Each of the Federalist Papers was an argument for ratification of the Constitution. Frequently the topic addressed was in rebuttal to something that those in opposition to ratification had already written about or in anticipation of an opposing argument yet to be heard. Federalist No. 10 addresses the issue of factions and whether a large republic is the best means of combating them.
The word “faction” is not in common usage today in the context used here. Wikipedia gives us a nice definition of a political faction, in the context referred to by James Madison. But we can boil this down even further.
Political Faction: A group of individuals united by a common goal which may or may not be shared by folks outside the faction. A faction may be a segment of a larger group and compose a minority or a majority.
With that in mind let’s get started on Federalist 10.
To the People of the State of New York:
AMONG the numerous advantages promised by a well constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction. The friend of popular governments never finds himself so much alarmed for their character and fate, as when he contemplates their propensity to this dangerous vice.
NOTE: Remembering that the Federalist Papers were published in newspapers as arguments for ratification of the Constitution, (which was to replace the Articles of Confederation), clarifies the context of the above lines. The Articles of Confederation were the epitome of decentralized power. Each state was sovereign and getting them to agree on anything unanimously (as required by the Articles) had proved to be nearly impossible. Under the Articles, Congress could not raise money and therefore could not pay debts incurred for the waging of the Revolutionary War. Lacking funds, the states couldn’t be protected or garner the respect of other nations. Near anarchy reigned under the Articles of Confederation as states squabbled among themselves and internally (Shay’s rebellion). Forming a strong union was seen as the antidote for all the problems that had arisen under the Articles. By “popular governments” Madison was referring to democratically elected governments. Madison is arguing that pure democracy tends to devolve into violent factional struggles.
The most important advantage of a solid Union is its ability to deal with factions. As such, this topic deserves our fullest consideration. Advocates of democratic governance are never pressed harder than when confronted by the tendency of popular governments to devolve into factions.
He will not fail, therefore, to set a due value on any plan which, without violating the principles to which he is attached, provides a proper cure for it. The instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils, have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished; as they continue to be the favorite and fruitful topics from which the adversaries to liberty derive their most specious declamations.
Because factions are such troublesome things, the keen observer is likely to appreciate any plan that neutralizes their noxious tendencies- but does not violate their principles. Democratic governments always fail from the same root causes – instability, injustice, and disarray. This gives opponents of democratic systems – enemies of liberty, or “adversaries to liberty” as Madison calls them, ammunition in their arguments against them.
The valuable improvements made by the American constitutions on the popular models, both ancient and modern, cannot certainly be too much admired; but it would be an unwarrantable partiality, to contend that they have as effectually obviated the danger on this side, as was wished and expected. Complaints are everywhere heard from our most considerate and virtuous citizens, equally the friends of public and private faith, and of public and personal liberty, that our governments are too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.
NOTE: The early history of the American colonies was filled with numerous practice runs on self-governance. The Mayflower Compact was one of the earliest examples, but many, if not all of the states also had their own constitutions. Consequently, the colonists had many opportunities to see what worked and what did not. They had some success in constructing democratic systems. However, according to Madison, they were far from having perfected the art of government. Everywhere good solid citizens were of the opinion that the rule of law was not sovereign. Instead, conditions were unstable and rules were being made by “interested and overbearing majorities”.
An “interested’ majority in this context is someone who seeks personal benefit from employment in government or champions some act of government for the same reason.
Americans have made significant contributions to the science of formulating constitutions. As valuable and significant as these improvements are, it would be extreme hubris to suggest that all of the problems have been solved. Even the most considerate and virtuous citizens among us frequently complain that our governments are too unstable and that the public good is often disregarded in favor of private interests. Many say that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.
However anxiously we may wish that these complaints had no foundation, the evidence, of known facts will not permit us to deny that they are in some degree true. It will be found, indeed, on a candid review of our situation, that some of the distresses under which we labor have been erroneously charged on the operation of our governments; but it will be found, at the same time, that other causes will not alone account for many of our heaviest misfortunes; and, particularly, for that prevailing and increasing distrust of public engagements, and alarm for private rights, which are echoed from one end of the continent to the other. These must be chiefly, if not wholly, effects of the unsteadiness and injustice with which a factious spirit has tainted our public administrations.
While wishing that these complaints were unjustified, we have to admit that they are to some extent true. While some of the distresses we experience have been wrongly blamed on the operation of our governments, many of our worst misfortunes, especially distrust of government and concern for private rights must chiefly, if not wholly, be due to the factious spirit that has tainted governments with instability and injustice.
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.
Factions might comprise either a minority or a majority of the whole and what they advocate may not be in the best or long term interests of the community as a whole.
There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.
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.
It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.
There are two ways to deal with factions, you can remove its causes or control the effects.
Similarly, there are but two ways to remove the causes of factions. One is to remove all freedoms. If no one is free, no one can form factions. The other mechanism is to force every citizen to have the same opinions, passions and interests. If you think about it, this amounts to the same thing – pressuring everyone to think the same way.
In the case of removing liberty, the cure is worse than the disease. Just like a fire requires air, factions require freedom. If you remove all air, the fire goes out, but all organic life dies. If you remove freedom, factions die, but so does all political life.
The second expedient is as impracticable as the first would be unwise. As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves. The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties.
Trying to get everyone to think the same about everything is pretty much impossible. People aren’t perfect. They are fallible and frequently unreasonable. Differences in faculties and abilities result in differences of property. As long as this is the case, men will arrive at different conclusions and act accordingly. What’s more, there is a link between self-interest and reason. All of these things divide society into “different interests and parties” – factions.
The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. 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. 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. 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. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government.
The causes of factions are inherent in human nature. People are different. This is evident throughout society – in religion, government, preferences of leadership, and numerous other things. People always have and always will have reasons to be at odds with one another. In the absence of substantive issues, frivolous disputes kindle violence. However, the biggest reason for factious dissension in society is the unequal distribution of property. Those who have and those who have not tend to form into factions, landholders and renters, creditors and debtors, and competing businesses. This multiplicity of interests divides society into different classes which in turn hold differing views – factions. It is the job of government to regulate interactions between these factions.
No man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity. With equal, nay with greater reason, a body of men are unfit to be both judges and parties at the same time; yet what are many of the most important acts of legislation, but so many judicial determinations, not indeed concerning the rights of single persons, but concerning the rights of large bodies of citizens? And what are the different classes of legislators but advocates and parties to the causes which they determine? Is a law proposed concerning private debts? It is a question to which the creditors are parties on one side and the debtors on the other. Justice ought to hold the balance between them. Yet the parties are, and must be, themselves the judges; and the most numerous party, or, in other words, the most powerful faction must be expected to prevail. Shall domestic manufactures be encouraged, and in what degree, by restrictions on foreign manufactures? are questions which would be differently decided by the landed and the manufacturing classes, and probably by neither with a sole regard to justice and the public good. The apportionment of taxes on the various descriptions of property is an act which seems to require the most exact impartiality; yet there is, perhaps, no legislative act in which greater opportunity and temptation are given to a predominant party to trample on the rules of justice. Every shilling with which they overburden the inferior number, is a shilling saved to their own pockets.
Just as no one is allowed to act as their own judge, for obvious reasons, neither should a group of men be judges and defendants at the same time. Madison points out that legislation is exactly this – a judgment on the rights of a large group of citizens. There are a great many thorny legislative issues which tend to conflicts of interest. Some examples: laws concerning private debts, tariffs on foreign manufacture, and taxation. The latter provides the greatest temptation to the party in power to “trample on the rules of justice.”
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. Nor, in many cases, can such an adjustment be made at all without taking into view indirect and remote considerations, which will rarely prevail over the immediate interest which one party may find in disregarding the rights of another or the good of the whole.
It would be naive to expect that government will always be peopled with scrupulously honest politicians. Regardless, sometimes things get complicated. What seems right, may not take into consideration indirect or remote considerations, but instead the immediate benefit for one party will prevail, disregarding the the rights of another or the good of all.
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.
If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote. It may clog the administration, it may convulse the society; but it will be unable to execute and mask its violence under the forms of the Constitution. When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government, on the other hand, enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens. To secure the public good and private rights against the danger of such a faction, and at the same time to preserve the spirit and the form of popular government, is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed. Let me add that it is the great desideratum by which this form of government can be rescued from the opprobrium under which it has so long labored, and be recommended to the esteem and adoption of mankind.
So what does all this mean? Basically it is not possible to remove the causes of faction. The only thing left to do then, is to control the effects.
When a faction is less than the majority, it’s largely powerless anyway in a republican government. It simply loses at the ballot box. In a republican system, it might slow things down, but it is prevented from advancing its agenda. So, how should a majority faction be prevented from abusing its power and sacrificing the public good to its own ends?
By what means is this object attainable? Evidently by one of two only. Either the existence of the same passion or interest in a majority at the same time must be prevented, or the majority, having such coexistent passion or interest, must be rendered, by their number and local situation, unable to concert and carry into effect schemes of oppression. If the impulse and the opportunity be suffered to coincide, we well know that neither moral nor religious motives can be relied on as an adequate control. They are not found to be such on the injustice and violence of individuals, and lose their efficacy in proportion to the number combined together, that is, in proportion as their efficacy becomes needful.
There are only two ways to prevent the abuse of power by the majority. The first is to simply hope that the majority faction won’t behave badly when it is in the majority. The second is to provide a mechanism that prevents abuse through the distribution of power. It’s well known that, if impulse and opportunity coincide, “neither moral nor religious motives can be relied upon as an adequate control.” The larger the group, the more these attributes are needed, and conversely the shorter they are in supply.
From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such 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. 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.
Consequently, one must conclude that a pure democracy, one in which laws are directly passed through the will of the people, can’t deal with the evils of factions. It is inevitable that some issue or passion will sway the majority and induce it to “sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual.” And in such a system, there is no remedy, nothing to stop this from occurring. Democracies have always been found to be incompatible with personal security and the rights of property. Democracies are consequently short-lived and “violent in their deaths”. Those who theorize on the efficacy of this form of government erroneously suppose that if you make everyone equal in their political voice, everyone would also be equal “in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions.”
A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking. Let us examine the points in which it varies from pure democracy, and we shall comprehend both the nature of the cure and the efficacy which it must derive from the Union.
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.
A representative government or republic remedies these problems. We will examine the ways in which a republic differs from pure democracy and how this is derived from the proposed union.
The two big differences between a democracy and a republic are that in a republic, government is delegated to a small group of citizens elected by the rest and as a result, a much larger area may be governed.
The effect of the first difference is, on the one hand, to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose. On the other hand, the effect may be inverted. Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs, may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people. The question resulting is, whether small or extensive republics are more favorable to the election of proper guardians of the public weal; and it is clearly decided in favor of the latter by two obvious considerations:
In the first place, it is to be remarked that, however small the republic may be, the representatives must be raised to a certain number, in order to guard against the cabals of a few; and that, however large it may be, they must be limited to a certain number, in order to guard against the confusion of a multitude. Hence, the number of representatives in the two cases not being in proportion to that of the two constituents, and being proportionally greater in the small republic, it follows that, if the proportion of fit characters be not less in the large than in the small republic, the former will present a greater option, and consequently a greater probability of a fit choice.
In the next place, as each representative will be chosen by a greater number of citizens in the large than in the small republic, it will be more difficult for unworthy candidates to practice with success the vicious arts by which elections are too often carried; and the suffrages of the people being more free, will be more likely to centre in men who possess the most attractive merit and the most diffusive and established characters.
By electing representatives, the hope is that they will be a refined segment of society that will be patriotic and just, chosen due to their virtues. Thus, they will be less likely to sacrifice the public good to their own interests. But, on the other hand, the reverse could happen. People of sinister designs might wangle their way into office. The question then is whether small or large republics are better for the selection of representatives of “fit character” to be “guardians” of public interest. The answer is, the larger republics the better, for two reasons:
1) Even in the smallest republic, there must be a sufficient number of representatives to guard against cabals of a few. Yet, the number must also be limited in order to be workable, too many will lead to confusion and infighting. Since it’s likely that “fit characters” will be present in the same proportions in both a large and a small republic, a large republic, by virtue of its size will be able to contribute more “fit characters” to the pool of representatives.
2) Since each representative will be selected by a larger number of citizens in a large republic, it will be more difficult for unworthy candidates to hoodwink the people.
It must be confessed that in this, as in most other cases, there is a mean, on both sides of which inconveniences will be found to lie. By enlarging too much the number of electors, you render the representatives too little acquainted with all their local circumstances and lesser interests; as by reducing it too much, you render him unduly attached to these, and too little fit to comprehend and pursue great and national objects. The federal Constitution forms a happy combination in this respect; the great and aggregate interests being referred to the national, the local and particular to the State legislatures.
The trick is to find a happy medium in the number of electors. If there are too many, they won’t be acquainted with their local situations. If there are too few, they will be overly concerned with the particular interests of their locale. In that case, their interests would be unduly focused on local priorities and incapable of working for national ends. The federal Constitution solves the problem with a mix of national and state legislatures.
The other point of difference is, the greater number of citizens and extent of territory which may be brought within the compass of republican than of democratic government; and it is this circumstance principally which renders factious combinations less to be dreaded in the former than in the latter. The smaller the society, the fewer probably will be the distinct parties and interests composing it; the fewer the distinct parties and interests, the more frequently will a majority be found of the same party; and the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression. Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other. Besides other impediments, it may be remarked that, where there is a consciousness of unjust or dishonorable purposes, communication is always checked by distrust in proportion to the number whose concurrence is necessary.
Additionally, in a smaller republic there will likely be fewer parties and factions. Thus it is likely that a majority will occur in the same party. The smaller the number of people who make up a majority the more focused they are likely to be. Conversely under a larger republic, there are likely to be more parties and more interests. It is less probable that a majority will arise with common motive to “invade the rights of other citizens”. Should such a majority form, it will be more difficult for it to coordinate its activities. Finally, in dishonorable endeavors, communication is limited by the mutual distrust of those participating.
Hence, it clearly appears, that the same advantage which a republic has over a democracy, in controlling the effects of faction, is enjoyed by a large over a small republic, — is enjoyed by the Union over the States composing it. Does the advantage consist in the substitution of representatives whose enlightened views and virtuous sentiments render them superior to local prejudices and schemes of injustice? It will not be denied that the representation of the Union will be most likely to possess these requisite endowments. Does it consist in the greater security afforded by a greater variety of parties, against the event of any one party being able to outnumber and oppress the rest? In an equal degree does the increased variety of parties comprised within the Union, increase this security. Does it, in fine, consist in the greater obstacles opposed to the concert and accomplishment of the secret wishes of an unjust and interested majority? Here, again, the extent of the Union gives it the most palpable advantage.
And so, just as a republic is superior to a democracy in controlling the ill effects of faction so is a large republic better than a small one. Therefore, because a Union of States is most likely to possess the attributes of a large republic, it will provide greater security against one faction being able to outnumber and prevail over all others.
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, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it; in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular county or district, than an entire State.
Because of the distributed nature of power and representation, the influence of faction leaders may be felt within their particular states, but difficult to extend this influence through the other states. It might be that a religious sect could degenerate into a faction in one part of the country, but the wide variety of other sects would prevent it from holding sway nationally. Popular movements to abolish all debts, redistribute wealth and property, or any other such “improper or wicked project” would be less likely to pervade the entire Union, though it infect a particular member.
In the extent and proper structure of the Union, therefore, we behold a republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government. And according to the degree of pleasure and pride we feel in being republicans, ought to be our zeal in cherishing the spirit and supporting the character of Federalists.
In conclusion, the Union under the Constitution should be seen as the obvious remedy for the maladies that are most likely to infect republican government. If we take pride and pleasure in being republicans, we need to be zealous in supporting the views of Federalists.