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10A: “The Violence of Faction”

January 15, 2013

10A: “The Violence of Faction…”

The Federalist 10: The Same Subject Continued: The Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection. First published November 22, 1787. Author James Madison. Please see Introducing the American Bible for an introduction to this project.

Federalist 10 may be the most important of all the Federalist Papers. Certainly it is considered the most original: In Federalist 10, Madison attacks the ancient belief that smaller governments are always better, and instead makes the novel argument that a bigger republic[1] is a more stable one. This is somewhat radical even in our own day; in Madison’s time, it went against all received wisdom.

Given Federalist 10’s importance, and in honour of Publius 225’s 10th Paper[2], I’ve decided to devote two days to it. Today, I’ll present a brief summary of Federalist 10. Of all the papers discussed so far, it is the one most worth knowing first hand. Any student of American politics ought to add it to her repertoire. In the follow-up, I posted the sort of analysis I usually post on Mondays.


The Pnyx Hill, site of the Athenian Assembly, the heart of ancient democracy (Source: Wikimedia, user Qwqchris)

The Pnyx Hill, site of the Athenian Assembly, the heart of ancient democracy (Source: Wikimedia, user Qwqchris)

Madison’s subject today is faction. By faction, he means something like “political party”. He includes any group of citizens “who are united.. by some common impulse… adverse to the rights of other citizens”. Madison seems to simply expect that any group of citizens who form a unified front will, someday, misuse that power.

This is the first key takeaway from Federalist 10: Madison believed parties were dangerous. Nowhere in Federalist 10 will you find a good word about factions. Every interest group is potentially compromised, every ideal tainted.

Yet even has he despises faction, he also recognizes its inevitability. The problem is simply human nature:

As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed.

We could attempt to attack this tendency at the root; but only at a horrible price: We could eliminate liberty, for “liberty is to faction what air is to fire”. So wherever liberty exists, faction follows. This is not simply because our fellow citizens are wicked or stupid (or both). Instead, the natural differences in our capabilities is itself enough to generate disagreement. A smarter investor makes more money, as does the stronger athlete. The rich man will disagree with the poor, and the dreaded_faction_ will result.

All this, of course, ignores the thousand other ways people divide against each other: Madison notes the “zeal for different opinions” in matters of religion and government. Any reader can, of course, supply a dozen other hot-button issues.

So we are divided. Division is dangerous because one faction will oppress the other: peasants against landowners; Protestants against Catholics; whites against blacks (this last, of course, Madison was blind to). This oppression is a crime against liberty, of course; but Madison also thinks it will compromise the very stability oppressors are often trying to protect.

Madison notes that divided democracies end unhappily: They “have in general been as short in their lives, as they have been violent in their deaths.” As John Jay wrote in Federalist 5, America has as many divisions as the next country. So, how can we avoid a similar fate?

Here Madison introduces a new thesis in political philosophy: Bigger is better.

Bigger is better largely because it is harder for individual voices to be heard. A large republic—and already some Americans saw America’s westward destiny would make it a very large republic—will make forming a faction a difficult enterprise. For every new representative in Congress, a new set of competing interests is brought to the table. Madison hoped to make forming permanent factions impossible, as coalitions constantly broke and re-formed in response to a new set of issues.

Just as important, national representatives are accountable to larger audiences. Where a state assemblyman might answer to just 57,000 people today[3] (and perhaps just a few thousand in Madison’s day), Senators and Representatives must answer to whole cities or states. Statewide politicians can’t be seen to favor any group too much—or, presumably, a new politician will come along and put together a “coalition of the oppressed”.

Gaius Gracchus, one of the Roman "tribunes of the people," whose appeals to the peoples' will disrupted the Roman republican system.

Gaius Gracchus, one of the Roman “tribunes of the people,” whose appeals to the peoples’ will disrupted the Roman republican system.

Madison also notes, in passing, that it’s “more difficult for unworthy candidates to practise with success the vicious arts” on a statewide scale. By this he presumably means vote-buying, intimidation, ballot box-stuffing, and all the other unpleasant things characteristic of a second-rate democracy. More citizens means more people to bribe.

A large republic, in fact, enjoys the same benefits over a small republic as a republic does over a “democracy”. The Founders were very afraid of democracy, by which they meant simple majority rule. Democracies were too easily swayed by gifted speakers; too likely to suddenly turn vicious and attack their own members; too changeable and unstable. Republicanism is a filter on the people; Madison argues that a large republic compounds the benefits of republicanism, by further isolating politicians from factions and populism.

With this clever comparison, Madison seals his argument. His contemporaries adored republics, and loathed democracies. If a large republic had the same virtues as republicanism itself—stability, respect for minorities, wise leadership—than America would be a large republic. Anything else would have been most imprudent.


In 10B

Was Madison right? Did America’s large republic “break and control the violence of faction”?


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  1. A brief note: Whenever I say “republican” or “democrat” with a small “r” or small “d”, I’m referring to the two styles of government (not the American political parties). A full comparison is beyond this article, but briefly: A “democracy” features direct rule by the people. Democratic citizens vote on their own laws, serve as their own legislative body, and change their minds as they please. In Ancient Athens, even the courts were a popular assembly. “Republics” elect representatives to make laws and run the government on their behalf. All modern “democracies” are actually republics. For reasons Madison outlines here, direct democracy has been out of style since ancient Athens.  ↩

  2. And, this honest keyboard-masher admits, a certain amount of writer’s block.  ↩

  3. The number of people per Oregon House District.  ↩

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