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Madison’s Metronome by Greg Weiner

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Greg Weiner

Reviewed by:
On April 25, 2012
Last modified:September 29, 2012


Madison's Metronome is an extremely honest and thorough assessment of Madison's political theories as they relate to the construction of the United States federal system. The book is a "chips fall where they may" look at a remarkable mind.

Madison's Metronome by Greg WeinerBefore getting into the meat of the book review, this reviewer is compelled to remark on the physical presentation of Madison’s Metronome.  Bibliophiles will appreciate the quality binding and paper, along with the beautiful cover art.  The University of Kansas Press is to be congratulated on producing a gorgeous volume.  It is truly a pleasure to read, so much so, in fact that nary a mark or highlight did this reviewer make upon it, instead opting to make use of a separate pad and paper for annotations.

On to the review.

Madison’s Metronome is an extremely honest and thorough assessment of Madison’s political theories as they relate to the construction of the United States federal system.  The book is a “chips fall where they may” look at a remarkable mind.  Author Greg Weiner does an incredible job of avoiding even the smell of a partisan agenda of any kind.  This is truly an academic look at Madison’s views on republican government.  Honest conservatives and progressive liberals alike will find things in the book that make them stop and reassess.  Although Weiner’s book is thorough and deep, it is not dry.  The author manages to explain some pretty complex concepts in a straightforward and accessible manner.  On the other hand, it’s not bedtime reading, either.  It is definitely not a book written for someone unfamiliar with the history of the time.  It is, from the first, a conversation (in the vein of Mortimer Adler’s Great Conversation) between Weiner and other historians, past and present.

Weiner’s approach at presenting his thesis is methodical and topical rather than chronological.  Although there is a fair amount of biographical information interspersed throughout, Madison’s Metronome is not a biography.  Instead it is a look at Madison’s mind and his understanding of the system that he is often credited with building.  His approach works in part because, although Madison’s thinking matured and evolved throughout his long life, he remained remarkably consistent on many things, chief among them, his vision of the role of time in a democratic republic.  Although Weiner doesn’t explicitly say so, his analysis of Madison’s thinking leads to one inescapable conclusion  – Madison was one smart guy.  Supporting this assessment, we’ll begin our review of Weiner’s book by quoting the opening paragraph,

Twelve-year-olds do not read Michel de Montaigne anymore, much less take notes.  James Madison did both, and a circa 1763 entry in his child commonplace book indicates that one of the French essayist’s observations made a particular impression: “Time,” Montaigne wrote and Madison transcribed, “is the Sovereign Physician of our Passions, & gains its End chiefly by supplying our imaginations with other & new Affairs, wearing out the Old by new impressions.” To this, Madison added an observation of his own: “Our passions are like Torrents, which may be diverted, but not obstructed.”

Weiner does a masterful job of showing how these two ideas shaped Madison’s thinking about republican government for his entire life.  The first of these ideas comprises Weiner’s primary thesis on the role of time in moderating the passions which rule the majority in society.  The second is Madison’s practical understanding of human nature and it’s inevitability.

Throughout the course of the book, Weiner makes a series of compelling arguments to support his view that Madison was not opposed to majority rule in the way many have interpreted his writings to say. Instead, Madison believed that majority rule was inevitable and, in fact, the only truly just mechanism of governance.  This is not to say that Madison did not see the dangers inherent in the formation of an abusive majority to the rights of the minority.  But, Madison saw the risks of tyranny as being greater from government than from majority rule.  Madison saw the moderating influence of time, coupled with the broadest majority possible, as the best counter to the latter.  The checks and balances of the federal system were constructed as an answer to the former.  But even this mechanism is based on utilizing the moderating influence of time to ensure that the passions of the moment were given time to abate.  The different election cycles of congress – every two years for the House of Representatives, 3 offset six year cycles for the Senate, 4 year terms for the President, and lifetime tenures for the Supreme Court, were all part of this design.  Weiner characterizes,

… one function of the Constitution was to serve as a metronome, setting the proper tempo for republican politics.

Although Madison is often credited as the father of the Constitution, this was an honor that he firmly refused to accept.  Nevertheless, it is probably safe to say that without Madison we probably wouldn’t have a Constitution.  He may not have been responsible for writing it in its present form, but his influence moderated much of what was proposed by others.  Madison’s perspective is unique for many reasons, among them that he was one of the youngest delegates to the Convention and its last survivor.  It is thanks to Madison’s copious notes that we have a record of what transpired during those sweltering weeks in Philadelphia.

In Weiner’s view, historians poring over those notes, The Federalist, or any of his other writings, sometimes confuse Madison’s concern with the abuse of the majorities with opposition to majority rule.  Others falsely accuse Madison of being majoritarian only when it suited his argument.  Weiner makes a good case for Madison’s intellectual honesty on this topic.  Per his analysis, Madison saw majority rule as the only legitimate form of governance.  In fact, there is considerable evidence to support that Madison felt that a minority obstructing the will of the majority for too long was bound to be the source of civil unrest.  Weiner points to the Articles of Confederation and the ability of even one state to obstruct the will of the majority as being a major frustration to good government.

A key to understanding Madison as both a staunch federalist and a populist majoritarian, is to look at things the way he did.  In his view, liberalism (in the classical sense) and republicanism were not at odds with one another but operating on a different plane.  Madison considered majority rule as a mechanism for making decisions, and liberalism as a criterion for evaluating them.  The trick was to slow down the passions of the moment enough that reason would have time to evaluate the course.  That evaluation would be done by the people, through their representatives.  If a majority view cohered long enough to weather election cycles, Madison figured it was likely to be a fair reflection of majority interests.  If, on the other hand, the passions of the moment dissipated before they could take hold, then they probably weren’t in the true best interest of the majority anyway.

According to Weiner, Madison had faith that the majority would eventually make the right decisions, but in the short term, if not forced to consider the ramifications of what was being advocated, might enact legislation that was counter to the long term interest of society as whole.  Madison sought to inject time for reflection by erecting systematic barriers to hasty decisions.  Weiner contends that Madison never really questioned the right of majorities to impose their will, only their inability to discern the right course at times.

There was only one exception to this.  In matters of conscience, Madison felt that the majority had no claim on minority interest, but not for the reasons popularly ascribed to him.  For Madison, it was not that the individual should not be imposed upon by the majority but that the individual owed allegiance to God first, then government.

It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society. Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe: And if a member of Civil Society, do it with a saving of his allegiance to the Universal Sovereign. We maintain therefore that in matters of Religion, no man’s right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance. True it is, that no other rule exists, by which any question which may divide a Society, can be ultimately determined, but the will of the majority; but it is also true that the majority may trespass on the rights of the minority.  From A Memorial and Remonstrance written to the Virginia General Assembly.

Weiner explains,

The key to Madison’s argument lies in its syllogistic hierarchy of associations and the obligations that attend them.  These rise from “subordinate associations” to the “general authority” to the “Universal Sovereign.”  Conscience is the only assertion of right that logically outranks the general authority on this scale.  Conversely, and equally important, every other right deals with associations or activities – such as the individual’s possession of property – that would be located below the general authority on the same scale, and thus be regulable by it.  That is not to say the individual is at the mercy of the general authority – that is, the majority.  Again, the majority is obliged to maintain the rule of law, including in its regulation of rights.  The relevant point for the present analysis is that the individual’s right of conscience actually derives from the individual’s obligation to an authority that outranks society.  For another right to be comparably immune from majorities, it would have to entail obligations exceeding the individual’s obligation to society as well.  No other right contemplated in Madison’s writings meets that criterion.  The point, in sum, is not that society is not entitled to interfere with the individual.  Madison indicates clearly that it can.  What society is not entitled to do is interfere with the Creator’s superior claim to the individual’s allegiance.

This analysis may not sit well with contemporary discussions about individual rights or religion.   Madison recognized the danger inherent in majority rule but saw no alternative.  His reasoning was not on the basis of the rights of the individual, but the Creator’s superior claim.  Weiner doesn’t take sides in the argument, but contrasts Madison’s view with that of Thomas Paine, who posited that the rights of the individual were supreme in matters of conscience because the individual was supreme.  It would be interesting to explore Weiner’s thoughts on the merits of Madison’s argument in comparison with those of Bastiat.

What, then, is law? It is the collective organization of the individual right to lawful defense.

Each of us has a natural right — from God — to defend his person, his liberty, and his property. These are the three basic requirements of life, and the preservation of any one of them is completely dependent upon the preservation of the other two. For what are our faculties but the extension of our individuality? And what is property but an extension of our faculties? If every person has the right to defend even by force — his person, his liberty, and his property, then it follows that a group of men have the right to organize and support a common force to protect these rights constantly. Thus the principle of collective right — its reason for existing, its lawfulness — is based on individual right. And the common force that protects this collective right cannot logically have any other purpose or any other mission than that for which it acts as a substitute. Thus, since an individual cannot lawfully use force against the person, liberty, or property of another individual, then the common force — for the same reason — cannot lawfully be used to destroy the person, liberty, or property of individuals or groups.

Such a perversion of force would be, in both cases, contrary to our premise. Force has been given to us to defend our own individual rights. Who will dare to say that force has been given to us to destroy the equal rights of our brothers? Since no individual acting separately can lawfully use force to destroy the rights of others, does it not logically follow that the same principle also applies to the common force that is nothing more than the organized combination of the individual forces?

If this is true, then nothing can be more evident than this: The law is the organization of the natural right of lawful defense. It is the substitution of a common force for individual forces. And this common force is to do only what the individual forces have a natural and lawful right to do: to protect persons, liberties, and properties; to maintain the right of each, and to cause justice to reign over us all.  The Law

But, this is of course outside of the realm of Weiner’s thesis, which is to explain Madison’s point of view rather than to critique it.  However, at the end of Madison’s Metronome Weiner does venture a few observations about the suitability of Madison’s system of temporal republicanism in the present day.

Whereas Madison believed decisions should take longer to make as their gravity increased, the contemporary ethos holds the opposite: the more urgent change is assumed to be, the more quickly it must be delivered.  … Success equals change divided by time (s=c/t).  The more change a political actor can deliver in a shorter period of time, the more successful he or she is assumed to be.

The application of this formula is problematic for several reasons, including the fact that it inherently classifies prudence as failure, at least insofar as prudence values inaction when change is not specifically warranted and gradualism when it is.  Change is not always necessary; sometimes, Madison might even say “usually,” mere governance is.  The chief flaw of the speed standard, however, is that it places stresses on the constitutional system that it was not designed to bear and was, on the contrary, specifically engineered to avert.  The result, we have seen, is a simultaneous and apparently endless escalation of both expectations and disappointments.

In conclusion, Weiner returns to an earlier theme not yet covered in this review.  Madison hoped that time, coupled with reverence for the Constitution, which would be strengthened by time, would help make the majority less prone to violent change.  He thought that with time, people would be less prone to modify or destroy the parchment barriers of the Constitution.  It was for this reason that he sought to inculcate reverence for the founding documents.

In a day when the Constitution is under attack from those who claim it is out-dated, when reverence for its principles is denigrated, one has to wonder if there isn’t a method to this madness.

1 comment

1 James D. Best { 04.25.12 at 8:09 am }

Interesting. I always thought that Madison believed the concentration of power was the greatest threat to liberty. Every element of his design was meant to limit, distribute, balance, and check power. After reading this, it occurs to me that time is a great distributor or power. Madison was obviously a genius that thought in multiple dimensions.


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