EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the tenth in a series of articles giving an introduction to the Federalist Papers, a collection of 85 articles and essays written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay promoting the ratification of the United States Constitution.
James Madison makes his first contribution to the Federalist project with Federalist #10, taking up the same subject Alexander Hamilton tackled in Federalist #9 – the union as a safeguard against domestic faction and insurrection.
Federalist #10 counts among the best known of the Federalist Papers, and showcases Madison’s intellect. The paper features some truly impressive political reasoning.
But in retrospect, history has proved many of Madison’s seemingly-brilliant arguments dead wrong.
Madison starts by defining factions.
“By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”
He then argues that only two ways exist to deal with the problem: either eliminate factions by removing their causes, or limit their impact by controlling their effects.
Madison proposes two ways to remove causes. First, a government could limit liberty because “liberty is to faction what air is to fire.” But he dismisses this out of hand.
“But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.”
The second way to remove causes of faction involves “giving every citizen the same opinion.” But of course, this proves impossible due to the fallibility of human reason. Madison notes that as long as people exercise reason “other opinions will be formed.”
Madison concludes “the latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man,” and points out that people divide into parties due to different opinions concerning religion, government and many other points, along with attachment to different leaders. These divisions “inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.”
So, if we cannot stop factions, how do we deal with them?
“The inference to which we are brought is, that the CAUSES of faction cannot be removed, and that relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its EFFECTS.”
Madison argues that a minority faction will not be able to assert itself under the proposed Constitution due to its republican nature.
“If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote. It may clog the administration, it may convulse the society; but it will be unable to execute and mask its violence under the forms of the Constitution.”
But a faction encompassing a majority of the people poses a greater problem.
Madison tackles this issue by first contending a pure democracy provides no cure for faction because a majority can always tyrannize the minority, but the republican system created by the Constitution offers the solution. Madison points out two distinctions that he thinks will mitigate faction in the proposed system.
- Representative government
- The size and population of the union.
Madison argues that the election of representatives will tend to minimize the effects of faction because the people will chose men with wisdom who may “best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.” And because a greater number of citizens will choose each representative in a large republic, it will prove more difficult for unworthy candidates to rise to power. Madison contends the people will choose “the most attractive merit and the most diffusive and established characters.”
A quick survey of the characters walking the halls of Capitol Hill quickly proves Madison wrong on this point.
Madison goes on to assert that a larger republic dilutes faction.
“Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other.”
But again, time proves Madison wrong. He never imagined today’s parties. In an interview with Tom Woods, historian Kevin Gutzman described a modern party as a “league of minority factions.” The gay rights activist and the union member might have little in common, but they often vote as a Democratic Party block. The Republican Party block brings together divergent interests such as the religious right and big business interests. Parties can graft a minority faction into a majority and make it impossible for the “majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote.” Even though the majority opposes the minority position, it will overlook it in order to advance the majority party.
While Federalist #10 serves as a beautiful articulation of political theory, things didn’t turn out the way Madison envisioned. On its own, the constitutional system cannot provide a safeguard against faction.