James Madison’s essay from 1787 is generally regarded as one of the most significant pieces of modern political thought. Its reputation and importance seem a little overrated since it identifies the very political maladies the newly formed federal republic sought to mitigate, but ultimately amplified. It’s essentially a refutation of the limits of federal power the Constitution was theoretically meant to constrain.
Federalist 10 focuses on mitigating political faction; the tendency of a political group to overwhelm and trample the rights of a minority.
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.
Madison was obviously attuned to the corrupting influence which accompanied the acquisition of political power as well as the attendant tendency of politicians to pit citizens against one another. He essentially asks you accept that this phenomenon is inevitable. He further proposes that there are only two courses of action; abolish all personal liberty or somehow engineer a mass consensus of uniform opinions and interest.
There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.
Madison’s perception of man’s tendency to exploit the apparatus of state power to exploit and inflame the passions of citizens against one another is incisive and relevant.
So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.
His specific identification of greed and envy and the tension between Haves and Have Nots that has animated the passions of political sociopaths for centuries is also spot on.
But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society.
He begins to go off the rails by suggesting that statesmen are “enlightened” in the first place or that the “public good” is something that can be defined or achieved through the legislative process. This sounds more like an admission of futility than an affirmation of sound principle.
It is in vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.
The solution to this inevitability is to mitigate the effects.
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.
The specific mechanism by which this would be achieved is through a republican mode of governance over a democratic one. Much is made of the difference between a democracy and a republic amongst Constitution wonks and paleoconservatives, and Madison draws a few useful distinctions between the two.
Madison rightfully points out the that the main flaw of democracy in which all are granted perfect equality of representation is that it devolves into tyranny.
Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of government, have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions.
A republic, on the other hand, is a form of government in which citizens delegate power to a select number of representatives. The distinction seems pretty arbitrary if those in power trample the liberty of the citizens, but Madison insists that this difference is crucial.
The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended.
Madison argues that these “enlightened” delegates presiding over the Union would somehow thwart this tendency towards faction, but each of the “wicked projects” he feared have materialized. Ironic, given that the first one he mentions, the “rage for paper money”, didn’t take very long to materialize and Alexander Hamilton is the guy who agitated for it.
The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States. A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national councils against any danger from that source. A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project.
Each of the “wicked projects” he names were enacted or are being actively championed by one interest or another. Based on the palsied state of affairs and the dim view of Washington the public holds, the factious spirit is more an entrenched reality of the political process than ever.
If anything, Federalist 10 gives more credence to the Anti-Federalist position that the Constitution under consideration in Philadelphia in 1787 was destined for mission creep. It seems less an affirmation of the soundness of the Constitution and more of a vague hope that things won’t degenerate quite as badly as other experiments in democratic government.
On the other hand, the political class has followed Madison’s advice very closely, and used it to their advantage. Despite the veneer of a vast ideological divide between Democrats and Republicans, the two party duopoly has been very successful in engineering a uniform consensus. The limits on federal power were trampled starting with the suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion and were arguably completely eroded during the Woodrow Wilson administration. Presently, the President of the United States governs by Executive Order, and no one in Congress raises a peep of opposition. Democrats and Republicans are now completely united in preserving the institutions, policies, programs as well as the abuses, manufactured outrages and animosities which keep Americans obedient to the system.
The Constitution was meant to produce what John Adams famously described as “a government of laws, and not of men.” It was meant to delimit and constrain the power the federal government could exercise. In Federalist 10, James Madison seems to be preparing you for the inevitable destruction of that principle.