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Power versus Liberty

Power versus Liberty: Madison, Hamilton, Wilson, and Jefferson

James H. Read
Copyright Date: 2000
Pages: 201
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    Power versus Liberty
    Book Description:

    Does every increase in the power of government entail a loss of liberty for the people? James H. Read examines how four key Founders--James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, James Wilson, and Thomas Jefferson--wrestled with this question during the first two decades of the American Republic.

    Power versus Liberty reconstructs a four-way conversation--sometimes respectful, sometimes shrill--that touched on the most important issues facing the new nation: the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, federal authority versus states' rights, freedom of the press, the controversial Bank of the United States, the relation between nationalism and democracy, and the elusive meaning of "the consent of the governed."

    Each of the men whose thought Read considers differed on these key questions. Jefferson believed that every increase in the power of government came at the expense of liberty: energetic governments, he insisted, are always oppressive. Madison believed that this view was too simple, that liberty can be threatened either by too much or too little governmental power. Hamilton and Wilson likewise rejected the Jeffersonian view of power and liberty but disagreed with Madison and with each other.

    The question of how to reconcile energetic government with the liberty of citizens is as timely today as it was in the first decades of the Republic. It pervades our political discourse and colors our readings of events from the confrontation at Waco to the Oklahoma City bombing to Congressional debate over how to spend the government surplus. While the rhetoric of both major political parties seems to posit a direct relationship between the size of our government and the scope of our political freedoms, the debates of Madison, Hamilton, Wilson, and Jefferson confound such simple dichotomies. As Read concludes, the relation between power and liberty is inherently complex.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-2460-1
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. viii-viii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  5. 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-23)

    When the american colonists fought for independence from Britain, they justified their action to themselves and to the world as a struggle to protect the liberty of the people from the power of an oppressive government. Later in the 1780s when they argued fiercely among themselves over what kind of national government to construct and in the 1790s when they contended over how to translate the sparse language of the Constitution into practice, the debate once again was phrased in terms of power and liberty. Opponents of a more powerful national government described it as a threat to liberty. Its...

  6. 2 James Madison ON POWER AND LIBERTY
    (pp. 25-53)

    How is it possible to make government more powerful without making those subject to its authority less free? That was one of the challenges Madison faced as he prepared for the Federal Convention (and faced again in drafting the Bill of Rights and in opposing Hamilton’s policies in the 1790s). “According to the views of every member, the Gen[era]l Gov[ernmen]t will have powers far beyond those exercised by the British Parliament when the States were part of the British Empire,” Madison observed on June 29, 1787, at the federal convention.¹ How could any government even one republican in form, avoid...

    (pp. 55-87)

    Alexander hamiltion sometimes gives the impression of a man who never lost much sleep over liberty. Everyone agrees that he was a wizard of finance, a brilliant and realistic analyst of foreign policy, a thorough and energetic administrator, a forward-looking political economist, and many other things as well.¹ But liberty? Except for property rights and market liberties, someone might claim, he never worried much about it except as a means to the end of national prosperity and power.² Or if he did value liberty for its own sake, it was only private liberty (what in twentieth century terminology might be...

    (pp. 89-117)

    The idea of the sovereignty of the people was central to the political discourse of the American Founding.¹ And no thinker of the age took the idea more seriously and pressed its implications with greater energy than the Scottish-born Pennsylvanian James Wilson.

    That idea was the driving force behind Wilson’s every action and remark at the Federal Convention, the Pennsylvania Ratifying Convention, and the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention of 1789–90; in his written opinions as associate justice of the Supreme Court from 1790; and in the law lectures he delivered at the College of Philadelphia in 1790–91.Wilson endeavored to...

  9. 5 Thomas Jefferson LIBERTY, AND THE STATES
    (pp. 119-156)

    Thus far this work has examined three statesmen-theorists of the Founding era who argued against any simple antagonism between the power of government and the liberty of citizens; who believed that it was possible under the right circumstances to make national government both energetic and free. Madison’s, Hamilton’s, and Wilson’s understanding of national power and its proper limits differed in many ways. But all three would have agreed with Madison’s statement in his letter of October 17, 1788 that it is inaccurate to assume “there is a tendency in all Governments to an augmentation of power at the expense of...

  10. 6 Conclusion
    (pp. 157-176)

    What new light does the problem examined in this work—the relation between the liberty of citizens and the degree of power vested in national government—shed on our understanding of the founding of the Republic and the controversies of its first few decades? This has been a study of four individuals, but between them they cover a very wide spectrum of political and theoretical alternatives.

    Once more we can draw upon Jefferson to pose the terms of the problem. Was the battle over the degree of power to be vested in the national government a contest between adherents of...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 177-192)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 193-198)
  13. Index
    (pp. 199-202)