Reading Madison in Damascus

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In the series of debacles that is the situation in and reacting to Syria, one emphatic triumph ought not go unheralded. The antique apparatus known as the Philadelphia Constitution works, which is to say the machinery—when, as rarely, cleaned, oiled, wound and deployed—operates precisely as advertised. In this case, it inhibited a war the people did not support through the mechanism—the House of Representatives—intended to register their views.

That vindicates one Madisonian theory, penned under the pseudonym “Helvidius” and demanding a long-since foregone seat for Congress at the grown-up table when foreign policy is formulated. Another theory of the Virginian proved correct was his post-constitutional observation that the people might sometimes be necessary to control the passions of the governors rather than the other way around.

In this case—in an explicit reversal of Publius’ expectations—the public calmed a rush to judgment on the part of elites. The result implicated what have been called two separate “Madisonian systems”[1]: the constitutional order theorized in The Federalist and the party system defended in the National Gazette essays of the 1790s and Madison’s subsequent career.

First things first: Having criticized Congress in this space for foregoing its rightful constitutional place, two cheers are due—two only because there was no indication that legislators opposed a strike in Syria or, more important, were inclined to assert their institutional prerogatives before the president invited them to do so. But so invited, members of both parties rose to the occasion, and the result—though no vote was needed to achieve it—was to impede a military adventure that lacked public support.

This is where Congress belongs—perhaps earlier; the invitation might properly have been extended the first time a red line was drawn rather than in the chaotic moments immediately before a strike was apparently intended, but still—and the Philadelphia Constitution as expounded by Madison as Helvidius makes that clear. In the first essay of that series, written in 1793, Madison syllogistically describes war as the highest power of foreign policy; because Congress possesses it, he ascribes to the legislature powers lesser than it as well.

Yet here it gets interesting. Madison as Publius had written that such legislators would need to “refine and enlarge” the public views, but Madison the legislator himself was, around the same time, coming to the conclusion that it might instead be necessary to organize a party system to organize and even stimulate the public to action. He has been accused of inconsistency, but the deep thread that binds his thought is a repeated concern about impassioned or impulsive policy. He perceived it in the public in the pre-constitutional period and, later—particularly with the rise of the Adams Administration—in the Federalist regime: thus the need for a party system to give shape to unformed public opinion so that it might serve, when needed, as a meaningful restraint.

Something like a fusion of these perspectives has occurred surrounding Syria: Congress at least set the parameters of policy, hemmed in by public opinion stimulated by the process of decision. Significantly, it was the very process of Congressional deliberation that appeared to mobilize public opinion, whose intensity did not register until the First Branch was invited into the process. The striking and subsequent fact was the necessity of public opinion restraining an elite march to war. The factious dynamics—groupthink, “the contagion & collision of the passions,” as Madison wrote in his “Detached Memoranda”—occurred in Washington, not among the people.

Call that a constitutional victory. The danger is that the debacle surrounding this issue—Congress’ late entry into the game in particular—is such that it scuttles rather than sets the opposite precedent: future presidents, rather than being bound by the invitation of the legislature into the Syria process, feel explicitly repulsed by it. The problem therein is that presidents acting unilaterally have the capacity to move public opinion by dint of decision, which is to say that once the flag is waved, the people rally; the moment the first shot is fired, to oppose the mission becomes, by a mystical process of political transmogrification, to oppose the troops. Congressional deliberation, by contrast, encourages public deliberation too. It served its precise purpose here: slowing matters down to allow questions to be asked, objections to be asserted, passions to dissipate.

The constitutional machinery in that sense worked. The House did what it was supposed to do: register the people’s views and stop a war they did not support. Interestingly, with respect to a broader purpose—the dissipation of passion—the machinery worked but in reverse: The institutions most removed from public opinion seemed most eager for war. Public opinion, assumed in The Federalist to be a source of passion to be refined by statesmen, in fact did the refining. That ought to induce introspection on the part of Angelo M. Codevilla’s “Ruling Class.”


[1] John Zvesper, “The Madisonian Systems,” Western Political Quarterly, June 1984.