Academy News Program

HBS Cases: History in the Present Tense

During my five-hour red-eye flight from Seattle, I repeatedly asked myself a question: “How will the knowledge I gain from history camp apply to modern issues?” And after just a week at the Academy, the first case study about James Madison’s “Federal Negative” and Professor David Moss’ lecture proved to me the interwoven nature of history and modern politics. 

Professor Moss introduced the case by painting a clear picture of the United States in its infancy. In 1786, due to the weak federal government’s inability to levy taxes, debts from the Revolutionary War bankrupted the country. War veterans who received bonds for their services were not paid by the government, pushing them to borrow money. Inability to pay back lenders drove farmers and past soldiers into desperation for debt relief, initiating rampant inflation throughout the country. As citizens lost property and suffered effects from the economic disaster, social crisis such as the Shays Rebellion in Massachusetts threatened the unity of our new nation. This fragile situation in our case study led to the focus on James Madison and his diagnosis for the United States at the time. 

Professor Moss explained how James Madison characterized the country’s failing state as a result of a weak central government. After rigorous studies into past democracies, Madison concluded that weak confederates don’t work and that small republics are vulnerable to the “tyranny of the majority.” To move forward, Madison proposed to create a new constitution for the country that gave the federal government significantly more power than the previous Articles of Confederation appointed. While many agreed to change the Articles of Confederation in some way, our case study highlighted the debate around Madison’s idea of a “Federal Negative” that permitted the federal government to overrule any state law. Heavy debate between preserving state authority and strengthening federal power persisted. Madison’s “Federal Negative” did not pass in its original form, but today’s judicial review process serves as a solution to the debate back then. While this dialogue between the leaders of America happened in the 18th century, lessons from this case study apply to resolving everyday conflicts, especially in the political sphere. 

During our lecture, I asked Professor Moss how can we find middle ground like the leaders in our case, but in contemporary situations. Professor Moss explained that compromise does not need to look like a meeting in the middle of two opposites. If letters A and Z were contrasting ideas, we need not settle for the middle of the alphabet, but instead try to actualize elements of both A and Z simultaneously. Compromise can mean enacting multiple perspectives in the same sphere. This reminds me of a political debate back home about Columbus Day. While it remains a national holiday, the Model U.N/Global Action club I am apart of petitioned our local government to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day instead. To honor indigenous communities, our local calendars have changed October 14th to Indigenous People’s Day, but Columbus Day continues to exist throughout the country, showing that different communities can hold contrasting values, but they do not have to engage in conflict as stated by Professor Moss. Like how the framers of our country created both a Constitution to cement federal power and a Bill of Rights to protect individual liberty, many modern conflicts can involve executing both sides. 

My most valuable takeaway from Professor Moss and studying the “federal negative” was the immense value in debate when all sides place the country’s well being as the priority. As long as we adhere to the democratic values of a functioning government designed to better the lives of each individual, the results of rigorous debates can produce fruitful solutions. In this fiery election season, I will examine the candidates’ willingness to put this country’s values first when vehemently debating opponents. While voting for the first time in 2020, I will remember how historical lessons from Professor Moss and the case study have shown me the vital elements our country needs to thrive in both current and future times.