Analysis Culture

The Federalist — The Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection

This article is part of a series. You can find part one here.

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The first essay we’ll examine from The Federalist is No. 10, written by James Madison and published on Nov. 23rd, 1787 in the New York Packet. Titled “The Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection”, this essay deals with the Federalist viewpoint, the risks that political factions oppose to liberty, and makes the argument that the Union, as framed by the newly drafted Constitution, deals adequately with this threat.

Madison begins by proposing that the most important quality of a well-constructed state is its ability to break factions, and control the “violence” they inflict on liberty. He defines a faction as “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 and aggregate interests of the community.” The major points of this definition are that factions are people united politically due to common interest or emotion, and that their desires are contrary to what is best for society as a whole.

Madison believed factions were inherently bad, blaming them both for the instability during the years of the Articles of Confederation — the 1780s — as well as responsible for the upheaval and fall of democracies throughout history, referring to Ancient Greece and Rome. He claims that they result in narrow interests and wild swings in government, such as the abolition of debts by a faction of indebted people.

Having established this, he defines two ways of dealing with factions: removing the causes or controlling their effects. Addressing the first, Madison states that one way to destroy a faction is to destroy liberty. Madison compares this to destroying oxygen because it fuels fire — it also gives life, and liberty fuels political life. He then claims that differing opinions will always form in free societies, because all people have different abilities, which result in different levels of wealth and property, and therefore different interests, as the division of property is the most important factor creating factions. The only way to prevent this would be to destroy private property and force all citizens to have the same wealth, assets, and interests.

Madison concludes that factions are part of human nature, lending us to oppression rather than cooperation for the mutual good. Thus, the way to deal with factions is to control their effects, as factions will necessarily be brought into politics when legislatures are made up of people acting in their own interest and in a position to make judgements and pass laws in those interests at the expense of others.

Madison’s two methods of controlling factions are first to prevent a single faction from gaining a majority, as a minority faction is thwarted by a minority vote, and second to control a majority faction’s ability to act. Here Madison begins to make his argument for a republic, or representative democracy (as opposed to a pure democracy). Pure democracy is too susceptible to majority factions. Madison argues that they will always emerge, and that once they are in power, they will have no check on their authority and full means to suppress the minority.

A republic checks factions as mentioned above by delegating responsibility to “a chosen body of citizens” and by being able to extend over large numbers of people. By electing patriotic and moral people to represent them, Madison argues that the legislature elevates and refines the views of the public, keeping them oriented towards the public good more effectively than a pure democracy.

Concerning the size of the republic, Madison argues that a large republic is best for controlling factions. By having a large constituency for each representative — though not too large — that representative has a larger group of interests to represent and a more difficult time fooling them into believing they are moral when they are not. This keeps them in touch with local interests, but not trapped by them, and also prevents corrupt politicians from tricking the people into electing them. A large and diverse republic also ensures a larger variety of factions, making it more difficult for one to claim a majority. Lastly, a republic that extends over a large area makes it more difficult for members of a faction to communicate, and therefore coordinate oppression, when they are spread out. They may not even know they have a majority!

Madison believed the government defined in the new Constitution achieved these goals, and urged voters to support and ratify. It is also notable that he never once mentions the separation of powers across the three branches of the government in this entire essay! Since then, our government has evolved and our country has changed. This begs the question: does Madison’s logic still stand?

One assumption of Madison’s is that government will be minimal. During the Revolutionary time period, the idea of a large federal government like our modern one, let alone a state that would take positive action to affect the lives of its citizens, would have been totally foreign. Now that legislators are given incentives to interfere rather than regulate, regardless of political party, it takes a strong sense of civic duty to maintain government for the public good. Madison does not have faith in this, claiming that “neither moral nor religious motives can be relied on as an adequate control.”

One of Madison’s key arguments is that geographic size will prevent factions from communicating and coordinating. For all their forethought, the Founding Fathers were not anticipating Twitter. Clearly, modern lines of communication allow factions to conglomerate and the speed of light, and allow national level political platforms to rule the day. Further, instruments like social media allow leaders to constantly stoke the news cycle, never letting passions die down so that less transient and tolerable interests, such as class differences, to drive the politics.

Based on these few drastic changes, it has become clear that Madison’s thought in The Federalist No.10 alone will not preserve the Union through modern times. More checks and balances are needed. Luckily, there are many articles in the Constitution, and many more systematic processes for balancing power. Keep reading our series on The Federalist to find out more!

2 comments on “The Federalist — The Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection

  1. I am impressed by how often the word Liberty is used in the Federalist Papers, a word almost archaic now in use and belief. Also the understanding of human weakness, of the rule of the mob, and how they worked to prevent it.

    They also feared the immoral and the ignorant. It is too bad our elected representatives, before taking office, are not required to take a course on the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, and the history of the Supreme Court and its rulings. And maybe every ten years, since they all stay so long, they should take a refresher course. You have to take continuing education classes to be a hair stylist.

    Thanks for drawing attention to such an important part of the founding philosophy of our government.

    • Tyler Jones

      I’m glad you enjoyed it! I think some of our problem is that the definition of terms such as liberty have changed a lot since our founding, and we don’t have national consensus on what those things mean.

      We are split between seeking equality of outcome versus equality of opportunity, and even split within those two camps. We are also still unsure how to deal with the dissonance between good ideas, like liberty, and the historical context of slavery and aristocracy.

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