The Politics of Public Opinion



Scholars in recent years have been vigorously debating the intellectual origins of the Founding Fathers’ ideas. Did they derive mainly from the liberal philosophy of John Locke, the classical republicanism of Plato and his heirs, the modern republicanism of Machiavelli, or other intellectual sources?

The conventional view of James Madison (1751-1836), the “father” of the new Constitution, has been that he was most influenced by Lockean liberalism. Scholars who take this view argue, primarily on the basis of Madison’s famous essay, Federalist No. 10, dealing with “the mischiefs of faction,” that Madison abandoned the classical republican ideal of educating and elevating the opinion of the citizenry and instead set out to devise a Lockean system of institutional arrangements to channel largely immutable passions and interests and to prevent injustice.

Villanova political scientist Sheehan says that a rarely studied set of notes—quite possibly an outline for a major treatise on politics—that Madison wrote in 1791-92, when he was a member of Congress, shows otherwise.

As presented in the notes, Sheehan says, Madison’s practical science of politics does include the arrangement of institutions and the regulation of competing interests, but it also gives “an important role to statesmanship and civic education.” Madisonian means are directed toward the classical republican end of “improving the opinions and souls of citizens and developing among them a common republican character.”



Winter 1993. (Pg. 11)

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