; whilst it is far more difficult, to calculate, the mingled & checkered influences, on the future from an expanding territorial Domain: from the multiplication of the parties to the Union, from the great & growing power of not a few of them, from the absence of external danger; from combinations of States in some quarters, and collision in others, and from questions, incident to a refusal of the unsuccessful party to abide by the issue of Controversies judiciously decided. To these uncertainties, may be added, the effects of a dense population, & the multiplication, and the varying relations of the classes composing it. I am far however from desponding, of the great political experiment in the hands of the American people. Much has already been gained in its favour, by the continued prosperity accompanying it through a period of so many years. Much may be expected from the progress & diffusion of political science in dissipating errors, opposed to the sound principles which harmonize different interests; from the Geographical, commercial & social ligaments, strengthened as they are by mechanical improvements, giving so much advantage to time over space, & above all, by the obvious & inevitable consequences of the wreck of an ark bearing as we have flattered ourselves the happiness of our Country & the hope of the World, nor is it unworthy of consideration, that the 4 great religious Sects <?> all the states will oppose an event placing part of each under separate Governments. It cannot be denied that the aspect our Country presents, Phenomena of an ill omen, but it wd. seem that they proceed from a coincidence of causes, some transitory, others fortuitious, rarely if ever likely to recur—that of the causes more durable some can be greatly mitigated if not removed by the Legislative Authority, and such as may require the "intersit" of a higher power, can be provided for whenever, if ever, the public mind may be calm & cool enough for that resort.

Draft (DLC).

Index Entries