- 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 www.vonward.com. He welcomes email at
- Paul Von Ward - P.O. Box 55, Monteagle, TN 37356 - 931/924-3684
- Gods, Genes, & Consciousness and Our Solarian Legacy
discount prices at Hampton Roads Publishing. Order books and see my schedule
- Books are also available at on-line and neighborhood
- See my website at http://www.vonward.com