Tyranny Of A Majority -
A James Madison View
By Paul Von Ward
Our 4th President, Father of the Constitution and architect of the Bill of Rights, may have foreseen the current push by a religious minority to use majoritarian devices in Congress to tyrannize the rest of the country. He must have feared it when he wrote Thomas Jefferson in France from the Continental Congress on October 24, 1787. After recognizing the need for a majority in routine votes, he asked when "a majority... united by a common interest or a passion cannot be constrained from oppressing the minority, what remedy can be found...?"
He went on to express his hope that the newly forming nation would be large enough, with enough "different interests and parties... that no common interest or passion will be likely to unite a majority of the whole number in an unjust pursuit." In the areas of civil and religious rights, he predicted, "If [one] sect form a majority and have the power, other sects will be sure to be depressed." This fear grew out of the American colonies' experience with 18th-century European nations where religion and state were synonymous. (Prior to arriving as a new delegate in New York, in the Virginia House of Delegates, he had succeeded in disestablishing the Anglican Church from its role as the official religion and defeated a bill that would have supported it with a tax on all Virginia citizens.)
With today's debate in Washington and the media about the so-called "nuclear option" to eliminate the cloture rule in the Senate in the case of judicial nominations, this historical perspective may be helpful. Groups with a theocratic agenda now seek to overturn the two-century tradition in the U.S. Senate whose rules now require a 60% vote to shut off debate in a so-called "filibuster".
In this tradition, both recent Republican and Democratic majorities have used the filibuster, or its threat, to prevent Senate votes on carefully selected pieces of legislation or nominations. This is possible due to Senate Rule XXII which requires 60 votes to impose cloture on extended debate which prevents any other action by the Senate. Such a two-century-old tradition in the Senate was one answer to Madison's question that evolved from political experience. This practice provides a legislative bulwark against tyranny by a Senate majority.
Based on his experience in both the Virginia House and the Continental Congress, Madison became "uncomfortable in pressing for a national government that could possibly be taken over by a unified majority faction." "He was not optimistic that representative bodies will constrain themselves... the capacity to build majority factions with no concern for other constraints is most likely to undermine the common interest." (I would say the "no concern for other constraints" describes the present theocratic sentiment of the special interest groups putting pressure on Bill Frist to use the "nuclear option" to diminish the independence of the judicial branch established in the Constitution.)
It should be recalled that, given our two-per-state Constitutional requirement, one combination of a majority of present Senators can represent only 16 percent of U.S. citizens. Madison stressed "concern for protection of the rights of minorities, as well as opportunity for expression of the majority will". He saw a majority of representatives in a body as having the right to speak for the whole, but he saw "the right of revolution... as an ultimate remedy in extreme cases of governmental tyranny." Wise political leaders can find ways to balance the natural rights of all, as long as they eschew claims of supernatural commands.
Such concerns pressing on Madison, Jefferson, and others led, among other issues, to the separation of powers built into the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights that protects individuals from religious sects or political factions. Several super-majoritarian checks on simple majorities were considered important enough to be included in the Constitution itself: Article V of the Constitution requires 3/4 of the states must ratify an amendment to the Constitution. Two-thirds majorities are required in the Senate to override a Presidential veto and to convict U.S. officials impeached by the House of Representatives.
Previous Senates have wisely established Rule XXII that requires a super-majority to cut off debate, to apply brakes (for good or ill depends on the eye of the beholder) in a highly polarized and passionate push for significant change. The wisdom of the Founders, and Senators over two centuries, recognizes that the nation needs some procedural safeguards to protect its longer term interests from its short-term heated arguments of the day. Perhaps such self-discipline accounts for the fact that ours is still the oldest democracy in the world.
Paul Von Ward, author of Dismantling the Pyramid: Government by the People and Gods, Genes, & Consciousness, feels a special affinity for James Madison. His web site is He welcomes email at
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