Madison, in his ongoing effort to convince the public of the merits and virtue of the new federal constitution, makes the connection between the ancient Greek republics and the system of government set up under the Articles of Confederation. In short, those republics were in need of a “closer union.” According to Madison they lacked the uniform connections that are needed to keep disparate and often tumultuous elements together. The danger in having too loose a confederacy of states is that it is ever in want of a great crisis to keep it together. Such was the case when Sparta and Athens united to fight off the invasion of Xerxes in 480 BC. Once the Greek city states were victorious, they “became rivals and then enemies.”
Madison points out that not all Greek republics were utter failures. He approvingly turns towards the Achaean League in the Upper Peloponnese for an illustration of a republic with real merit. What makes this confederation better than its predecessors and in turn more effective than the Articles of Confederation? For starters it was “far more intimate,” meaning it had a more active central authority than other republics before it. Another important distinction was that the cities within the league “retained their municipal jurisdiction, appointed their own officers, and enjoyed a perfect equality.” Furthermore the cities were represented in the senate, which had the power to make war and treaties, to conduct foreign affairs, make alliances and appoint the praetor. So while the cities, according to Madison, shared uniform laws and a national culture, they each retained an important degree of home rule and were represented as cities in the senate. This important distinction was built into the American federal system with the states having representation in the senate (this feature of the US Constitution has been lost through the 17th Amendment).
Finally, what made the Achaean League so appealing to Madison was the high degree of law, order and liberty that prevailed in the Achaean system of shared power. For Madison, there was no finer example of a workable federal system in all the ancient world. But this ancient example of republican liberty met its demise in the collusion of faction and tyranny. Made weak by internal struggles for preeminence and power by special interests, outside nations overcame the separate city states and eventually the Romans placed chains on the once free republic and brought its federal experiment to an end.
So why does Madison relate the brief history of the antiquated ancient Grecian republics and more particularly the Achaean League? To show the
tendency of federal bodies rather to anarchy among the members than to tyranny in the head.
The lesson of the dangers of special interests to republican liberty is so apparently analogous to our current situation as to warrant no comment but I wonder further if what we need right now is not a little anarchy in the members of the federal body; to wrest the power from concentrated special interests in Washington and spread it out over the capitals of the sovereign states.