E pluribus unum
At initial glance, the United States Constitution may appear to be full of contradictions. How can a system give power to federal, state, and local governments and not collapse in a squabbling heap? How can you have a majority rule without oppressing the rights of the minority? How is it possible to unify multiple competing interests? In one of the more famous Federalist Papers, James Madison addressed these questions. In this lesson, students will examine Federalist 51 in order to assess Madison’s argument for how the new constitution created a federal system that balanced diverse interests and united the country. In doing so, students will gain a new appreciation and understanding of the words on the U.S. seal, E pluribus unum (out of many, one).
Note: The link goes to the full text of Federalist 51. Check out the Bill of Rights Institute’s annotated version of Federalist 51.
Alternative Suggestion: Print the document and highlight the passages that would be necessary for students to answer these questions. Use the highlighted portion as your excerpt for the activity, after checking to be sure the resulting redaction makes sense standing alone. It may need some transitions or some bracketed paraphrasing if it seems odd or appears to mischaracterize something Madison wrote.
Activity (30 minutes)
Directions: Have students read the handout and answer the following questions.
- Why did Madison want each department of the government to have a “will of its own”?
- What was Madison’s argument for how the new Constitution would prevent a concentration of power within a department of government? How is this a reflection of Madison’s understanding of human nature?
- What are the two examples of republics that Madison lists? Which one is better at protecting the rights of the people, according to Madison?
- According to Madison, how will a federal system prevent a majority from oppressing a minority?
- What is the end (or goal) of government, according to Madison?
- How does Madison believe having multiple interests, levels of government, and departments of government will benefit society as a whole?
- How does the phrase E pluribus unum reflect the principles laid out in Federalist #51?
Directions: Madison’s arguments are strong, but where do they play out in the text of the Constitution? Analyze the passages in this related eLesson from the text of the Constitution and reflect on how each demonstrates the ways various interests are balanced within the American constitutional system.
Want to learn more about E pluribus unum and how our Constitutional system balances interests?
Tune in to YouTube live on Constitution Day, September 17 as Bill of Rights Institute hosts Kirk Higgins and Gary Colletti and several experts conduct an in-depth exploration of our Constitutional system. Be sure to register for this free event in order to receive updates.
To help follow along, you can use the questions in this related post as a viewer’s guide.