Constitution Sunday: “Publius,” The Federalist XXII

“Publius,” The Federalist XXII [Alexander Hamilton]

New-York Packet, December 14, 1787

A well-functioning democracy must be capable of recognizing and dealing with the friction that occurs between the minority and the majority on any given issue. As Alexander Hamilton wrote, in the Federalist XXII, the difference between a vote requiring a simple majority versus a vote requiring a two-thirds majority is one that—the latter—empowers a small, vocal minority to obtain significant power over two-thirds of the body. Furthermore, it enables foreign powers—who may be seeking to “perplex our councils and embarrass our exertions”—to sway the policymaking of our country by using that method to encourage factions to block legislation that may be harmful to that foreign power but beneficial to us.

More dangerous, and perhaps more plausible, is that the system permits the sensibilities of the minority to dominate those of the majority. The Polish Diet of yore carved out a place in the annals of history for accomplishing little because one vote against a proposal had “been sufficient to put a stop to all their movements,” and Hamilton feared that a similar system could emerge in the United States—particularly as the country grew and new states came to exist. Unanimity in voting, “has been founded upon a supposition that it would contribute to security,” but in fact, “its real operation is to embarrass the administration, to destroy the energy of government, and to substitute the pleasure, caprice or artifices of an insignificant, turbulent or corrupt junto, to the regular deliberations and decisions of a respectable majority.” While in slow times an impotent government may be acceptable—or, more likely, put out of most people’s minds—emergencies within the nation require a government that is capable of action.

Equally important is the fact that a majority, if unbroken for an extended period of time, acts in its own regard thereby repressing the wishes and desire of the factions in the minority—be they many or few. Over time, if that repression continues without relent, the institution in which the majority and minority are situated begins to be a target for the minority; and in which the minority, or factions of the minority, are certain to lose faith. If that resentment reaches a fever pitch, the institution may come under attack or erosion either of which is unlikely to be remedied in the near term. Those seeds of discord are of the nature that can befall an institution and change the mechanics of government either through refining that institution to become more inclusive or, as seems more likely in history, to reshape the institution in the minority’s image and cleave the majority where its natural fault lines lay. To mitigate the chance of a government falling into this destructive pattern, there must be some measure of balance, of agreement, and of compromise; all of which, together, will ideally lead all factions to hold a sentiment of incremental improvement.

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