Constitution Sunday: “Publius,” The Federalist X

“Publius,” The Federalist X [James Madison]

Daily Advertiser (New York), November 22, 1787

Following are excerpts from The Federalist X, authored by James Madison amidst the debates surrounding the ratification of the Constitution:

“There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controling 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 is worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction, what air is to fire, an aliment [sic] without which it instantly expires. But it could not be a 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.

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.

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them every where brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. . . . 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 objective to which our enquiries are directed: Let me add that it is the great desideratum, by which alone 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.

By what means is this object attainable? Evidently by one of two only. Either the existence of the same passion of interest in a majority at the same time, must be prevented; or the majority, having such co-existent passion of interest, must be rendered, by their number and local situation, unable to concert and carry into effect schemes of oppression.

.     .     .

The two great points of difference between a Democracy and a Republic are, first, the delegation of the Government; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended.

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.”

Madison, through his analysis of democracies and republics, was prescient in anticipating the nature of America’s representative democracy. Although there would be factions within society and reflected in its government, those factions have had a regulating effect on each other as administration after administration and Congress after Congress have shaped the country, to the extent they can, in their own image. One of Madison’s primary concerns about the system was the ability of a faction to control the government and implement an agenda that resulted in the oppression of its opponents.

He also recognized that a government that was purely democratic, with the people having full discretion over their government without the benefit of representation, would likely result in governance that was in the interests of one faction but not the people as a whole. As it happened over the ensuing two-and-a-quarter centuries, majorities have regularly changed and influenced the government as eras came and went. Moments of hysteria were restricted to mere moments, traditions have been maintained as a whole, and American citizens continue to have an incentive to educate themselves and be involved in their government as the ballot box and public opinion matters as much as ever.

In this way, the factious nature of politics has its benefits. As a whole, the government moderates itself as each new generation finds its voice and implements its policies, but in the aggregate, those policies serve as a reflection of the mores, norms, and concepts of the times; not a permanent regime of policies or laws that every generation must then endure. The adaptable nature of the government, through its rotation of elected officials, ensures that each faction has its day and is able to be heard. While some may find discomfort and danger in allowing a faction to be heard, in fact, the greater danger may lie in suppressing any one faction and allowing that faction’s animosity and bitterness to grow. Then, in its desperation, it may seek to use any means necessary to gain influence and power in society and government at the expense of all others.

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