The head grows ever larger

“In time of actual war, great discretionary powers are constantly given to the executive magistrate.  Constant apprehension of war has the same tendency to render the head too large for the body.”

James Madison, Constitutional Convention, June 29, 1787

Producing a book on James Madison presents a great many challenges.  A major one, I am discovering, is how smart the man was.  I spend days poring over transcripts of his speeches in public bodies, his correspondence, and his published writings, including the Federalist essays.  A few times a day, I frame in all-caps and boldface something he said or wrote, or I jot it down separately just to think about.  When it comes time to write, I will be struggling with how this bookish child of privilege, who never traveled outside of the United States and was physically on the timid side, developed such sharp insights into the human mind and heart, and how people behave in groups large and small.

When I give presentations on the Constitutional Convention, a frequent question is:  What feature of the current government would most surprise the Framers?  I ordinarily say that they would be stunned by the size and breadth of the executive branch of the government.  Through the revolution and its immediate aftermath, state executives had few powers.  The Articles of  Confederation adopted in 1781 created no executive officers at all.  A major goal of the convention delegates in 1787 was to create an executive branch with “energy.”  Still, the modern state dwarfs anything they could have imagined.

James Madison

Several reasons account for this growth of the executive.  First, of course, is the technological sophistication of our communications and information industries, which vastly multiplies the tools of social control that government can call upon.  Also, we expect so much more from government.  In the 1780s, government’s principal responsibilities were to protect national interests from foreign nations, keep the peace internally, and provide a justice system.  Today, we look to the government “safety net” to protect workers and consumers, to provide educational opportunities, to regulate the economy and support economic development, and a thousand other tasks.

But then there is also Madison’s insight above.  Since 1940, the nation has been at war or “in apprehension of war” for at least six of seven decades — perhaps we can exempt the years between the first Iraq War and the World Trade Center attack.  We have grown accustomed to routine government intrusions on our lives that would have driven the Framers to reach for their muskets.  During the debate over ratification of the Constitution, virtually every participant agreed that nothing could threaten liberty so much as having a “standing army.”  Those supporting the Constitution insisted that the intelligent deployment of citizen militias could forestall such a dire development, while their opponents argued that the Constitution would inevitably bring about such an army.

What a contrast, then, to read this week that the CIA wishes to expand its drone campaign in Yemen “to hit targets based solely on intelligence indicating patterns of suspicious behavior” in a location, even when the CIA does not know who will be attacked.  That rule, it turns out, already applies to our drone campaign in Pakistan.

For some reason, this struck home for me though I certainly have ignored dozens of similar arrogations of executive power.  We are claiming the right to attack unknown persons on the other side of the world, based on our surveillance of movements of people and vehicles.  Of course, the attempt to stem terrorism is different from conventional war, and the ultimate goal of these extraordinary measures is to protect Americans and others.  Yet it is difficult not to wonder at the transformations of our society that each such measure must work.  The head, indeed, becomes very large for the body.


  1. Rolf Lindgren on April 20, 2012 at 7:38 pm

    Dave, excellent essay, I read your book 1787, it was a great book, thank you. Madison is my favorite Founder, the man was utterly brilliant.

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