James Madison Papers

Essay on division of power between general and local governments, 1816


The Constn. of U. S: the first attempt to give to a popular Govt. the elective form that will at once combine the theoretic freedom of a small community, with the practical advantages of a great one.

The success of the experiment depends on an equilibrium between the Govt. over the whole community, & the Govts. over the component communities: and this equilibrium essentially depends on the proper demarkation of the line dividing the powers of the 2 Gots. and especially, that dividing their Legislative powers.

This line, at the same time, that it is the most essential, is also the most difficult, most difficult in itself, and most difficult to be defined in words both unequivil, and unchangeable in their import. How much variance of opinion has proceeded from the fallibility of phraseology necessarily employed in the text of the Const:: How much from the mutability of meaning which a short period, has already exemplifyed in some of the terms & phrases of the Constn: so that time which settles the meaning of language in some cases, & ought to do it in all: is in other cases the course of uncertainty.

In drawing this line The great object to be kept in view is, So to divide the powers of Govt. that what can best be done by each, should be left to each to do: the Govt over the whole do, what the local Govts. cannot separately do; or would most likely to abuse in doing; and their doing what the former, can not do, or wd. be most likely to abuse in doing

So great is the difficulty of executing the task compleatly that, in some instances, power exercised now by all other countries that might be useful in our Govts. have been witheld from both Govts. viz. over exports. The power even of internal improvements, so far as they have not been given to the Genl Govt: and require expences wch the limited powers of indirect taxation in the States can not reach, or require a concurrence of State authority or of voluntary concert wd it seems amount to a Costl. impediment.

To render the political System competent to all the ends & advantages of Govt. it may perhaps be found advisable by a new peculiarity in the modification of the System, to bring the Natl. & St: Govt. into joint action, by requiring for certain enactments, a concurrency of a certain proportion of the State Legislatures, with the Legisl: of the U.S. In this way, a safe provision might be made for taxes or exports, for the different kind of internal improvements, and for Scientific expeditions, and beneficial arrangements to like effect beyond the limits of the U.S.

DLC: Papers of James Madison.

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