Vetting Candidates by the Constitution, Criterion 3: Constitutional Ambition vs. Personal Ambition

Portrait of James Madison

James Madison

Most of us understand that the purpose of having three branches of government with enumerated powers is to prevent consolidation of power.  A principle not so commonly understood is that according to the authors of The Federalist, our own Human Nature is the greatest threat to our Liberty. As James Madison wrote in Federalist 51, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”  Madison understood that government was really a study of Human Nature. Likewise, vetting candidates is a study of Human Nature. Which is why it is so important to actually meet candidates in person to ask them questions that you record, document, and share.

Use Ambition to Counter Ambition

Therefore, vetting candidates according to the Constitution is not merely a test of a candidate’s appreciation of enumerated powers and interpretation of certain clauses. Constitutional vetting is also a study of the set rules of Human Nature—the candidate’s as well as our own. In Federalist 51, Madison proposes a very wise principle: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.”  In applying Madison’s logic, citizens must look for candidates that are ambitious for the power that accompanies that elected position. Such a candidate will demonstrate a focused view of the job description to explain how he will accurately use that power to secure and defend his constituents’ liberty and private property. He also will explain how he will defend that position from unlawful limitations or encroachment from other branches of government as well as resist the call to consolidate the power of the office to grow unconstitutional power and authority.

You’re Not the Boss of Me. The Constitution is.

Every position has rightful authority and constitutional power, and the responsibility to use it. A constitutional candidate appreciates that the purpose of government is to secure and defend the liberty and private property of the people. He then uses all the power and authority of the office to do so. He does not allow other members of the legislature, council, or branches of government to interfere with the power and authority of office to first secure and defend the liberty and private property of his constituents. This type of ambition for the constitutional power of the place could be summed up in the phrase, “You’re not the boss of me. The Constitution is.”

Consensus of Power is Medieval redux

Contrarily, the personal ambition of a candidate will drive him to seek alternative methods of securing power. This has always been consensus — might makes right. Personal ambition is best described in feudal imagery where a man pledges loyalty to another man, rather than the rule of law. As the honored man rises, so do his vassals. Votes are cast, not according to the original purpose of government, but rather according to the personal ambitions of the men involved. Such a candidate speaks of:

  • working with others,
  • bipartisanship,
  • and consensus.

A personally ambitious candidate may even imply that he has already pledged to support a certain incumbent legislator in order to gain a desired committee appointment.

What is of vital importance in vetting a candidate according to the Constitution is another principle of Human Nature: no man can serve two masters.

Constituents, Practice What You Preach

Likewise, in our search for the candidate with constitutionally-principled ambition it is imperative that citizens understand that the constitutional candidate is practicing the same sort of individuality that we must be ambitious for in our own community.

Madison continues in Federalist 51:

“It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part. Different interests necessarily exist in different classes of citizens. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure. There are but two methods of providing against this evil:

  • the one by creating a will in the community independent of the majority — that is, of the society itself;
  • the other, by comprehending in the society so many separate descriptions of citizens as will render an unjust combination of a majority of the whole very improbable, if not impracticable.    [Bolding & Bullet Points added for clarity.]

Factions are the result of Human Nature, too

Just as we would prefer that our elected officials not surrender their rightful power and authority to some power structure of which the people are not privy, it is our duty as constituents to not band together in factions (see Federalist 10). Factions demand special privileges, exemptions, partialities, or rights. Such demands result in depriving other members of our community of their civil liberties. It is our duty to create within our community a respect for all citizens as unique individuals as well as supporting a spiritual will independent of the majority on issues not pertaining to civic virtue and responsibility.

The End of Justice

Madison’s lessons reveal two proofs that our own Human Nature is the greatest threat to our Liberty. Faction and personal ambition are driven by man’s animal instinct to destroy or be destroyed. A community that allows factions, or the feudal system of personal ambition in elected officials, will eventually destroy the liberty of everyone as well as the foundation for civil society. This loss of liberty eventually leads to the elimination of justice, and therefore fails as fulfilling the first intent of government.


Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit.
Federalist 51

Apply the Win/Win Strategy

It is to this end that we must learn to vet candidates according to the Constitution as well as teach the proper application of Human Nature’s ambition. Accordingly, we must apply these rules of Human Nature to ourselves because we too can be a threat to our own Liberty. Proper use of ambition is a win/win endeavor for the candidate as well as our communities.

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