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12AD.1.3 Federalist Paper No. 51

Excerpts from the Federalist Paper No. 51, portrait of James Madison
Hamilton, Alexander, or Madison, James
Transcript (document)
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Alexander Hamilton, or James Madison, Federalist No. 51: "The Structure of the Government Must Furnish the Proper Checks and Balances Between the Different Departments," New York Packet, February 8, 1788.


Vanderlyn, John, Portrait of James Madison, 1816. White House Historical Association (White House Collection)

In 1788, as the Constitution was being debated by the states, different arguments emerged about the potential flaws in the structure of the new government, and some posed solutions for how to fix these flaws. Federalist Paper No. 51, which is formally titled “The Structure of the Government Must Furnish the Proper Checks and Balances Between the Different Departments,” we now know was written by James Madison. Madison would go on to become the fourth American president; at the time he made an important argument about how the government could balance between the rights and privacies of individuals as opposed to the power of the government. This Federalist Paper is part of a larger body of writings about ways to balance the powers of the government against powers of ordinary people.

This Federalist Paper’s key purpose is to advocate for the separation of powers in the branches of government. Madison points out the importance of having independent offices within the government to avoid corruption, so that government will be more closely responsive to the desires of voters. As students read through this short excerpt, point out how the emphasis on liberty in the first sentence relates to the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. This seems to be a cautionary note about the need to protect liberty against possible incursions by the government. Point out to students the role the Federalist Papers played in addressing the balance of power of the state and federal government in relationship to the rights of individual citizens. Many of the concerns raised in these documents would go on to be addressed in the Bill of Rights.

In order to lay a due foundation for that separate and distinct exercise of the different powers of government, which to a certain extent is admitted on all hands to be essential to the preservation of liberty, it is evident that each department should have a will of its own; and consequently should be so constituted that the members of each should have as little agency as possible in the appointment of the members of the others. ...
In a single republic, all the power surrendered by the people, is submitted to the administration of a single government; and the usurpations are guarded against by a division of the government into distinct and separate departments. ...
In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects. The degree of security in both cases will depend on the number of interests and sects; and this may be presumed to depend on the extent of country and number of people comprehended under the same government.