Alexander Hamilton’s epic rant against the filibuster

OK, American Founder Alexander Hamilton didn’t really rant against the filibuster.

A portrait of Alexander Hamilton painted by noted American portrait painter Daniel Huntington in c.1865, based on a full length portrait painted by John Trumbull. U.S. Treasury Collection, Secretary of the Treasury Portraits.

Hamilton couldn’t have, since the filibuster wasn’t created until after his death. But it sure looks like he would have hated it.

In the Federalist Papers, Hamilton went beyond calmly analyzing problems with the Articles of Confederation to rail against the very idea that minorities “in public bodies” could stop majorities from acting.

And, of course, that’s what the filibuster does, as majorities cannot even vote on appointments and legislation unless a supermajority enables the vote to go forward.

So, now, onto the rant, which is from Federalist 22.

To give a minority a negative upon the majority (which is always the case where more than a majority is requisite to a decision), is, in its tendency, to subject the sense of the greater number to that of the lesser.…The necessity of unanimity in public bodies, or of something approaching towards it, has been founded upon a supposition that it would contribute to security. But its real operation is to embarrass the administration, to destroy the energy of the government, and to substitute the pleasure, caprice, or artifices of an insignificant, turbulent, or corrupt junto, to the regular deliberations and decisions of a respectable majority. In those emergencies of a nation, in which the goodness or badness, the weakness or strength of its government, is of the greatest importance, there is commonly a necessity for action. The public business must, in some way or other, go forward. If a pertinacious minority can control the opinion of a majority, respecting the best mode of conducting it, the majority, in order that something may be done, must conform to the views of the minority; and thus the sense of the smaller number will overrule that of the greater, and give a tone to the national proceedings. Hence, tedious delays; continual negotiation and intrigue; contemptible compromises of the public good. And yet, in such a system, it is even happy when such compromises can take place: for upon some occasions things will not admit of accommodation; and then the measures of government must be injuriously suspended, or fatally defeated. It is often, by the impracticability of obtaining the concurrence of the necessary number of votes, kept in a state of inaction. Its situation must always savor of weakness, sometimes border upon anarchy.

(Somehow it seems ironic that the change in Senate rules that made the filibuster possible occurred upon the recommendation of Vice-President Aaron Burr, then recently indicted for killing Hamilton in a duel.)

But what about Madison?

Now, some readers may be thinking, well, didn’t Madison discuss the need to prevent majorities from trampling on minority rights?

And the answer is, yes, this is true.

In Federalist 10, Madison argued that “majority factions” have had too much power in some forms of government and that it’s essential to avoid tyranny of the majority.

However, Madison did not then go on to argue for anything like the filibuster.

Instead, Madison argued that majority tyranny could be avoided by having particular constitutional features, such as:

  • a government for a large country, leading to many factions that could prevent each other from having too much power,
  • a system based on representation instead of direct democracy,
  • both state governments and the national government, and
  • different branches of the national government that would check each other. (This last feature isn’t discussed in Federalist 10, but most famously, in Federalist 51.)

When it came to the national legislature, the Senate and the House were to have different characteristics such that the Senate would provide stability.

Madison was more measured than Hamilton, but (in Federalist 58), he also argued against supermajorities.

It has been said that more than a majority ought to have been required for a quorum; and in particular cases, if not in all, more than a majority of a quorum for a decision. That some advantages might have resulted from such a precaution, cannot be denied. It might have been an additional shield to some particular interests, and another obstacle generally to hasty and partial measures. But these considerations are outweighed by the inconveniences in the opposite scale.

In all cases where justice or the general good might require new laws to be passed, or active measures to be pursued, the fundamental principle of free government would be reversed. It would be no longer the majority that would rule: the power would be transferred to the minority. Were the defensive privilege limited to particular cases, an interested minority might take advantage of it to screen themselves from equitable sacrifices to the general weal, or, in particular emergencies, to extort unreasonable indulgences.

Not quite an epic rant, but then again, Madison, who died in his own bed, had a more temperate personality than Hamilton.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.