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James Madison and Federalist No. 51

James Madison and Federalist No. 51

Guiding Question: How are republican principles of limited government, separation of powers, and checks and balances reflected in the U.S. Constitution?

  • I can explain the purpose of separate branches of government.

Introduction: After the Constitution was completed during the summer of 1787, the work of ratifying, or approving, it began in conventions in each of the states. As the Constitution itself required, three-fourths of the states had to approve the document before it could go into effect for those ratifying states.

Essential Vocabulary

oblige help
auxiliary precautions additional measures


The Constitution granted the national government more power than it had under the Articles of Confederation. Many Americans were concerned that the national government with its new powers would threaten liberty.

In order to help convince their fellow Americans of their view that the Constitution would not threaten freedoms, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay teamed up in 1788 to write a series of essays in defense of the Constitution. The essays, which were addressed to the people of the state of New York, appeared in New York newspapers and are known as the Federalist Papers. They are regarded as one of the most authoritative sources on the meaning of the Constitution.

In Federalist No. 51, James Madison explains and defends the checks and balances system in the Constitution. The powers of each branch of government are framed so that they check the power of the other two branches; additionally, the people are the source of the government’s legitimate authority.


  1. Why were the Federalist Papers written?
  2. Why do you think the Federalist Papers were addressed to people in the state of New York?
  3. What is the focus of Federalist No. 51?

Excerpts from Federalist No. 51, James Madison, February 6, 1788

I. “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition… It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices [checks and balances] should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige [help] it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions [additional measures].”


II. “Justice is the end [goal] of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been, and ever will be, pursued, until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit…


“In the extended republic of the United States … a coalition of a majority of the whole society could seldom take place upon any other principles, than those of justice and the general good.”

Comprehension Questions

  1. According to Madison, what is necessary to control the abuses of government?
  2. Why are these necessary?
  3. What do you think Madison means by “auxiliary precautions”?
  4. According to Madison, what is the end goal of government?

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