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Quotation by James Madison on accumulation of powers

Topics: Tyranny, Government


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Quotation by James Madison on accumulation of powers and tyranny.

"The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands ... may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny."
~ James Madison
in The Federalist Papers

Click here to read author biography and to view additional quotations by James Madison.

Photo of Alaska's Inside Passage by Rand Green.

Contextual Notes

The above quotation is taken from The Federalist No. 47, published in the New York Packet
 Jan. 30, 1788, and entitled "The Particular Structure of the New Government and the Distribution of Power Among Its Different Parts."

The Federalist Papers were penned by Madison, Alexander Hamilton and others, writing under the name Publius, to make the case for ratification of the new U.S. Constitution which had been hammered out by the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.

In The Federalist No. 47, Madison examines the structure of the government formed by the Constitution and the distribution of power "among its constituent parts."

In the process of that examination, he states that
"The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary,
in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary,
self appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny."

Some have used this quotation as evidence that the Founders intended
an absolute separation of powers among the legislative, executive and judicial
branches of government, but a complete reading of the article makes it clear that Madison is saying quite a different thing; that, in fact, checks and balances among the different branches of government by each having some measure of control over the others was necessary to keep any one branch from becoming too powerful.

The paragraphs that follow show the quotation in context,
which is essential to understanding the author's true intend:

One of the principal objections inculcated by the more respectable adversaries to the Constitution, is its supposed violation of the political maxim, that the legislative, executive, and judiciary departments ought to be separate and distinct. In the structure of the federal government, no regard, it is said, seems to have been paid to this essential precaution in favor of liberty. The several departments of power are distributed and blended in such a manner as at once to destroy all symmetry and beauty of form, and to expose some of the essential parts of the edifice to the danger of being crushed by the disproportionate weight of other parts.

No political truth is certainly of greater intrinsic value, or is stamped with the authority of more enlightened patrons of liberty, than that on which the objection is founded. The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.
[Bold emphasis added to identify the quotation in question.]

Were the federal Constitution, therefore, really chargeable with the accumulation of power, or with a mixture of powers, having a dangerous tendency to such an accumulation, no further arguments would be necessary to inspire a universal reprobation of the system. I persuade myself, however, that it will be made apparent to every one, that the charge cannot be supported, and that the maxim on which it relies has been totally misconceived and misapplied.

In order to form correct ideas on this important subject, it will be proper to investigate the sense in which the preservation of liberty requires that the three great departments of power should be separate and distinct.

The oracle who is always consulted and cited on this subject is the celebrated Montesquieu. If he be not the author of this invaluable precept in the science of politics, he has the merit at least of displaying and recommending it most effectually to the attention of mankind. Let us endeavor, in the first place, to ascertain his meaning on this point.

The British Constitution was to Montesquieu what Homer has been to the didactic writers on epic poetry. As the latter have considered the work of the immortal bard as the perfect model from which the principles and rules of the epic art were to be drawn, and by which all similar works were to be judged, so this great political critic appears to have viewed the Constitution of England as the standard, or to use his own expression, as the mirror of political liberty; and to have delivered, in the form of elementary truths, the several characteristic principles of that particular system. That we may be sure, then, not to mistake his meaning in this case, let us recur to the source from which the maxim was drawn.

On the slightest view of the British Constitution, we must perceive that the legislative, executive, and judiciary departments are by no means totally separate and distinct from each other. The executive magistrate forms an integral part of the legislative authority. He alone has the prerogative of making treaties with foreign sovereigns, which, when made, have, under certain limitations, the force of legislative acts. All the members of the judiciary department are appointed by him, can be removed by him on the address of the two Houses of Parliament, and form, when he pleases to consult them, one of his constitutional councils. One branch of the legislative department forms also a great constitutional council to the executive chief, as, on another hand, it is the sole depositary of judicial power in cases of impeachment, and is invested with the supreme appellate jurisdiction in all other cases. The judges, again, are so far connected with the legislative department as often to attend and participate in its deliberations, though not admitted to a legislative vote.

From these facts, by which Montesquieu was guided, it may clearly be inferred that, in saying "There can be no liberty where the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or body of magistrates," or, "if the power of judging be not separated from the legislative and executive powers," he did not mean that these departments ought to have no partial agency in, or no control over, the acts of each other. His meaning, as his own words import, and still more conclusively as illustrated by the example in his eye, can amount to no more than this, that where the whole power of one department is exercised by the same hands which possess the whole power of another department, the fundamental principles of a free constitution are subverted.

This would have been the case in the constitution examined by him, if the king, who is the sole executive magistrate, had possessed also the complete legislative power, or the supreme administration of justice; or if the entire legislative body had possessed the supreme judiciary, or the supreme executive authority.

This, however, is not among the vices of that constitution. The magistrate in whom the whole executive power resides cannot of himself make a law, though he can put a negative on every law; nor administer justice in person, though he has the appointment of those who do administer it. The judges can exercise no executive prerogative, though they are shoots from the executive stock; nor any legislative function, though they may be advised with by the legislative councils. The entire legislature can perform no judiciary act, though by the joint act of two of its branches the judges may be removed from their offices, and though one of its branches is possessed of the judicial power in the last resort. The entire legislature, again, can exercise no executive prerogative, though one of its branches constitutes the supreme executive magistracy, and another, on the impeachment of a third, can try and condemn all the subordinate officers in the executive department.

Madison then points out that in the then-existing constitutions of the "various state" of the United States, although in some instances the very axiom to which he referred had been expressly laid down within those constitutions, "there is not a single instance in which the several departments of power have been kept absolutely separate and distinct."

Concluding, Madison states, "What I have wished to evince is, that the charge brought against the proposed Constitution, of violating the sacred maxim of free government" by its failure to estabalish absolute separation of powers among the branches of government "is warranted neither by the real meaning annexed to that maxim by its author, nor by the sense in which it has hitherto been understood in America."

In The Federalist No. 48, Madison will go on to argue that the various branches of government should not, in fact, be "so far separated as to have no constitutional control over each other."

None of which, of course. changes the fundamental maxim that the powers of government should not be concentrated in the same hands, and that such an accumulation of powers, whether by usurpation by one branch of government or abrogation by another, is, as Madison asserts, "the very definition of tyranny."

~ Rand Green

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