These days, it is common to hear people criticize government on the basis that it “can’t get anything done.” Partisan gridlock is often raised as a culprit, and it is almost universally condemned by all sides. But the founders valued partisan gridlock as a roadblock to the destruction of human liberty and the consolidation of centralized power.
This issue was raised in The Federalist #10, where James Madison elaborated on faction in a republican system:
“Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.”
Clearly, Madison suggests that faction is necessary for the perpetuation of human liberty. Since liberty is more valuable than faction, the existence of the latter must be tolerated. If gridlock is the natural product of partisan factions, this process naturally counteracts the tendency for bad laws to be passed, controversial laws to be enforced, or imposing opinions to be rendered. Because of clashing political interests, the potential for bad policy to be constructed is considerably lessened.
In addition to this, it was widely understood that the Constitution spawned different centers of power that could and would disagree.
In 1748, Charles de Montesquieu articulated his separation of powers theory in De l’espirit des loix (The Spirit of the Laws). Liberty would be best preserved, Montesquieu suggested, when separate government functions were divided into branches whereupon one branch could exercise considerable power against another. Adopted by the founders, this arrangement is a preeminent feature of the Constitution. Truly, the system of “checks and balances” that the founders embraced was designed chiefly to allow for gridlock, not to abolish it.
On a state level, this principle was demonstrated consciously during the Philadelphia Convention. Madison and Edmund Randolph’s Virginia Plan proposed a resolution that would allow the federal government to veto laws of the individual states. While the Virginians favored the power as a device that would make state and federal law less contradictory, the proposal was exceedingly unpopular and failed to obtain tangible support.
In the same way, Alexander Hamilton’s proposal to eliminate the states and incorporate them into one modern nation failed by even greater volition. Gridlock between state vs. federal power was also an appreciated characteristic of the constitutional system.
From the earliest days of the republic, both Madison and Thomas Jefferson worked to utilize gridlock to counteract the Federalists. As Alexander Hamilton aspired to implement his economic plan, Madison and Jefferson formed an anti-administration faction in Philadelphia. Madison recruited sympathizers in Congress, and the two made political alliances in New York to undermine the Federalist Party. The Republicans formed a divergent identity by obstructing the Hamiltonian economic plan, organizing resistance against federal excises, and even by celebrating different holidays.
When the founders debated the United States Constitution, they deliberately provided both Houses of Congress with the ability to make their own rules. This power has produced functional tools which can inhibit unconstitutional or unpopular legislation, such as the filibuster.
Even in the case that unconstitutional or unpopular legislation is passed, Madison proscribed a remedy in The Federalist #46 – a “refusal to cooperate with the officers of the Union.” Local opposite against federal mandate, Madison wrote, “would present obstructions which the federal government would hardly be willing to encounter.” States and regional governments can certainly produce their own valuable form of gridlock.
The type of factions the founders despised, of course, were cabals that could simply vote away the rights of others on the basis of majority rule. Madison clarified:
“A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”
This form of pure democracy was universally shunned at the time of the founding. Democracy is conducive to mob rule, which allows majority groups to eliminate the rights of minority groups. Since natural law held that individuals have inviolable rights, attempts of government to infringe upon them were to be illegitimate regardless of whether such defilements were popular or not. Skeptics of the Constitution were so sure of this axiom, that they used this argument to advocate fiercely for a bill of rights. Those who opposed it did so on the grounds that the concept was understood without being explicitly stated.
Applying this principle to historical events serves to illustrate its importance. What if gridlock prevented the Federalists from getting enough votes to pass the 1798 Sedition Act? What if a significant political conflict in the 19th century prevented the extension of slavery to western territories? What if partisan squabbles acted to stop Franklin Roosevelt from detaining people of Japanese and Italian ancestry? At the very least, minority factions would have endured much less hardship and oppression.
Most importantly, the founders feared a government that could do too much more than they apprehended a government that didn’t do enough. Even though gridlock seems counterintuitive to some, political stagnation serves a defined purpose. More often than not, it becomes a tool to prevent government subjugation. In this light, it should be respected and cherished as a constitutional maxim.