John Parillo: Federalist 55 and Avoiding Tyranny

James Madison: Public Domain

The issue of how to ensure that the new nation does not fall into tyrannical hands is a constant throughout the Federalist Papers. Sticking with the nature of the House of Representatives, Madison explores the arguments against its structure. These arguments break down across a couple of lines. The first is that the body is too small to avoid a slide toward tyranny, the second is a question of whether this new body will be close enough to the people it is designed to represent, the third is that it will undoubtably be staffed by wealthy people, and lastly that, as the country grows, the ‘too small’ argument would get worse. It is important to remember that, as natural as the House of Representatives is to us today, it was unheard of at the time. Yes, other nations had lower chambers, but the idea that all government spending would originate in the People’s House (something that we have also gone away from in modern governance) was an absolutely radical idea at the time.

Madison does not address every objection but, as to the correct number of representatives, Madison points out that the states themselves have vastly different assemblies and that “no political problem is less susceptible of a precise solution” [1] than the question of how many representatives is either enough or too many. If the populous states had the same ratio of representatives to population as did the less populated states, the result would be an unruly mess. But it is easier to know when there are too few than when there are too many.

And that while “Sixty or seventy men may be more properly trusted with a given degree of power than six or seven” it does not necessarily follow that more is better. Here we see Madison questioning Plato’s assumption that a small group of learned philosophers ought to rule. Because human nature is immutable, Madison points out that “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.” And the mob is what the founders feared the most. It is again important to point out that the founders distrusted democracy for the same reason that Plato did. Direct democracy pits classes against each other, and the natural result of that is various factions will freely choose tyranny as a means to protect themselves from each other.

We already discussed how frequent elections, and the presumed turnover that would result, are a defense against tyranny. If a significant portion of the body of legislatures is turning over every two years, then the opportunity for mischief is decreased. Says Madison, “I am unable to conceive that the people of America, in their present temper, or under any circumstances which can speedily happen, will choose, and every second year repeat the choice of, sixty-five or a hundred men who would be disposed to form and pursue a scheme of tyranny or treachery.” (Sixty-five being the number of representatives originally.) If that were to happen, state legislatures ”which possess so many means of counteracting, the federal legislature” would step in and preserve the liberty of their constituents.

What might the other threats be then? Madison mentions the possibility of foreign influence, “gold” buying off individual legislators. But if they could be bought off, then certainly they would have been bought off during the Revolution, and those representatives were in office for three years instead of the two proposed. What if the new House were to hold their deliberations out of the public eye? Again, that was not a problem during the Revolution, and the intent is that the people’s house would be very close population that they represent.

Could the House be influenced by the other branches of government? The house determines the payments made to individuals in other branches so unless there is a vast conspiracy in the house to increase payments so that they can be bought off by others that is unlikely. The danger of appointments being misused is mitigated by the ‘advise and consent’ role of the senate and the president’s nominating power, and besides, the proposed constitution prevents members of congress from holding any other civil office. But even if there were options for appointments outside of congress as a way to gain influence, it is unlikely that they would be sufficient in number, because of the very limited role of the federal government, for them to have any real influence on the congress. The limited role of the federal government was seen as a critical bulwark against the accumulation of power and tyranny.

The constitution was designed with the flaws of mankind in mind, Madison acknowledges that there is a certain “degree of depravity in mankind” and that no angel class of man exists. The constitution must take that into account of course, ensuring that no individual or small group has enough power to subvert the freedoms the founders wanted for the citizens. But just as there exists evil in mankind there also exists “other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence.” There has to be virtue in the citizens of the new republic. That is a prerequisite for its success. Otherwise “nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.”



To read all of John Parillo’s work on the Federalist Papers, check here.

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  1. All quotes are from


4 thoughts on “John Parillo: Federalist 55 and Avoiding Tyranny”

  1. I think they did a pretty good job of coming up with the numbers. As you say, it is human nature and that thing that proves that no angel class exists among men.

    One problem I believe they could have addressed more carefully is determining the constitutionality of a bill, wherever it originates, because even back then, there was enough British law that would have guided how we kept tyranny at bay, even though Britain was a monarchy.
    Anything devised by man can be destroyed by man. But our Founders did a pretty good job, especially with what they had to work with. There was a lot more wisdom in the Founders’ minds than there are now.

  2. For 13 states, OK fine. How many states today have larger populations than the first 13 combined ?
    Regional entities also make sense.
    However, each layer of government makes government less worth having as each layer takes away.

    Harboring in DC is where ship hulls rot. Spread and disburse the center of authority / power.
    Concentration of small numbers in one place is poison – it’s too easy for corruption to thrive.
    Disburse and spread the centers around, or simply stop funding so much that is plainly the ill – the Administrative State.

    Yes, the founders did a great job, no doubt !
    But, since 1900 delusions of grandeur has brought a Leviathan, thus their work is only a shadow today. We see it at its clearest this week. The War against the USA is official by naked aggression and invasion.

    Our states must do more to insure our system complies again to reason and the reasons for our creation.

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