Ten Miles Square


October 11, 2011 10:51 AM Who Needs Nostradamus When You’ve Got James Madison?

By Rick Ungar

One of our great American political pastimes is the effort to link the Founding Fathers to one’s own political perspective. It is, after all, the ultimate validation of what passes for a political position or ideology these days.

This past week, one such expression of Founding Father prescience has been circulating the Internet. It is allegedly (more on that in a moment) part of an essay published by James Madison in the old New York Post, the newspaper owned by Madison’s partner in The Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton.

It reads like this:

We are free today substantially but the day will come when our Republic will be an impossibility. It will be impossibility because wealth will be concentrated in the hands of a few. A republic cannot stand upon bayonets, and when that day comes, when the wealth of the nation will be in the hands of a few, then we must rely upon the wisdom of the best elements in the country to readjust the laws of the nation to the changed conditions.

Talk about seeing into the future! It’s like Madison was moving through time to grab a glimpse of the nation he birthed 225 years into the future.

While Madison’s statement leaves little room for doubt as to what one of our more remarkable founders thought about the challenges his creation would face in the years to come (fortunately, the nation’s 4th president wrote in understandable English rather than the confusing quatrains of Nostradamus), it turns out to be extremely difficult to source this statement in order to insure that Madison actually offered these words.

Isn’t that always the way with the great prognosticators?

The best authority for the notion that Madison did, indeed, issue this remarkable prediction comes from its inclusion in a book published in 1972, entitled The Great Quotations: The Wit and Wisdom of the Ages. The book was written by George Seldes who is believed to have spent some thirty years researching the book for accuracy.

The alleged essay is also quoted in a 1900 piece written by Daniel De Leon, a leader of the American Socialist Movement whose writings drew comparisons and distinctions between Madison and Karl Marx.

While it is up to the reader to determine whether these sources are trustworthy, the quote would seem to make sense when viewed through the prism of Madison’s personal experience. Consider that the very experiment in government that Madison and his co-founders were embarking upon was a repudiation of an English system completely controlled by the wealthy aristocracy for the aristocracy. Consider further that America, in the days of Madison, viewed organizations formed to accumulate wealth—such as corporations—to be highly suspect. So much was this the case, corporations of Madison’s era were extremely limited in what they were permitted to do. Indeed, most states did not allow corporations to own property or to venture beyond the business purpose expressly stated when filing for their charter. Corporations were further limited in how long they were permitted to exist before being required by law to wind up its operations.

It is also worth noting that, in addition to Madison’s prediction that the nation would someday face its end as a result of the concentration of wealth, he additionally warns, in the quote in question, against allowing our nation to be built on war when he writes, “A republic cannot stand upon bayonets… “

Madison would repeat his concerns about this ‘double threat’ in another of his admonitions found in the following quote, this one more easily sourced:

Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manners and of morals engendered by both. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare. [Emphasis added.]

Via Letters and Other Writings of James Madison (1865), Vol. IV, p. 491

So, how is it that today’s voices and representatives of the wealthy and the war-makers are the very same people in our society who pretend to rely most heavily on what they tell us is a strict interpretation of the Constitution and the intent of the Founders?

Clearly, this would appear to be a disingenuous point of view when none other than James Madison—often referred to as “The Father Of The Constitution”—reaches out from the past to tell us he not only vehemently disagrees with such an interpretation of his intentions but went so far as to predict that this exact behavior would be our undoing.

More likely, we have arrived at the day James Madison warned us would come. We have arrived at the day where our Republic is becoming “an impossibility” as we witness astounding wealth disparity and watch in amazement as states throughout the nation under GOP control work to disenfranchise voters. We have arrived at the day when we seem to exist in a permanent state of warfare.

We have arrived at the day when we must now “rely on the wisdom of the best elements in the country to readjust the laws of the nation to the changed conditions.”

So, who represents the wisdom of the best elements of the country?

Is it Herman Cain who tells us that the unemployed have nobody to blame but themselves? Is it Mitt Romney who wants us to believe that bankers are people just like the rest of us, despite the fact they are paid millions per year while so many of the ‘rest of us’ are either unable to make a living or just barely eking out enough to put food on the table? Is it Rick Perry who believes that one of the most important government programs to aid and support the middle class and the poor in their old age is nothing but a Ponzi scheme?

I don’t think these people, and their skewed understanding of what America is supposed to be about, qualify as the best elements of our country. Far more importantly, neither would James Madison.

This leaves each American to ask themselves if they intend to get behind those who represent the wisdom of the best elements of this country or those who support the politics and policies that will make the United States, in the words of James Madison, “an impossibility”?

As we head into the presidential election season, compare any of the above-listed potential candidates and compare them with the current occupant of the White House. No matter how much disappointment you may feel that you’ve suffered at the hands of the current administration, is there any question whatsoever who is more likely to preserve the nation that James Madison had in mind?

I think Madison’s preference would be clear.

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Rick Ungar is an attorney in Southern California and a frequent writer, speaker and consultant on health care policy and politics. He is a contributing writer at Forbes. Readers can reach him at rickungar [at] gmail [dot] com.


  • Cobwebhead on October 12, 2011 12:19 PM:

    Terrific piece, Mr. Ungar. Thank you!

  • Name on October 12, 2011 12:37 PM:

    I'm still looking for the referenced quote. Not finding it yet, myself. But I like this, from Federalist Paper #62.


    To trace the mischievous effects of a mutable government would fill a volume. I will hint a few only, each of which will be perceived to be a source of innumerable others.

    In the first place, it forfeits the respect and confidence of other nations, and all the advantages connected with national character. An individual who is observed to be inconstant to his plans, or perhaps to carry on his affairs without any plan at all, is marked at once, by all prudent people, as a speedy victim to his own unsteadiness and folly. His more friendly neighbors may pity him, but all will decline to connect their fortunes with his; and not a few will seize the opportunity of making their fortunes out of his. One nation is to another what one individual is to another; with this melancholy distinction perhaps, that the former, with fewer of the benevolent emotions than the latter, are under fewer restraints also from taking undue advantage from the indiscretions of each other. Every nation, consequently, whose affairs betray a want of wisdom and stability, may calculate on every loss which can be sustained from the more systematic policy of their wiser neighbors. But the best instruction on this subject is unhappily conveyed to America by the example of her own situation. She finds that she is held in no respect by her friends; that she is the derision of her enemies; and that she is a prey to every nation which has an interest in speculating on her fluctuating councils and embarrassed affairs.

    The internal effects of a mutable policy are still more calamitous. It poisons the blessing of liberty itself. It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is to-day, can guess what it will be to-morrow. Law is defined to be a rule of action; but how can that be a rule, which is little known, and less fixed?

    Another effect of public instability is the unreasonable advantage it gives to the sagacious, the enterprising, and the moneyed few over the industrious and uniformed mass of the people. Every new regulation concerning commerce or revenue, or in any way affecting the value of the different species of property, presents a new harvest to those who watch the change, and can trace its consequences; a harvest, reared not by themselves, but by the toils and cares of the great body of their fellow-citizens. This is a state of things in which it may be said with some truth that laws are made for the FEW, not for the MANY.

    In another point of view, great injury results from an unstable government. The want of confidence in the public councils damps every useful undertaking, the success and profit of which may depend on a continuance of existing arrangements. What prudent merchant will hazard his fortunes in any new branch of commerce when he knows not but that his plans may be rendered unlawful before they can be executed? What farmer or manufacturer will lay himself out for the encouragement given to any particular cultivation or establishment, when he can have no assurance that his preparatory labors and advances will not render him a victim to an inconstant government? In a word, no great improvement or laudable enterprise can go forward which requires the auspices of a steady system of national policy.

    But the most deplorable effect of all is that diminution of attachment and reverence which steals into the hearts of the people, towards a political system which betrays so many marks

  • Name on October 12, 2011 12:44 PM:

    You certainly find some interesting stuff in there, when you take it out of context. Here's Madison, saying that the number of Congressmen needs to be set at a fixed number in Federalist Paper #61:

    "Ignorance will be the dupe of cunning, and passion the slave of sophistry and declamation. The people can never err more than in supposing that by multiplying their representatives beyond a certain limit, they strengthen the barrier against the government of a few. Experience will forever admonish them that, on the contrary, AFTER SECURING A SUFFICIENT NUMBER FOR THE PURPOSES OF SAFETY, OF LOCAL INFORMATION, AND OF DIFFUSIVE SYMPATHY WITH THE WHOLE SOCIETY, they will counteract their own views by every addition to their representatives. The countenance of the government may become more democratic, but the soul that animates it will be more oligarchic. The machine will be enlarged, but the fewer, and often the more secret, will be the springs by which its motions are directed. As connected with the objection against the number of representatives, may properly be here noticed, that which has been suggested against the number made competent for legislative business. It has been said that more than a majority ought to have been required for a quorum; and in particular cases, if not in all, more than a majority of a quorum for a decision. That some advantages might have resulted from such a precaution, cannot be denied. It might have been an additional shield to some particular interests, and another obstacle generally to hasty and partial measures. But these considerations are outweighed by the inconveniences in the opposite scale. In all cases where justice or the general good might require new laws to be passed, or active measures to be pursued, the fundamental principle of free government would be reversed. It would be no longer the majority that would rule: the power would be transferred to the minority. Were the defensive privilege limited to particular cases, an interested minority might take advantage of it to screen themselves from equitable sacrifices to the general weal, or, in particular emergencies, to extort unreasonable indulgences. Lastly, it would facilitate and foster the baneful practice of secessions; a practice which has shown itself even in States where a majority only is required; a practice subversive of all the principles of order and regular government; a practice which leads more directly to public convulsions, and the ruin of popular governments, than any other which has yet been displayed among us."

  • Name on October 12, 2011 1:13 PM:

    Federalist Paper #53 has a nice discussion of the Commerce Clause.

    "The question then may be put into this simple form: does the period of two years bear no greater proportion to the knowledge requisite for federal legislation than one year does to the knowledge requisite for State legislation? The very statement of the question, in this form, suggests the answer that ought to be given to it. In a single State, the requisite knowledge relates to the existing laws which are uniform throughout the State, and with which all the citizens are more or less conversant; and to the general affairs of the State, which lie within a small compass, are not very diversified, and occupy much of the attention and conversation of every class of people. The great theatre of the United States presents a very different scene. The laws are so far from being uniform, that they vary in every State; whilst the public affairs of the Union are spread throughout a very extensive region, and are extremely diversified by t e local affairs connected with them, and can with difficulty be correctly learnt in any other place than in the central councils to which a knowledge of them will be brought by the representatives of every part of the empire. Yet some knowledge of the affairs, and even of the laws, of all the States, ought to be possessed by the members from each of the States. How can foreign trade be properly regulated by uniform laws, without some acquaintance with the commerce, the ports, the usages, and the regulatious of the different States? How can the trade between the different States be duly regulated, without some knowledge of their relative situations in these and other respects? How can taxes be judiciously imposed and effectually collected, if they be not accommodated to the different laws and local circumstances relating to these objects in the different States? How can uniform regulations for the militia be duly provided, without a similar knowledge of many internal circumstances by which the States are distinguished from each other? These are the principal objects of federal legislation, and suggest most forcibly the extensive information which the representatives ought to acquire. The other interior objects will require a proportional degree of information with regard to them. It is true that all these difficulties will, by degrees, be very much diminished. The most laborious task will be the proper inauguration of the government and the primeval formation of a federal code. Improvements on the first draughts will every year become both easier and fewer. Past transactions of the government will be a ready and accurate source of information to new members. The affairs of the Union will become more and more objects of curiosity and conversation among the citizens at large. And the increased intercourse among those of different States will contribute not a little to diffuse a mutual knowledge of their affairs, as this again will contribute to a general assimilation of their manners and laws. But with all these abatements, the business of federal legislation must continue so far to exceed, both in novelty and difficulty, the legislative business of a single State, as to justify the longer period of service assigned to those who are to transact it. A branch of knowledge which belongs to the acquirements of a federal representative, and which has not been mentioned is that of foreign affairs. In regulating our own commerce he ought to be not only acquainted with the treaties between the United States and other nations, but also with the commercial policy and laws of other nations. He ought not to be altogether ignorant of the law of nations; for that, as far as it is a proper object of municipal legislation, is submitted to the federal government."

  • Name on October 12, 2011 1:22 PM:

    There's a lot of great stuff in here. Federalist Paper #51 is too wonderful to mar by quoting in fragments, but I like this excerpt from Federalist Paper #50:

    "Every unbiased observer may infer, without danger of mistake, and at the same time without meaning to reflect on either party, or any individuals of either party, that, unfortunately, PASSION, not REASON, must have presided over their decisions. When men exercise their reason coolly and freely on a variety of distinct questions, they inevitably fall into different opinions on some of them. When they are governed by a common passion, their opinions, if they are so to be called, will be the same."

  • Name on October 12, 2011 1:33 PM:

    Federalist Paper #48 stings like a whiplash.

    "All the powers of government, legislative, executive, and judiciary, result to the legislative body. The concentrating these in the same hands, is precisely the definition of despotic government. It will be no alleviation, that these powers will be exercised by a plurality of hands, and not by a single one. One hundred and seventy-three despots would surely be as oppressive as one. Let those who doubt it, turn their eyes on the republic of Venice. As little will it avail us, that they are chosen by ourselves. An ELECTIVE DESPOTISM was not the government we fought for; but one which should not only be founded on free principles, but in which the powers of government should be so divided and balanced among several bodies of magistracy, as that no one could transcend their legal limits, without being effectually checked and restrained by the others."

  • Charleyh on October 12, 2011 3:14 PM:

    Madison also said the following:

    "Do not separate text from historical background. If you do, you will have perverted and subverted the Constitution, which can only end in a distorted, bastardized form of illegitimate government."


    "I have no doubt but that the misery of the lower classes will be found to abate whenever the Government assumes a freer aspect and the laws favor a subdivision of Property."


    "It will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood."

    The bottom line is the Madison and every other Founder would be aghast at the modern welfare state. The number of U.S. taxpayers making $1 million or more a year is something like 300,000 (out of 140,000,000 total taxpayers). Who cares? Get over it. Be happy for them. Those are mostly people who worked hard and took risks. Those are also folks who actually contribute to increasing the size of the economy and hence the size of the pie for everyone, unlike the government, whose activity has precisely the opposite effect.

  • Brian T. Raven on October 12, 2011 9:07 PM:

    Mr. Unger,
    An excellent piece of work. Much appreciated.

    As for the 300K making over US$1m - the fair payment of taxes is only a small part of what those possessing the "wisdom of the best elements" are worried about. Their anxiety has mostly to do with that increasingly arrogant "class" thinking like a "class", lobbying like a "class", and using "class" resources to shape our nation to their specifications. The time has come for an attitude adjustment, and Obama seems willing to start the process.

  • Sparko on October 12, 2011 9:08 PM:

    Thank God, CharleyH, that someone as brave as you is still willing to take up the cause of the wealthy, privileged and powerful. Some balls you have there. The fact that the founders subscribed to John Donne is pretty scary to the elites. Better come by and cast some doubts on the lower caste. Well, you can go straight to Hell as far as I am concerned with your fawning imbecility, but I take considerable unbrage at your dragging my country with you. Look, take the money the GOP left on your dresser and buy yourself something nice.

  • batavicus on October 12, 2011 9:41 PM:

    "We are free today substantially..." I don't know. I'd love for it to be genuine, but there's something fishy about it. It just doesn't quite read like Madison to me. My instinct--and I admit that it's only an instinct--is that this excerpt is "ben trovato" rather than genuine.
    Authenticity aside, the problem described in the excerpt is quite real. I'm not sure we need to play the "enlist the Founders" game to establish that.

  • karl radek on October 12, 2011 9:53 PM:

    “Since the finance aristocracy made the laws, was at the head of the administration of the state, had command of all the organised public authorities, dominated public opinion through the actual state of affairs and through the press, the same prostitution, the same shameless cheating, the same mania to get rich was repeated in every sphere, from the court to the Café Borgne to get rich not by production, but by pocketing the already available wealth of others. Clashing every moment with the bourgeois laws themselves, an unbridled assertion of unhealthy and dissolute appetites manifested itself, particularly at the top of bourgeois society—lusts wherein wealth derived from gambling naturally seeks its satisfaction, where pleasure becomes crapuleux [debauched], where money, filth, and blood commingle. The finance aristocracy, in its mode of acquisition as well as in its pleasures, is nothing but the rebirth of the lumpenproletariat on the heights of bourgeois society.”--K Marx,just prior to the 1848 revolution in france.

  • Charleyh on October 13, 2011 4:57 PM:

    Sparko (or should I say Snarko?), was there an argument, or even a coherent position, buried somewhere in you sarcasm and vitriol? I couldn't find one.