Is James Madison a Liberal Communitarian?

By Amitai Etzioni, University Professor and Professor of International Relations at George Washington University

Communitarianism is surely one of the smallest and least-known branches of social philosophy, and liberal communitarianism is even less recognized within academia. Both are rarely mentioned in public discourse. However, communitarian ideas are found in many historical and contemporary belief systems — including the Old and New Testaments (Acts 4:32: “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common”); in the Islamic concept of shūrā (“consultation”); in Confucianism; in Roman Catholic social thought (particularly the papal encyclical Rerum Novarum [1891]); in moderate conservatism (“To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle…of public affections” — Edmund Burke); and in social democracy, especially Fabianism.

More recently, communitarian ideas have played a significant role in public life through their incorporation into the electoral platforms and policies of Western political leaders. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, and U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama all advanced such ideas, in various ways. Moreover, these ideas have special import to deliberations about contemporary conditions, as many people across the world find both libertarian ideas and collective ideas compelling but also woefully insufficient.

This article asks one narrow question: can the political theory of James Madison be characterized as a major work of a liberal communitarianism? The article draws on secondary sources, specifically on the masterful book The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President, by Noah Feldman, because the article does not seek to provide a new reading of Madison’s texts, but to determine what they reveal about his philosophical position.[1]

Section I defines liberal communitarianism and outlines the ways in which it combines liberal and communitarian principles into one theoretical model. Section II explores the liberal aspects of Madison’s thought, whereas Section III explores the communitarian aspects of his thought. Finally, Section IV discusses the ways in which he combines these two principles, drawing on text already introduced.

I. LIBERAL COMMUNITARIANISM, INRODUCED

Liberal communitarianism seeks to combine two fundamentally opposing theories: liberalism and communitarianism. Liberalism and communitarianism maintain different conceptions of the role of moral reasoning in public spaces and political bodies, and, therefore, these two theoretical frameworks oftentimes produce opposing political prescriptions.

Liberalism, with its emphasis on rational thought and the autonomy of the individual, posits that every person can and should develop her own conception of the good and that the state should be morally neutral. For liberal societies, morality is a private matter. The main scholars responsible for the revival of liberal philosophy in the second half of the 20th century are Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman on the right and John Rawls on the left.[2] In contrast, communitarianism posits that communities as a whole should come together in public spaces to define the good in terms of core shared values. Re-emerging in the 1980s as a critique of contemporary liberalism, communitarian social philosophy holds that individualism leads to the atomization of society, harming members who need social bonding, ultimately concluding that a flourishing society requires individual commitments to the common good (in other words, social responsibility). The main scholars who contributed to the communitarian social philosophy are Charles Taylor, Michael Sandel, Shlomo Avineri, Seyla Benhabib, William A. Galston, and Amitai Etzioni.[3]

Communitarianism has an authoritarian branch, as seen in the social conditions of Singapore and Japan. This kind of communitarianism maintains that individuals are to be viewed as cells of an organic body, whose main contributions and meaning are attained from their service to the communal whole, including both the local community and that of the nation. Social pressure is a main way that individuals are held in line. Some authoritarian societies draw heavily on the state for enforcement of their values; however, in all, social bonds and pressures to conform to norms play a key role. Japan has some authoritarian elements and still makes short shrift of the rights of women, ethnic minorities, LGBTQ people, and disabled people.

Untethered, both liberalism and communitarianism fail to fulfill fundamental precepts of democracy. Liberalism fails to maintain the mutual respect and bonds among citizens required for reasoned debate and the formation of shared normative understandings, the basis of shared policies, whereas communitarianism fails to protect individual rights.

Liberal communitarianism assumes from the outset that a society ought to treat both individual rights and the common good as basic moral principles and that neither should be assumed to a priori trump the other. It does not overlook the fundamentally incompatible nature of liberalism and communitarianism; rather, it seeks to embrace their incompatibilities, because one’s strength is the other’s deficiency. Liberal communitarians recommend a constant balancing of the two set of moral principles, requiring legislators and citizens alike to weigh the common good against individual rights to create policies and social norms that protect both. And, when the common good and liberty come into conflict, liberal communitarians must rule which should take precedence.

Take, for example, the question of when the state should impede on personal privacy when traveling on commercial airplanes. Liberals have argued that the Transportation Security Agency’s (TSA) pre-flight screenings impede on citizens’ right to privacy (they constitute a search) and demanded that they be ended. A communitarian may argue that searches may be used to enforce all kinds of legal and even social codes, including on drugs, pornography, and so on. A liberal communitarian may well hold that privacy may be violated for national security, when the invasion is minimal and the gain significant, however not for fishing expeditions against all possible violations of law. Changing historical conditions, including both external and domestic developments, lead liberal communitarians to draw the balance at different points.[4] For example, the 2001 attacks on the U.S. homeland justified some stronger security measures, however not a carte blanche, not suspension of the habeas corpus, not setting up detention camps.

II. COMMUNITARIAN ELEMENTS IN MADISON’S THOUGHT

In communitarian deliberations it is crucial to state which community one employs as one’s frame of reference. In particular, is the emphasis on local communities — especially residential communities and villages (to which communitarians often refer) — or the nation, which is best viewed as a community invested in the state? As we shall see shortly, Madison’s work is first and foremost that of a nation builder. For him, the relevant community was the nation that was being cobbled together from thirteen colonies.

Madison developed his understanding of the United States’ need for nation building over the course of the decade in which the United States operated under the Articles of Confederation. He became increasingly disenchanted and frustrated with the inadequate, if not nonexistent, federal power the Articles allowed. Madison’s concerns with the Articles included: the inability of the Congress to coerce state action, the lack of constitutional supremacy, the absence of a unified foreign policy (as states were not obligated to comply with international treaties), the lack of a domestic trade policy and the mechanism to create one, and the vulnerability of individual states to local insurrections (specifically referencing Shay’s rebellion).[5] While Madison’s concerns with the Articles are expressed in legal and administrative terms, the underlying issue is the question of which community should be the dominant one: that of each state, acting as an independent sovereign nation, or that of the United States, a new unified nation.

Theoretically, the Articles’ consensus-based system for national decision-making seems almost paradigmatically communitarian. In order for the national government to exercise power, every state had to first agree that any specific exercise of power was in its best interest and the best interest of its citizens. In theory, this system would provide the utmost protection for the interests of local communities, as every decision had to be agreed upon by all states in order to enable the nation to act as a whole. In practice, however, the Articles did not function as a communitarian utopia; rather, the national government was barely able to function. Steeped in gridlock and infighting, the national government was almost powerless, leaving states to behave, in effect, as independent sovereign nations. Madison’s position as a builder of the national community is highlighted by two issues, briefly explored next: his views on a national navy and on enlargement.

National Navy

In April 1781, Madison wrote to Thomas Jefferson to inform him of his intention to propose an amendment to the Articles of Confederation to authorize Congress to create a national navy, and to convince Jefferson of this amendment’s merits.[6] Madison was frustrated by the failure of the trade embargo against Britain that Congress had voted on the year before. Every state participated in the embargo except Delaware, which took advantage of the limited supply of goods available as a result of the embargo to increase their price and reap great profits. Even though just one state failed to comply with the national policy, the federal government’s inability to force Delaware to comply with the embargo made it essentially ineffective. Instead, Delaware’s non-compliance greatly encumbered U.S. foreign policy.[7]

Madison sought to correct this problem by creating a national navy that would enforce the embargo. Madison held that the navy must be staffed and operated by citizens “taken in due proportions from every state.”[8] Emphasizing the national nature of his proposed navy, Madison insisted that every state must participate in the program and must provide sailors, or at the very least, citizens willing to train as sailors. He then wrote that these sailors, combined with “two or three vessels,” would form the national navy, an explicit measure of national community building.[9]

Madison argued that the national navy would serve as a national protectorate against disunion from two different potential aggressors: foreign and domestic. The navy, he wrote, “ought to be as fully impressed with the necessity of the union during the war as of its probable dissolutions after it.”[10] In 1781, in the throes of the Revolutionary War, Madison’s primary concern was the omnipresent threat of disunion by British aggression against the newly sovereign United States. He argued that unity was necessary to defeat the British and maintain sovereignty.

Madison also feared that, following the war, there would be no mechanism in place to protect states from attack from or conquer by other states. For example, mid-Atlantic and southern states would have no federal protection “against the insults and aggressions of their Northern brethren” should a state choose to attack them.[11] Thus, national community building was deemed essential not merely to protect one and all against outside aggression but also to protect against civil war.

Enlargement

In the spring of 1787, Madison wrote an essay, “Vices of the Political System of the United States,” in which he outlined the “vices” of the Articles of Confederation in order to argue that the U.S. required a new constitution with expanded national powers. This essay was essentially a plea to Congress to consider a constitutional convention allowing for a total reworking of the Articles to best serve the new nation. One key argument in the essay is a defense of what he called “enlargement,” namely, creating a system of government that would allow the United States to function as its own sovereign state instead of an assemblage of states. This was a major break with the prevailing views at the time. At the end of the 18th century, the philosophical consensus on the nature of republican governments was that they had to be small in size, both in terms of population and geography.[12] The justification for this size requirement, according to Feldman, was that only with a limited population and space could “every citizen … vote for himself or alternatively elect officials who would be close to the people he represented.”[13]

Madison argued, in contrast, that enlarging a republic can actually remedy some of the fatal flaws of smaller republics. Specifically, Madison was concerned that small republics quickly reduce to factions and whatever faction is in the majority will hold all of the power, threatening the interests of the republic as a whole. He maintained that small republics have no mechanisms to dissolve factions or to protect the interests of the minority. Without these mechanisms, the whole republic will inevitably suffer, because the interests of the majority are not the same as the interests of the whole community. Describing how the national republic would avoid such issues, Madison wrote:

The society becomes broken into a greater variety of interests, of pursuits, of passions, which check each other, whilst those who may feel a common sentiment have less opportunity of communication and concert.[14]

This statement contains three separate communitarian claims, next explored.

First, Madison held that, the bigger the community, “the greater variety of interests, of pursuits, of passions.”[15] For example, in 1787, Virginia’s economy depended on agricultural production, whereas New York’s economy depended on industry and trade. In the small republic of Virginia, the interests of non-farmers were in the minority, whereas the opposite was true in New York. However, in an enlarged republic, where Virginia farmers and New York trades people are equal citizens under the same sovereign state, both factions lose their majority. Each faction becomes diluted by the interests, pursuits, and passions of the other, and by those of different states and regions.

Second, Madison maintained that diluted factions in an enlarged republic would “check each other” from obtaining too much power. In short, while Virginia farmers had a majority in the Virginia legislature, on a national scale they lost this majority. No single faction in any state would ever have a national majority, because both population and interests are distributed across the states. A national government would require different coalitions of factions to form on different issues in order to create a majority. Madison posited that, given the diversity of factions across the states, national coalitions of factions would shift for each issue discussed in the national legislature, as factions that share one interest very likely would not share another. Therefore, on a national scale, the concern about a tyrannical majority becomes moot because the “majority” is always in flux, shifting with each issue in accordance with the different distributions of interests across factions.

Third, Madison argued that logistical concerns of communication across distance would prevent national factions from forming, writing that “those who may feel a common sentiment have less opportunity of communication and concert.”[16] In enlarging the nation, both the population and the geographic distance of the republic increase. According to Madison, while it is possible to organize people into local and regional factions through meetings and rallies as well as the distribution of pamphlets, the sheer distance that separates states from one another would prevent these factions from forming on the national level. (One might argue that Madison could have anticipated that this position would not hold once national communications became much easier, leading to national factions that cannot be contained).

In short, there are strong communitarian elements in Madison’s thinking and texts.

III. LIBERAL ELEMENTS IN MADISON’S THOUGHT

Madison’s work also demonstrates a deep commitment to the protection of individual rights such as life, liberty, and property. Specifically, his contributions to the drafting and passage of the Bill of Rights and his writings about religious freedom serve as two illustrative examples of this commitment.

Bill of Rights

Famously considered the most liberal part of the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights enumerates the individual rights and freedoms citizens of the new republic enjoy through the protection of the state. Madison played a key role in writing the first ten amendments to the Constitution. Analyzing Madison’s role in the ratification of the Bill of Rights in his book Empire of Liberty, Gordon Wood writes:

There is no question that it was Madison’s personal prestige and his dogged persistence that saw the amendments through the Congress … when all is said and done the remaining ten amendments — immortalized as the Bill of Rights — were Madison’s.[17]

According to Wood, we have Madison to thank for the specific enumeration of our rights, both civil and inalienable.

One of the most significant contributions Madison made to the Bill of Rights was not in the text itself but in his commentary on the amendments. He wrote, “independent tribunals of justice will consider themselves in a peculiar manner the guardians of those rights; they will be an impenetrable executive; they will be naturally led to resist every encroachment upon rights expressly stipulated for in the Constitution by the declaration of rights.”[18] Here Madison argued, perhaps for the first time, according to Feldman’s analysis, that a written bill of rights would transform judges into protectors of fundamental liberties, a function of government understood today to be a foundational aspect of liberal constitutional thought.[19]

While Madison’s authorship of the first ten amendments suggests a deep commitment to their contents, according to Feldman, Madison initially opposed the amendments, deeming them unnecessary. Defending this position, Madison wrote, “I freely own that I have never seen in the Constitution as it now stands the serious dangers which have alarmed many respectable citizens.”[20] While some people, most notably the Anti-Federalists, argued that there were not sufficient protections for individual rights in the Constitution, Madison argued that the document was sufficient as it was originally written, requiring no alterations. Furthermore, Madison wrote that he was concerned that a lengthy ratification process on a significant Constitutional addition might “throw the states into dangerous contentions” and might “furnish the secret enemies of the union with the opportunity of promoting its dissolution.”[21] Not only did he see additional amendments as unnecessary, but he was concerned such amendments might create a Constitutional crisis and destroy the newly established government he had created.

Ultimately, Madison reversed course and supported, wrote, and defended a new set of amendments, now known as the Bill of Rights. Acknowledging that he was previously “an inflexible opponent to the change of a single letter of the Constitution,” he declared that it was his “sincere opinion that the Constitution ought to be revised, and that the first Congress meeting under it [the Constitution], ought to prepare and recommend” such revisions.[22]

Religious Liberty

Madison advocated for a robust, dual-pronged, religious liberty: both the freedom from a state-established religion and the freedom to practice one’s religion free from persecution by the state. Three experiences — the first from before the Revolutionary War, the second from during the war, and the third from after the war — shaped and reflect Madison’s deep commitment to religious liberty, as told by Noah Feldman.

First, before the war and before Madison entered into public life, he was deeply concerned about instances of religious persecution in Virginia. He described how “five or six well-meaning men [are] in close [jail],” according to his account, “for publishing their religious sentiments which in the main are very unorthodox.”[23] Madison tried to build public support for the imprisoned preachers, speaking about the injustice of persecuting religious dissenters.[24] Feldman notes that the preachers jailed were Baptists, leaders of a denomination to which Madison did not belong. His objections to their religious persecution were not rooted in a personal sympathy for their beliefs, but rather in a principled argument that religious liberty is an inalienable right that all men hold.

Second, during the war and during Madison’s first term in the Virginia legislature, the issue of religious freedom was one of the discussion points during the drafting of the Virginia “Declaration of Rights.” The original language of the clause on religious freedom, drafted by George Mason, read: “all men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.”[25] Madison objected to the use of the word “toleration.” Madison believed that religious freedom was a right, inherent to all men, to practice as they see fit. Religious freedom is not a privilege granted by a tolerant majority but a freedom, and “all men are equally entitled to the full and free exercise of it [that is, religion] according to the dictates of conscience.”[26] The convention adopted Madison’s version of the clause, setting the precedent for what would later become the religious freedom clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Third, Madison continued his defense of religious freedom in his essay “Memorial and Remonstrance.” In this essay, he argued against the religious assessments bill, legislation which would allow for small amounts of tax dollars to go towards religious institutions of the voter’s choosing. Most notably, he argued that this taxation would be a slippery slope towards religious tyranny. He wrote, “the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever.”[27] He argued that the only way to protect religious liberty is to protect it absolutely and that there is no room for freedom on the spectrum from small religious taxes to religious tyranny. He wrote, “the religion of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate.”[28] The religious assessments bill would infringe on this inalienable right, and thus, it had to be defeated.

Feldman concisely summarizes Madison’s liberal approach to religious freedom in his analysis. He writes:

The right to form beliefs and make religious decisions resided in the individual, not the government. No one could make up someone else’s mind for him. This made the right to liberty of conscience as ‘unalienable’ as the rights of life, liberty, and property. One could not give the government what it could never be logically possible to give.[29]

In short, there are strong liberal elements in Madison’s philosophical position, as evidenced by his authorship of the Bill of Rights and his commitment to religious liberty. The strength of his liberal principles remains up for debate, as highlighted by the difference between Wood’s and Feldman’s interpretations of Madison’s position on the Bill of Rights, the former arguing that Madison took a principled position and the latter arguing that he took a pragmatic position on the amendments. However, by either interpretation, and taking into account Madison’s strong commitment to religious freedoms, there are clearly very strong liberal elements to his thinking and texts.

.

IV. LIBERAL COMMUNITARIANISM IN MADISON’S THOUGHT

Liberal communitarian philosophy, as noted from the outset, embraces both liberal and communitarian principles but recognizes that they oftentimes conflict with one another. Indeed, liberal communitarians hold that the resulting tensions are unavoidable; however, these differences can be worked out, leading to a constant redefinition of the proper balance between liberal and communitarian principles as they interact with changing historical circumstances.

Madison’s work shows that he was committed to both communitarian principles and liberal principles; however, he did not silo these commitments, choosing to respond to one circumstance according to the logic of the former and another according to the logic of the latter. Rather, he oftentimes deliberated over the conflict between his two commitments, engaging in a process of balancing these commitments and proposing remedies to the pressing problems of his time that attended to both.

Returning to Madison’s enlargement proposal, he detailed the ways in which enlarging sovereignty from individual states to a national government would promote the communitarian principle of national unity, as well as the state’s responsibility to ensure it. However, he also argued that “an enlargement of the sphere” might be “found to lessen the insecurity of private rights.”[30] In other words, enlargement would also promote the liberal principle of individual rights, and the state’s responsibility to protect them. That is, rather than creating a conflict, the same policy can advance both liberal and communitarian considerations.

The seeming ease with which Madison claims that enlargement will protect both the national community and individual rights can be understood by the “inverting symbiotic relationship” between liberal and communitarian principles.[31] This relationship suggests that, under some historical conditions — when social order is relatively low — one can improve both the liberal and communitarian elements of society. In effect, they help each other; establishing order among chaos serves the common good while protecting individual rights. However, once a community is relatively well-established, the relationship between these two sets of principles inverts and they come into conflict. No longer are the two principles mutually beneficial or symbiotic; rather, they work towards opposite ends. The direction in which Madison would have tilted if he lived in different historical circumstances, such as those of a more established nation, is difficult to determine, though the base of his support for individual rights, which we have seen is itself subject to different viewpoints, offers a clue.

Regardless of the particulars of circumstance, it is clear that Madison was deeply committed to both liberal and communitarian principles. He wrote that “the great desideratum in government is … to control one part of the society from invading the rights of another.”[32] Reiterating Lockean liberal argument, Madison believed that the role of government is to protect individual rights such as life, liberty (in general, and specifically as it pertains to religion), and property. But, “at the same time,” Madison argued that the government must also be “sufficiently controlled itself, from setting up an interest adverse to that of the whole society.”[33] Here, Madison emphasized that government must not only protect the individual and his rights, but also protect the community as a whole and the common good.

[1] Noah Feldman, The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President (New York: Random House, 2017).

[2] Friedrich von Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (1944).

Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom (1962).

John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (1971).

[3] Charles Taylor, Multiculturalism and the Politics of Recognition (1992).

Michael Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (1982) and Democracy’s Discontent (1996).

Shlomo Avineri, Communitarianism and Individualism (1992).

Seyla Benhabib, The Rights of Others (2000).

William A. Galston, Liberal Pluralism (2002).

[4] For further discussion of liberal communitarianism, see Philip Selznick (The Moral Commonwealth, 2002) and Amitai Etzioni (Spirit of Community: Rights, Responsibility, and the Communitarian Agenda, 1993) and (Reclaiming Patriotism, 2019).

[5] Feldman, The Three Lives of James Madison, 95–96.

[6] Feldman, The Three Lives of James Madison, 38–39.

[7] Feldman, The Three Lives of James Madison, 39.

[8] Madison to Jefferson, April 16, 1781, PJM, 3:71–72 via Feldman, The Three Lives of James Madison, 39.

[9] Madison to Jefferson, April 16, 1781, PJM, 3:71–72 via Feldman, The Three Lives of James Madison, 39.

[10] Madison to Jefferson, November 18, 1781, PJM, 3:308 via Feldman, The Three Lives of James Madison, 40.

[11] Madison to Jefferson, April 16, 1781, PJM, 3:71–72 via Feldman, The Three Lives of James Madison, 39.

[12] The small-republic theory was made popular in the mid-18th century, through the publication of Montesquieu’s seminal theoretical text, Spirit of the Laws. This theory was only seriously challenged half a century later, by Hume and Publius, two thinkers who greatly influenced Madison’s thought and work.

[13] Feldman, The Three Lives of James Madison, 98.

[14] Feldman, The Three Lives of James Madison, 98.

[15] Feldman, The Three Lives of James Madison, 98.

[16] Feldman, The Three Lives of James Madison, 98.

[17] Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic 1789–1815 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 69.

[18] Feldman, The Three Lives of James Madison, 273.

[19] Feldman, The Three Lives of James Madison, 273.

[20] Feldman, 252.

[21] Feldman, 252.

[22] Feldman, 253.

[23] Feldman, The Three Lives of James Madison, 12.

[24] Feldman, The Three Lives of James Madison, 12.

[25] Feldman, The Three Lives of James Madison, 26.

[26] Feldman, The Three Lives of James Madison, 26.

[27] Feldman, The Three Lives of James Madison, 63.

[28] Feldman, The Three Lives of James Madison, 64.

[29] Feldman, The Three Lives of James Madison, 64.

[30] Feldman, 98.

[31] Etzioni, The New Golden Rule (1996).

[32] Feldman, 99.

[33] Feldman, 99.

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Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and professor of international relations at the George Washington University.

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Amitai Etzioni

Amitai Etzioni

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and professor of international relations at the George Washington University.

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