Partly National, Partly Federal: James Madison, the Amphictyonic Confederacy, and the Republican Balance

Critical Thinking

January 27, 2021
by James A. Cornelius Also by this Author


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Following the Constitutional Convention’s completion of the United States Constitution in the Fall of 1787, many of those involved in its creation embarked on a campaign to ensure its ratification among the several states. The most significant effort was the publication of the Federalist in New York, published anonymously in a long series of newspaper articles under the pseudonym “Publius,” and effected by the triumvirate of James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, with the former two sharing the bulk of the workload.[1]

James Madison’s portrayal of ancient confederations in Federalist no. 18, contrasting them with flaws in the Articles of Confederation, is useful for understanding some of the reasons why Madison felt compelled to institute a more effective national government. Madison used the Amphictyonic [am-fik-tee-on-ik] Confederation of several Greek city-states, which dissipated in the fourth century BCE, to highlight the certain key weaknesses of confederations that the new U.S. Constitution was designed to remedy. He interpreted the Amphictyonic Confederation, using his 1787 “Notes on Ancient & Modern Confederacies” to gain a grasp of how it might be compared to the Articles of Confederation. Federalist no. 18 shows that Madison feared such a loose confederation of states, and this prescribed remedy for what would have saved Greece from Philip II of Macedon, and the subsequent hegemony of the Roman Empire, is precisely what the U. S. Constitution was offering to the various states. As Kevin R. C. Gutzman has shown in his analysis of Madison’s understanding of ancient and modern confederacies, Madison “demonstrates that a government over governments (such as the Confederation) cannot work, that it will only lead to substitution of violence for law, of military coercion of communities for individual coercion through magistrates. What is needed, then, is a reform such as the proposed Constitution.”[2]

Madison’s advocacy for a stronger national government was not inconsistent with his subsequent political opposition to Alexander Hamilton’s centralizing policies during President Washington’s first administration. Instead, as Colleen Sheehan and some others have noted, Madison was committed to an evolved brand classical republicanism, where the his political approach was “tied together by a central philosophical idea—the fundamental authority of the people and the sovereignty of public opinion in free government.” Thus, for Madison, “adherence to the form and spirit of popular government in the new nation meant the recognition of the supremacy of the Constitution, understood and administered in a manner consistent with the sense of the people who ratified and adopted it.”[3]

Ralph Ketcham, Madison’s chief biographer, has suggested that Madison was “as well informed on the workings of confederate governments as any man in America,” due to a project he worked on between 1786-87, where he compiled information on ancient and modern confederacies to determine their weaknesses and benefits.[4] This unpublished work was called “Notes on Ancient & Modern Confederacies,” and Lance Banning has explained that Madison “drew on” this work to “reinforce [his] argument” about the need for a more centralized government when he penned the Federalist papers.[5] Indeed, Gutzman has shown that Madison had “mastered the history of both bygone and contemporary confederations,” and had thus concluded that “confederations tended to fail for lack of power in the central government.”[6]

James Madison’s handwritten “Ancient & Modern Confederacies,” c. May 1787, turned to the page highlighting the Amphyctionic Confederacy. (Library of Congress)

In these “Notes,” Madison explained that the basic functions of the Amphictyonic League were to “mutually defend and protect the United Cities—to inflict vengeance on those who should sacrilegiously despoil the temple of Delphos—to punish the violators of this oath—and never to divert the water courses of any of the Amphictyonic Cities either in peace or in war.” Despite these worthy mutual goals for the various cities, however, Madison also explained the vices of the Amphictyonic Confederacy, explaining that the confederation was frequently dominated by “the strongest Cities,” thus meaning that “Judgement went in favor of the most powerful party.” Furthermore, Madison explained that the League did not have a strong enough executive power to “restrain the parties from warring agst. each other.”[7] While a civil war had not yet broken out under the Articles of Confederation, acts of rebellion had already arisen in some states, in addition to other problems, which had highlighted the inability for the Articles to deal with such issues requiring centralized intervention. As Edmund Pendleton, the chairman of the Virginia Ratifying Convention and a friend of Madison, described the problems caused by the Articles of Confederation: “Our general government was totally inadequate to the purpose of its institution; our commerce decayed; our finances deranged; public and private credit destroyed: these and many other national evils rendered necessary the meeting of that Convention.”[8]

In Federalist no. 18, Madison addressed the threat of excessively loose confederations. The Amphictyonic League, along with the Achaean League, were analyzed and systematically deconstructed to reveal the dangers inherent in such systems. Besides being dominated by the more powerful city-states of the League, such as Athens, Sparta, and Thebes, the substantive autonomy of the various cities allowed for any city-state to contract a foreign alliance with an outside polity. Such was the case when the Phocians, as described by Madison, “invited the assistance of Philip of Macedon,” the father of Alexander the Great, to aid in a dispute between the Phocians and Thebans. When multiple city-states, swayed by their own self-interest, sided with the Macedonians, Philip gained a strong enough following to make “himself master of the confederacy.”

As Madison explained in his own address to the Virginia Ratifying Convention, revealing how he took his notes seriously and applied them to public debate:

The Amphyctionic league resembled our confederation in its nominal powers; it was possessed of rather more power. The component states retained their sovereignty, and enjoyed an equality of suffrage in the federal council. But though its powers were more considerable in many respects than those of our present system; yet it had the same radical defect. Its powers were exercised over its individual members in their political capacities. To this capital defect it owed its disorders, and final destruction: it was compelled to recur to the sanguinary coercion of war to inforce its decrees. The struggles consequent on a refusal to obey a decree, and an attempt to enforce it, produced the necessity of applying to foreign assistance: by complying with such an application, together with his intrigues, Philip of Macedon, acquired sufficient influence to become a member of the league. This artful and insidious prince soon after became master of their liberties.[9]

Thus, not only does a loose confederation allow for internal divisions, but it also necessitates a certain lack of unity that might allow for a more centralized foreign nation to infiltrate and conquer. In an age dominated by European empires, such a fear was certainly not unreasonable during the Founding Era. It is for this reason that Madison suggested in Federalist no.18 that if Greece had been “united by a stricter confederation, and persevered in her union, she would never have worn the chains of Macedon, and might have proved a barrier to the vast projects of Rome.”[10]

It is this diagnosis of the Amphictyonic Confederacy that Madison used to justify the centralization of the United States’ own federal government. As Madison explained in a detailed letter to Thomas Jefferson in October 1787, the Amphictyonic Confederacy “is well known to have been rendered of little use whilst it lasted, and in the end to have been destroyed by the predominance of local over the federal authority.”[11] Madison perpetuated his views further in Federalist no. 45, stating that “we have seen, in all the examples of ancient and modern confederacies, the strongest tendency continually betraying itself in the members, to despoil the general government of its authorities, with a very ineffectual capacity in the latter to defend itself against the encroachments.”[12] Despite ancient confederations like the Amphictyonic League having technical military authority to defend themselves in a united way, the inability to enforce executive authority rendered such leagues as little more than compacts that could be easily disregarded by individual city-states at the expense of other members. As Madison pointed out in his “Notes on Government,” compiled around 1791,

neither Thucidides nor Xenophon’s continuation of him make the least allusion to the Amphyctionic Council, altho’ Athens & Lacedemon were under its Authority. That the Pelopponesian War, so distinguished for its duration its belligerent parties and its consequences, should have been carried on without any interference or mention of that institution is remarkable proof of its insignificancy.[13]

Similarly, Madison pointed out that “the powers relating to war and peace, armies and fleets, treaties and finance, with the other more considerable powers, are all vested in the existing Congress by the articles of Confederation,” however, like the Amphictyonic League, Congress struggled to properly enforce its measures. It is for this reason that Madison explained, “the proposed change does not enlarge these powers; it only substitutes a more effectual mode of administering them.”[14]

Because Madison is seen as the “Father of the Constitution,” historians and admirers alike have frequently been puzzled by what appears to have been a “flip-flop” on the part of Madison in the years immediately following ratification. Indeed, despite being one of the strongest advocates for a strong national government, just a few years into President Washington’s first administration Madison was already condemning the actions of Secretary of Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, for attempting to strengthen the new government.

A proper understanding of Madison’s view of republicanism, as explained by Lance Banning, can help readers resolve this issue. He has shown that Madison conceived strongly of “a partly national, but also partly federal constitution.”[15] Before the Constitution, Madison feared that the Confederation was excessively loose, thus being susceptible to events like Shays’ Rebellion or a potential foreign invasion. After the Constitution, however, Madison feared that an excessively centralized national government threatened the federal nature of the Union, as Alexander Hamilton’s Report on Public Credit alerted him that broad constructions of the Constitution’s language, especially the term “necessary and proper,” could be widely construed and dangerous to republicanism. As Banning notes, “Hamilton’s proposals on the debt compelled him to resist . . . because he saw them in their context as immoral, inconsistent with the spirit of a federal republic, and part of a disturbing trend toward an unjust and dangerous domination of the Union by New England.”[16] Indeed, Colleen A. Sheehan has noted that Madison believed “the sum total of the Federalist initiatives of the 1790s constituted an agenda clearly intended to undermine republican principles and practices.”[17]

We see then that Madison was simultaneously committed to both a national and a federative government that, above all else, distributed power among the people, rather than between the traditional republican pillars of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. Gordon S. Wood has explained that John Taylor of Caroline, a former senator and ally of Madison in the 1790s, understood the American Revolution to have “finally freed men’s minds from the ‘numerical analysis’ of politics—the classification of governments into the one, few, and many, into monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy.”[18] Instead, as Taylor wrote in 1794, “the constitution contemplates a republican form of government, flowing from and depending on the people.”[19] As Banning has explained, Madison similarly understood the Constitutional Convention to have “promised an effective blend of governmental energy and freedom,” which “rested in the partly national but also partly federal features of the large, compound republic.”[20]

Political power, then, according to Taylor and Madison, instead of being divided between these orders of government, should be distributed among the people. With power thus arising from the general citizenry, Madison explained in a 1792 essay for the National Gazette, such “power is first divided between the general government and the state governments, each of which is then subdivided into legislative, executive, and judiciary departments.” With political power thus distributed and divided, Madison still tasked citizens with “elucidating and guarding the limits which define the two governments, by inculcating moderation in the exercise of the powers of both, and particularly a mutual abstinence from such as might nurse present jealousies or engender greater.”[21] Or as Taylor phrased it more simply in a 1794 pamphlet, “National watchfulness is the only preservative of liberty.”[22]

Just as the Amphictyonic League was plagued by the centralization of power in certain city-states, Madison saw Hamilton’s plan as a similar attempt being made to cede power to New England banking interests, and to excessively increase the powers of the national government. Thus, Madison’s republicanism was a balancing act between centralized and federative power. When politicians like Hamilton swung the pendulum one way, Madison would swing the other way as part of a vigilant commitment to republican liberty and balance that had its origins in the ancient world of Sallust, Cicero, Tacitus, and others, and had been transferred across time to be cherished by many of the American Founders.[23] Madison exemplified this at the expense of his misguided reputation for inconsistency.

It has thus been shown that Madison used the Amphictyonic Confederacy, among other examples, to highlight the contemporary dangers inherent in the Articles of Confederation. A loose confederacy would create internal divisions and open the door to more stable foreign invaders. A united national government with the ability to administer executive power among the various states was essential for establishing political stability. At the same time, the powers held by the national and the state governments, as well as the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government, needed to be properly balanced to preserve liberty. As Banning has noted, Madison may have “changed his mind repeatedly about the constitutional devices most likely to achieve the proper blend of power and responsibility, but he was dedicated first to last to a republican solution to the nation’s ills.”[24]

Madison’s devoted study of historical examples of confederacies, both ancient and modern, helped him to understand why a national government was necessary for political stability. At the same time, his devotion to republicanism helped him to develop a federal model of government that distributed and divided the powers of government to avoid the consolidation of power, and eventual control, of the government by any one part of the government. Critically, Madison and his republican allies entrusted the general populace with being vigilant and aware enough to notice any encroachments by one faction of government onto another.

As John Taylor of Caroline cleverly warned his readers in 1794, “Laziness in politics is like laziness in agriculture. It will expose the soil to noxious weeds. The wholesome plants will shrink from a state of indiscriminate amnesty, and disdaining a dishonorable society, will leave the field in the possession of tares and thistles.”[25]


[1]Richard R. Beeman, Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution (New York: Random House, 2010), 406-8.

[2]Kevin R. C. Gutzman, James Madison and the Making of America (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2012), 155.

[3]Colleen A. Sheehan, James Madison and the Spirit of Republican Self-Government (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 9.

[4]Ralph Ketcham, James Madison: A Biography (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1995), 184-5.

[5]Lance Banning, The Sacred Fire of Liberty: James Madison and the Founding of the Federal Republic (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996), 219.

[6]Gutzman, James Madison and the Making of America, 50.

[7]James Madison, “Notes on Ancient and Modern Confederacies, [April–June?] 1786,” Founders Online, National Archives,

[8]Edmund Pendleton, “Address to the Virginia Ratifying Convention, 5 June 1788,” in The Letters and Papers of Edmund Pendleton, vol. 2, ed. David J. Mays (Charlottesville, VA: The University Press of Virginia, 1967), 514.

[9]James Madison, “Weaknesses of the Confederation,7 June 1788,” Founders Online, National Archives,

[10]James Madison, “Federalist no. 18,” in The Federalist: A Commentary on the Constitution of the United States by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison, ed. Robert Scigliano (New York: The Modern Library, 2001), 105-9.

[11]James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, 24 October 1787, Founders Online, National Archives,

[12]Madison, “Federalist no. 45,” 294-5.

[13]James Madison, “Notes on Government,” in The Mind of James Madison: The Legacy of Classical Republicanism, by Colleen A. Sheehan (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 158.

[14]Madison, “Federalist no. 45,” 298.

[15]Banning, The Sacred Fire of Liberty, 9.

[16]Ibid., 298.

[17]Sheehan, James Madison and the Spirit of Republican SelfGovernment, 119.

[18]Gordon S. Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1972), 589; John Taylor of Caroline, An Inquiry into the Principles and Policy of the Government of the United States (Fredericksburg, VA: Green and Cady, 1814).

[19]John Taylor of Caroline, An Enquiry into the Principles and Tendency of Certain Public Measures (Philadelphia: Thomas Dobson, 1794), 6.

[20]Lance Banning, “The Practicable Sphere of a Republic: James Madison, the Constitutional Convention, and the Emergence of Revolutionary Federalism,” in Beyond Confederation: Origins of the Constitution and American National Identity, ed. Richard Beeman, Stephen Botein, and Edward C. Carter II (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1987), 187.

[21]James Madison, “Government of the United States,” 4 February 1792, in Liberty and Order: The First American Party Struggle, ed. Lance Banning (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2004), 104-5.

[22]Taylor, An Enquiry, 1.

[23]See J. G. A. Pocock’s classic work The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975).

[24]Banning, “The Practicable Sphere of a Republic,” 186.

[25]Taylor, An Enquiry, 3.


  • Very insightful article. The “Madison Problem” has been around for a while, and this piece helps explain why there really is no problem. It demands a close-up examination of Madison’s studies and motivations, something I had not seen in prior readings. Thanks for your contribution to a better understanding of Mr. Madison’s mind.

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