Federalist No. 10
Updated: Apr 16, 2020
The genius project of America and why today's divisions may be blessings
The two most important terms in James Madison’s Federalist No. 10 are pure democracy and faction. Madison defined a pure democracy as a “society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person”. Each word in this definition is important. For Madison, a pure democracy was a form of government for states with low populations, an idea influenced by the Baron de Montesquieu. He also believed that every public decision came from the majority. He defined faction as “a majority or minority [of all citizens] who are united and actuated… [against] the rights of other citizens or the permanent and aggregate interests of the community”. The winning group in Madison’s faction situation virtually guarantees the diminution of the rights granted to others that were guaranteed by the establishment of the political society that housed the faction, or the diminution of the interests of the society that includes the winning group; a mere dispute over the policies of a government does not qualify as a faction. In fact, Madison welcomed it. A faction must threaten to undermine rights or annul the system that gave them occasion. With an eye on the havoc and bloodshed civil wars, religious fissure and plain despotism, not to mention the overwhelmingly complicated and corrupt Holy Roman Empire and Italian states, the founding fathers saw in America the task to establish what Europe, after years of exhausting conflict, was still struggling to achieve: a society that tolerates dispute without giving rise to a faction that disposes the society to tyranny, havoc or despair. This, with the added dream of seeing that society exist in one nation of peaceful co-habiting states. Along with many Enlightenment thinkers and stalwart Stuarts, Madison did not believe that the solution to the task was the pure democracy as he defined it applied to the large country of the US. Indeed, he argued that it would be a cause of faction in a large country, and thus the cause of the worry at hand for America, emerging ravaged from war at this time and left with the Articles of Confederation that united the states in the war effort. However, nations and territories alike step out of wars and crises with the monumental task of maintaining morale and a duty to improve themselves. Echoing Montesquieu, Madison believed that each bruised state had a population small enough to fundamentally agree with itself. After all, it is easier for small groups to convince one another, there may be a greater sense of community in small populations that few want to jeopardise, leading to equal enough interests and a less appealing opportunity and reason for one group to rule. If each state was free to form its own legislatures, they could easily come to contain a people sufficiently and formally united on a course against the interests of other states, forming a faction as the sense of community fizzles out over a large territory occupied by multiple states (but not separated by sea); the ambition to cement an interest or passion over all the people is more appealing. “When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens… a common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole… and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual”. If America was left to govern by pure democracy, there is nothing to stop the winning (majority) party or state from subjecting the minority to what the establishment of an independent political society was supposed to protect them from, and this situation would be likely under such popular democracy. Madison was influenced by John Locke when he argued that property is at the heart of all of this: “[The protection of] the diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate is the first object of government ... those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society”. This troubled Madison and the other founding fathers because most Americans were unpropertied, yet the acquisition of property by different effort and inheritance was just (the Lockean view). Therefore, redistributing wealth from those to whom it was entitled (preventing which was the reason for government in the first place) was a real possibility in a country governed by majority rule that was fuelled by interests initiated by the unequal distribution of property. Pure democracy is incompatible with the rights of property and lives by mob rule. The pure democracy will never reach an end on such matters but suffer “turbulence and contention” as the majority quibbles and quarrels in trying to establish a renewed country, providing a chance for a tyrant to establish needed order, ending democracy and putting personal security at the whims of a personality - something realised after the French Revolution in the form of Napoleon. Therefore, another reason why Madison opposed pure democracy was that it set the stage for the tyranny America had thrown off. Certainly, Madison adhered to realism in his lack of faith in the majority to find consensus without the need of a systematic apparatus of checks and balances. He sought to control the effects of faction (as opposed to the causes, the control of which would entail either the destruction of liberty or ignorance of human nature), a representative democracy, a strong executive branch to check the biases of each states’ representatives forming the legislature and regular elections to pressure both branches into pursuing the public interest. Ultimately, then, he argued for a republic whereby the United States had more power than her parts, thus preventing any majority group, however populated and powerful, dominating the country and other groups in it. Madison was a realist because he denied that the causes of faction are avoidable (they are “sown like man”) without recourse to destroying liberty, but this is the very right that gives the control of faction its worth, so is a cure “worse than the disease“. Madison opted for controlling the effects of faction, where there can be a group even made up of most of the citizens in opposition to the rights of others or the well-being of the community, but unable to implement anything that infringes on fundamental rights or well-being. He recognised that the majority must not have the same interest at the same time or, if they do, must be prevented by a Republic complex enough to make its majority unable to meet and implement their wants. Madison wanted the Republic to protect the persons from themselves, to have the ignorant not realise their full power. To achieve this – prevent the uninformed majority occupying the balance of power, and preventing any group occupying more power than the rest together – a representative government with checks and balances is required, very much like the US today; representing the whole nation, a strong central government is key to preventing a faction state dominating the others. All citizens that form the majority are ignorant of some things, including something important, but all persons should be credited citizenship. Naturally to us now, representatives from each state make laws on behalf of their constituents. Are there advantages of a large republic? Montesquieu was sceptical, but Madison was excitedly on the other side of indifference. More potential representatives to choose from in an election increases the chance of suitable candidates, although the charm of an insincere candidate can be more dangerous if he has seduced more people. Voters are supposed to come around to candidates after they appeal to their interests, increasing the chance of more disagreement with a plethora of policy options on the table, opting for debate rather than divide to reach an informed decision. It would be interesting to hear Madison's opinion on the spread of misinformation and furiously spewed nonsense on social media. Modern technology and transport are also capable of uniting persons across the US to form a formidable faction or allow citizens to flee one. Madison's economic determinism also falls short. The spirit of the South, for example, travels far beyond economics and is rightfully not shackled by a California or New York, states that do not vote for the party most behind private property. On the other hand, economics arguably played the decisive role in the 2016 election as Tump (or liberal failures) demolished the so-called blue wall. Economic determinism and the (dying?) distinctive culture of the South and countryside are strong candidates for solidity against the nasty reek of postmodernist commentary on America's great texts.
Does not all of this complexity and argument generally testify in Madison's favour? I think it does. We should be careful before considering societal divisions as curses rather than blessings. Madison was also spot on when he argued that purely local interests should be left in local hands, an argument that continues to inspire and complicate territories and nations to this day.