Compact and incisive, Federalist No. 10 contains two sets of arguments. First is Madison’s explanation as to why factions are such a consistent source of danger to stable government. This section is dominated by a discussion human nature and political theory, while also drawing upon Madison’s experience as a member of Congress and a state legislator in order to point out specific deficiencies of the system of government that the United States had been operating under up until 1787-88. Also of note in this section is Madison’s lengthy critique of democracy and its inability to counter the basic human weaknesses that encourage faction (and indeed its habit of nurturing them).
Second is Madison’s reply to these critiques, which offers republicanism, as embodied in the Constitution, as the only viable solution to the destructive influence of factional politics in the United States. To this end Madison offers several very interesting points about how the size of a republic and the variety of opinions held by its inhabitants have a direct influence on the quality of its government, and that government’s ability to resist manipulation by particular interests and preserve and promote the common good.
In this post I’d like to focus on the first set of arguments, and Madison’s explanation of factionalism and its sources.
When writing about or discussing the idea of faction (which he did often), Madison had a specific definition in mind, which Federalist No. 10 lays out quite plainly. In the second paragraph he states, “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, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent or aggregate interests of the community.” Essentially, factions work for their own ends rather than the common good. And though he believed that the abundance of factions at work in the United States in the 1780s was a specific consequence of the weaknesses of the overall system of government, he made a point of strongly asserting that the appearance of factions was not altogether unavoidable.
Men, Madison explains, are everywhere divided from each other by the properties they own, the businesses they engage in, theirs skills, their language, religion, and knowledge. As much as they are fundamentally alike in their intrinsic worth and the rights they possess, they are superficially unalike in as many ways as it is possible to count. In the seventh paragraph he explains:
“Those who hold, and those who are without property, have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views.”
Even under circumstances when no major divisions exist in a society, Madison argues that mankind has become so accustomed to seeing the world in terms of “us” and “them” that even “frivolous and fanciful distinctions” will give form to the most violent kinds of conflict. “The latent causes of faction,” Madison concludes, “Are thus sown in the nature of man.” The purpose of government is therefore not to change human nature itself, but rather to acknowledge the existence of factions and actively work to hinder their ability to negatively influence the affairs of state.
In paragraph twelve, Madison argues that this work is best accomplished by ensuring that majorities, where and when they do exist in a republic, are rendered unable to carry into effect their “schemes of oppression” by how government is arranged, and how it functions to translate their will into political action. To this end Madison asserts in paragraph thirteen, in what I think to a modern reader must be a startling admission, that democracy is perhaps the least capable of carrying out this vital function, and consequently the most vulnerable to the evils of faction. Though it may seem odd that one of America’s Founding Fathers took such a dim view of what is arguably his nation’s most cherished value, it was an opinion perfectly in keeping with a man of Madison’s generation, sensibilities, and education.
To the enlightened gentlemen of the 18th century, democracy wasn't really seen as a value worth promoting. Men like Madison, Jefferson, Washington and Adams were students of history, political philosophy and particularly of the “classical” world of ancient Greece and Rome. They saw democracy, wherein government is conducted by the people directly, as chaotic, unstable, and prone to collapse. In their eyes, the masses were not fit to effectively govern themselves, and of necessity must turn over the reins of government to those best suited to the task. True, the people should choose their own leaders, who would in turn derive their authority from the consent of the governed, but a fundamental division between electors and elected would always prevail. While the Founders certainly believed that the rights and liberties of the people should be absolutely guaranteed, few of them would have agreed that merchants, labourers, or farmers who lacked the experience or education required of statesmen should be able to transcend this division and assume a direct role in government. It was arguably not until the 1810s and 1820s, with the rapid growth of American commerce and manufacturing and the emergence of a “middle class” of people, that democracy began to be viewed in the United States as a positive value, held in equal esteem with republicanism. Thus it stands to reason, in 1787, that Madison’s criticism of democracy was neither unreasonable nor unexpected.
Specifically, his criticism was grounded in the idea that democracies had historically existed amongst relatively small numbers of citizens. This small number, likely spread over a small geographic area, would share only a handful of opinions between them and face few physical impediments to forming factions, developing schemes for seizing the property or curtailing the rights of their neighbours, and seeing these plans accomplished.
Think of it like this: a small democratic state exists in a mountain valley whose total population is five hundred, all of whom have a role to play in government. If three hundred citizens of this democratic state, who live in relatively close proximity and can communicate very easily, decide to seize the property of the remaining two hundred “for the good of the state,” what’s to stop them? And if it’s not two hundred people, but five, or one, is it permissible then?
In Madison’s view, a scenario like this was particularly pernicious because it represents the commission of a crime (the violation of the rights of a person or groups of persons) in a lawful manner. No laws are broken, government functions as intended, and yet people are deprived of their property without cause. For this reason Madison believed that “Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security, or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives, as they have been violent in their deaths.”
It’s worth noting that Madison’s argument against democracy was based on personal experience as well as political theory. As I mentioned in the previous post, Madison served for a number of years as a legislator, both in Congress and in the Virginia Assembly of Delegates. And it was during that time in his professional life that he witnessed directly what he considered to be the failings of excessive democracy. Because Virginia was a relatively small state (compared to the combined United States, anyway), and because a large proportion of its population shared in the same handful of occupations, only a handful of issues tended to monopolize the attention of the state legislature and its delegates. In the aftermath of the American Revolution, these issues had mainly to do with debt, taxation, property and finance. Inevitably, as Madison admitted, disagreements over these issues led to the formation of factions, who in turn (again because of the relatively small size of the state and resulting ease of communication) were able to take control of the legislature via elections and pass law after law that conformed to their views and those of their fellow partisans.
These laws, which Madison regarded with horror and which he alludes to in paragraph twenty-two, authorized the printing of paper money as a means of paying off debts (in spite of the fact that it quickly lost its value), abolished debts altogether (which Madison considered a violation of the right of property), and attempted to undertake a redistribution of wealth. However much these laws may have benefited a percentage of the Virginia’s population, perhaps even the majority, Madison believed they harmed another portion, and overall created a less-stable economic and social environment. Hoping to prevent similar attempts by factions from seizing control of the national political process and passing popular but ultimately damaging laws, Madison supported the adoption of the United States Constitution and the peculiarly republican solutions that it offered.