James Madison's Views of Federalism
Updated: Mar 24
The United States Constitution divides power between two levels of government: fifty state governments and one central government. As federal states proliferate across the globe, the United States often takes pride of place in political and theoretical discussions given its status as the first “modern” federal state. In the American context in particular, many people turn to the Framers in search of guidance on contemporary questions such as the proper structure of federalism or its value as a constitutional structure. The leading figure here is James Madison, often called “father of the Constitution,” who provided perhaps the most insightful and sophisticated analysis of federalism at the founding.
This essay discusses Madison’s views on federalism and determines whether or not they remained consistent over the course of his career.
Madison at the Constitutional Convention
Because Madison was an active politician, not a speculative philosopher, this analysis consists largely of an overview of his political career and its relationship to American federalism. Beginning in 1776, thirteen British colonies in North America declared their independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain. While formerly connected only by their common ties to the monarchy, virtually all former colonists shared a common identity as “Americans” and therefore sought political union. In 1783, the Articles of Confederation established a loose American federation headed by a weak central government. However, it soon became clear that the national Congress created by the Articles could not meet the needs of the American union. Lacking any power to imposes taxes or raise troops directly, it was obliged to “requisition” (i.e. officially demand) funds and soldiers from the states, who predictably failed to comply fully with these demands. Moreover, Congress could not regulate commerce, either between the states themselves or with foreign nations. The country lacked a single, independent executive, or even a judiciary. Perhaps worst of all, only the unanimous vote of all thirteen states could amend the Articles, virtually eliminating the possibility of reforming these defects. The political situation exacerbated a post-war economic recession, and the federal Congress found itself unable to pay the interest on its debts or secure any further loans. In 1787, widespread sentiment in favor of reform finally prompted calls for a convention to draft a new constitution.
Madison first entered the national stage at the Constitutional Convention, where he played a key role in drafting the U.S. Constitution. Rejecting the possibility of incremental or piecemeal reform, he successfully supported a restructured and strengthened national government boasted broad power to tax, raise a military, and regulate commerce. He even advocated giving Congress the power to veto state laws in order to defend its sphere of power and prevent the passage of unjust laws by the states. However, Madison never endorsed an all-encompassing federal power to pass laws on any subject. Although he thought that a stronger national government would provide “more effectually for the security of private rights, and the steady dispensation of justice,” this did not mean that he wanted these matters to be governed directly by the federal government.
Rather, as Michael Zuckert has shown, he wanted Congress to play the role of umpire, vetoing manifestly unjust or unconstitutional laws yet leaving the states otherwise free to govern themselves.
In sum, Madison positioned himself as a forceful and eloquent advocate of expanded national power, although he refused to join the most extreme delegates advocating complete centralization and the destruction of the states.
Madison on the Value of Federalism
Madison rejected total centralization in part because he recognized a beneficial differentiation of function between the national and state governments. For him, federalism produces more efficient government by allowing each level to concentrate on the functions of government which they can carry out most effectively: the states should have jurisdiction over “local” matters, while the federal government should control “national” matters.
A good federal constitution, he wrote, ought to
give to the general government every power requisite for general purposes, and leave to the states every power which might be most beneficially administered by them.
In practice, this distinction meant that “the national Government should be armed with positive and compleat authority in all cases which require uniformity; such as the regulation of trade” or the naturalization of immigrants.
Elsewhere Madison asserted
that the national Legislature ought to be impowered to … legislate in cases to which the separate States are incompetent, or in which the general harmony of the United States may be interrupted by the exercise of individual Legislation.
If a state chose to tax imports from another state, for instance, it might provoke retaliatory trade barriers, choking off internal trade. For Madison, then, the states are the primary source of the laws, but the federal government can act to preserve the harmony of the system or to coordinate the states in pursuit of public goods. In this way the American system combines
a federal form with the forms of individual Republics, as may enable each to supply the defects of the other and obtain the advantages of both.
The Federalist Papers
Madison carried his balanced nationalist orientation over into the next political battle: ratification.
After the Convention sent the draft Constitution to be ratified or rejected by the states, proponents of the new document—called “Federalists” as opposed to “Anti-Federalist” opponents—had to persuade the wider nation of its merits. Madison joined fellow Federalist leaders Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in writing the “Federalist Papers,” a series of newspaper articles defending the new Constitution. Later published in book form, the Federalist Papers remains justly famous as an important and original contribution to political thought. A number of these essays deal with federalism in some form, the most important of which are essays #10, #39, #45-46, #51.
Federalist #39 describes and defends Madison’s interpretation of the distinctive theory of federalism embodied in the Constitution. As he explained in Federalist #39, the new union represents “neither a national nor a federal Constitution, but a composition of both.”
The Constitution is ratified not by the entire American population acting as one unit, but by the people of each state acting as separate units. And yet the federal government, once in existence, acts directly on the people as individuals, not as members of their state. The powers of the federal government are limited to those enumerated in the Constitution’s text, whereas the states retain all other political powers. In the U.S. Congress, the states enjoy equal representation in the Senate, but the people of each state are represented according to population in the House.
The President and Vice-President are chosen by a complicated process that allocates electors to each state mostly on the basis of population but with a bias in favor of small states. American institutions thus represent a blending of traditional institutional forms designed to accommodate both the needs of union and the continued existence of the states.
Fears of Consolidation
The Federalist Papers took pains to rebut one of the most fervent Anti-Federalist objections to the new Constitution: the fear that it would consolidate power in the hands of the federal government.
Since many Americans associated localism with popular liberty and representative government, they thought that centralization might produce an autocratic federal tyranny.
This possibility loomed especially large because the new Constitution authorized the federal government to act directly upon the people as individuals, bypassing the cooperation of the state governments required by the Articles of Confederation. Given its unlimited power to impose taxes and raise armies, Anti-Federalists worried that the federal government would soon overstep its bounds and oppress the people and states.
In response, Hamilton and Madison advanced several arguments to refute such fears.
First, they stressed that the requisition system, according to which the federal government could only acquire funds or soldiers indirectly by demanding them from the state governments, hampered the federal government, threatening anarchy or civil war. No government can function effectively without its own source of money and manpower, especially since the states had frequently proven unwilling to supply adequate resources to the federal government.
Second, they argued that, in a democratic government, elected officials are controlled by the people, who will allocate power as they see fit.
Third, they insisted that the states would enjoy a natural advantage in the struggle for power because, as Madison put it,
"the first and most natural attachment of the people will be to the government of their respective states"
This loyalty derives from the fact that, in comparison with the federal government, the states are closer and more familiar to the people, have a greater ability to impact citizens’ daily lives, and enjoy more extensive sources of patronage.
Still, Madison hinted (and perhaps hoped) that the people’s allegiance would shift if Congress displayed “manifest and irresistible proofs of a better administration.” Finally, they urged that the state militias supplied a reliable check on federal tyranny inasmuch as they would outnumber and outmatch any possible federal army.
Federalism and Faction
In the insightful and widely celebrated Federalist #10, Madison defended American federalism against the traditional claim that republican government can only survive in small, homogeneous states.
He argues that a chief advantage of a “well-constructed union,” meaning a large federal republic, is its “tendency to break and control the violence of faction.” Republicanism must confront the danger of majority tyranny, where a majority of citizens united by a common interest or opinion—a “faction”—use their power to pass laws infringing the rights of minorities or individuals. Madison argues that majority tyranny is best opposed not by eliminating liberty (which is worse than the disease) or harmonizing the people’s opinions or material interests (which is impossible without eliminating liberty), but by increasing the size of the republic. Due to their greater diversity, large republics inevitably embrace a larger number of factions. Ideally, if no faction constitutes a majority by itself, no faction can impose its will unilaterally.
Federalist #10 argues further that large republics enhance the “election of proper guardians of the public weal” because the “proportion of fit characters” will increase along with the size of the legislative districts, and because the demagogic and deceptive tactics common to “unworthy candidates” cannot work on a larger scale. By flipping classical arguments on their head, Madison buttressed the new system of federalism embodied in the Constitution.
Federalism and the Separation of Powers
Another important theme in Madison’s thought is the role of federalism and the separation of powers in protecting liberty against abusive government. As he states in Federalist #51, the division of government power between different institutions has positive value, because liberty is best maintained “by so contriving the interior structure of the government as that its several constituent parts may, by their mutual relations, be the means of keeping each other in their proper places.” The “great security” against the “concentration” of power in one branch, he continues, “consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others … Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interests of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.”
Moreover, each department needs the “power of self-defense” so that “each may be a check on the other—that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights.”
Although much of Federalist #51 discusses the division of power between the three branches of government, Madison believed that federalism represented another example of divided power. “In the compound republic of America,” he wrote, “the power surrendered by the people, is first divided between two distinct governments, and then the portion allotted to each, subdivided among distinct and separate departments [i.e. branches]. Hence a double security arises to the rights of the people. The different governments will controul each other; at the same time that each will be controuled by itself.”
On this view, preserving liberty requires establishing two relatively equal levels of government and empowering each to keep the other in line by deploying constitutional checks and balances. In the American context, Madison specified several “means of contestation” that would enable the states to defend their jurisdiction by directly representing states interests in Congress. First, as mentioned above, the localist bias of the average voter would ensure the election of federal politicians with pro-local views. Second, since senators were selected by the state legislatures (prior to the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913), senators would reflect and serve the interest of the state governments. Third, a similar effect would ensure that presidential electors, most of whom at this time were also chosen by the state legislatures, would select presidents favorable to state power. Through these avenues, Madison expected the states to be able to fend off challenges to their authority from the federal government.
Madison’s “Double Security” argument reveals an abiding concern to fashion a constitutional structure that prevents abuses of liberty from any source without abandoning republican self-government. The problem is that, while small republics bring self-government closer to the people and foster a greater sense of homogeneity and civic unity, they are more susceptible to majority tyranny. A federal government with insufficient powers, then, merely opens the door to the passage of populist legislation that undermines the individual rights of minorities. But despite its capacity to enhance representation and obstruct the formation of majority factions, a large republic with an un-checked federal government has the capacity to threaten liberty nationwide.
For Madison, federalism resolves this dilemma by pitting two mutually ambitious levels against each other, allowing the people to defend their rights by appealing to either side. The goal is not a bright and static division of power, but a permanent contest over power which, paradoxically, restrains excessive uses of power.
Madison’s Later Career
The ratification debates do not represent Madison’s last word on federalism. In fact, many students of Madison’s thought are baffled by apparent inconsistencies between his “early” and “late” writings. Over time, he developed views on federalism that seemingly contradict his position during ratification. This transformation began as soon as 1790-91, when Alexander Hamilton proposed that the federal government should assume responsibility for the debts of the states, create a market in government bonds, and establish a national bank to facilitate payments on the national debt. Jefferson and Madison ended up spearheading an opposition movement which viewed the law as an attempt to expand the powers of the national government and create a constituency loyal to Congress. This movement led to the first system of political parties, pitting the Jeffersonian “Republicans” against the Hamiltonian “Federalists.”
Over the course of his subsequent career, Madison generally supported “states’ rights” against federal power. He adopted a “strict constructionist” interpretation of the Constitution, which interpreted the constitutional power the federal government as minimally as possible. For instance, he interpreted Congress’s power to “lay and collect taxes” to pay for “the general welfare” as a restricted power to fund only the federal powers enumerated in the Constitution, whereas Hamilton argued the Congress could appropriate money for any object it deemed to promote the welfare of the nation. He opposed the constitutionality of the national bank in the 1790s on the grounds that is was not “necessary and proper” for carrying out the functions of the national government, although by the time of his presidency (1808-1816) he had reversed his position due to the popularity and entrenched status of the bank. Still, throughout his presidency he vetoed federal funding for internal improvements, such as roads and canals, on constitutional grounds. In short, Madison acted like a radical decentralist committed to states’ rights.
Perhaps most surprisingly, in 1798 he penned the “Virginia Resolution” in opposition to the Alien and Sedition, which gave the President power to deport unnaturalized immigrants and suppress criticism of the government. In it, Madison argues that, because the Constitution is a compact between the people of each state, the states are duty-bound “to interpose for arresting the progress” of “deliberate, palpable, and dangerous” assumptions of unconstitutional powers by the federal government. It saw the states playing a pro-active role in constraining an expansionist central government, although it fails to specify exactly how the states can “interpose” between their citizens and the federal government. During the Nullification Crisis of 1832, nullificationists appealed to the Resolutions to support the view that states can “nullify” or cancel federal laws unilaterally, although Madison denied that he ever supported nullification.
For Madison, interposition seemed to occupy a middle ground between states vetoing federal laws and states remaining inactive in the fact of perceived constitutional violations. Ideally, states would rally public opinion to change the federal government through petition and election, rather than take up arms or engage in outright disobedience.
The Question of Consistency
Given that he seemingly expressed contradictory views on federalism at different points in his career, James Madison has been accused of inconsistency. Even scholars who believe that he held a consistent doctrine disagree on the true core of his thought. Some see him as a radical nationalist who sought to centralize power in the federal government, while others emphasize his affinity with advocates of “states’ rights.” So: was Madison consistent? Can we reconcile the “nationalist” Madison and the “localist” Madison?
The issue is complicated, but arguably a coherent federalism doctrine underlies the seemingly incompatible stances Madison adopted at various times. Despite advocating a dramatic expansion of federal authority, he sincerely desired an equilibrium between the state and national governments. In an 1828 letter, for instance, he wrote that
[i]t will be fortunate if the struggle [over federalism] should end in a permanent equilibrium of powers.
His willingness to collaborate with men like Hamilton masked his persistent disagreement with their more extreme form of nationalism. But if Madison genuinely desired to create an equilibrium between state and federal power, what explains his apparent lack of concern for safeguarding state power—especially his support for a federal veto of state laws?
It seems that Madison, along with many other Federalists, embraced a long-term commitment to a balance of power between the two levels of government, but altered his specific stance depending on which level he considered to be too powerful at the time. Madison was hardly alone in his belief that curbing state power took priority in 1787-1788. The apparent failure of the Articles of Confederation fostered an overriding concern for establishing a powerful central government, even at the expense of traditional state power. Due to their expectation that the states would have natural advantages in inter-level disputes, most Federalists sincerely feared that state encroachments on federal jurisdiction would happen far more often than the reverse.
Accordingly, Madison almost exclusively sought measures to allow the federal government to check the states, rather than the other way round. As Michael Zuckert argues,
Madison and Wilson … remained unmoved by the argument for [institutional checks against federal encroachments], not because they did not share the concern for preventing encroachment ‘on the other side’ but because they felt certain that encroachments from that side were so much less likely than state encroachments on the general government.
For instance, Madison defended his proposal to give Congress the power to veto state laws on the grounds that it “was the mildest expedient” for counteracting “a constant tendency in the states to encroach on the federal authority,” for without it the “only remedy” would be “coercion.”
Far from wanting to destroy the states with the veto, then, Madison considered it essential to ensuring the very existence of the federal system:
This prerogative of government is the great principle which must control the centrifugal tendency of the states; which, without it, would continually fly out of their orbits and destroy the order and harmony of the political system.
Over time, however, it became increasingly clear that the national government posed the primary danger to the federal system. Its ability to operate independently meant that it could threaten liberty just as easily as any state, and expansive interpretations of the Constitution threatened to concentrate power in federal hands. The recognition of this danger impelled Madison and others to reverse themselves and support limitations on federal power.
Years later, Madison noted that, while both levels of governments had attempted unconstitutional power-grabs, recent “theoretical innovations at least are putting new weights into the scale of federal sovereignty,” upsetting the balance in that direction. Only when the nullification crisis threatened to destroy the union did he once again prioritize national unity and federal power.
In short, a wholistic view indicates the consistency of Madison’s actions and words regarding federalism. While he always favored a relatively equal balance of power, his specific constitutional and policy proposals modulated depending on shifting circumstances and needs. As with any practical politician, short-term political imperatives sometimes overshadowed long-term philosophical principles. An 1821 letter by Madison supports this interpretation:
"That most of us carried into the Convention a profound impression produced by the experienced inadequacy of the old Confederation, … as to the necessity of binding the States together by a strong Constitution is certain. … This view of the crisis made it natural for many in the Convention to lean more than was perhaps in strictness warranted by a proper distinction between causes temporary as some of them doubtless were, and causes permanently inherent in populaApr frames of government. … For myself, having … never ceased to be a votary of self Govt, I was among those most anxious to rescue it from the danger which seemed to threaten it; and with that view was willing to give a Govt resting on that foundation, as much energy as would ensure the requisite stability and efficacy. It is possible that in some instances this consideration may have been allowed a weight greater than subsequent reflection within the Convention, or the actual operation of the Govt, would sanction."
While this statement could be nothing more than convenient retrospective projection, the rapidity and intensity of his transition to defend state power suggests that he had always desired an equilibrium between the state and national governments. If so, then even his “nationalist” views on federalism actually display concern for mutual contestation, while also reflecting the unique circumstances of ratification, which dictated a strengthening of federal power.
This essay has attempted to reveal the main outlines of James Madison’s theory of federalism. Neither a radical decentralist nor an advocate of national consolidation, he stressed the unique advantages of America’s federal structure, which divided power between two independent levels of government.
It should be clear by now that this story is no mere historical curiosity, and it should do more than merely enhance our understanding of the origin and structure of American federalism. Because Madison’s views intersect deeply with the theory and practice of free government, grappling with them can benefit citizens of liberal democracies worldwide.
Federalism promises to produce more efficient government, enhance representation, and preserve liberty. Madison impels us to consider the ways in which his vision should inform our own attitudes toward federalism, and, how we can sustain the promise of Madisonian federalism into the twenty-first century.
 Madison, Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1985), 76.
 Michael Zuckert, “Federalism and the Founding: Toward a Reinterpretation of the Constitutional Convention,” The Review of Politics 48, no. 2 (1986): 190ff.
 Madison, “Letter to Thomas Jefferson, October 24, 1787,” in Madison, Writings, ed. Jack N. Rakove (New York” Library of America, 1999), 144.
 Madison, “Letter to George Washington, April 16, 1787,” in Madison, Writings, 81.
 Madison, “The Virginia Plan,” in Madison, Writings, 90.
 Madison, Notes, 3.
 Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison, The Federalist Papers, ed. Lawrence Goldman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 192.
 Federalist Papers, #46, p. 233.
 Federalist Papers, #46, p. 234.
 Federalist Papers, #28 and #46.
 Federalist Papers, #10, p. 48.
 Federalist Papers, #10, p. 53.
 Federalist Papers, #51, p. 256-58.
 Federalist Papers, #51, p. 258.
 James Madison, Letters and Other Writings of James Madison, 4 vols. (New York: R. Worthington, 1884), 3:625.
 Zuckert, “Federalism and the Founding,” 204.
 Madison, Notes, 88.
 Madison, Notes, 89.
 Madison, “Letter to Spencer Roane, May 6, 1821” in Madison, Writings, 773.
 Madison, “Letter to J.G. Jackson on December 27, 1821,” in Madison, Letters and Other Writings, 3:244–45.