Calvinist Convictions in Our Founding Fathers

The Federalist Papers is a classic work that too few Americans have ever heard of, let alone have read. Written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, The Federalist Papers were an important series of articles promoting the ratification of the United States Constitution. Today marks the anniversary (February 6, 1788) of one of the most well known articles, Federalist 51, which  was written by Madison to explain the necessity of checks and balances between the different branches and departments of government.

James Madison studied at Princeton under the evangelical Presbyterian minister John Witherspoon. How much of Madison’s political theory came from Witherspoon is difficult to prove, but he certainly received a strong dose of Reformed anthropology from his mentor. The Scottish parson more than once remarked rhetorically “What is the history of the world but the history of human guilt?” In lectures that Madison would have sat through, Witherspoon argued that we “certainly discover in mankind” a “disposition without restraint to commit errors of a gross nature.” And in his famous sermon leading up to independence in 1776 Witherspoon observed, “Nothing can be more absolutely necessary to true religion than a clear and full conviction of the sinfulness of our nature and state.”

Whether directly from Witherspoon or not, this understanding of the human condition was a bedrock conviction for founders like Madison. Thus Federalist 51:

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 defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attach. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of man must be connected with the constitutional right of the place.

It may be a reflection of 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.

In other words, the best government is the one designed to check its own inherent tendencies to tyranny, just as a prudent political philosophy embraces the realities of our fallen condition and plans accordingly.