Federalist 10 : An Analysis

In Federalist N10, under the pseudonym of Publius, the roman consul who helped overthrow the roman monarchy and establish a republic, James Madison argues for the federalist position against the anti-federalist camp. In this essay, his argument focuses on the problem of factions found in popular and pure democracies, a “mortal disease” he believes to be at the root of the demise of all popular governments due to the instability, injustice, and confusion they bring.

Factions for Madison are citizens powered by a certain interest or passion, who unite to impose their will on the rest of society. When this group forms a minority, the principle of majority rule defeats their attempt to impose their will. The problem arises when one faction is in the majority, for which the form of popular government allows it to “sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens”

According to Madison, there are two ways approach the problem: 1) eliminate the causes that lead to faction or 2) mitigate the effects of factions. For him, the first approach can be done in two ways, either by eliminating liberty altogether or imposing uniform feelings, passions, and interests amongst all people. The problem with eliminating liberty is that it is too extreme a remedy because of its importance to political life. it consists of eliminating one bad consequence by removing a cause which also provides so many other benefits, and Madison believes this to be folly.

The second approach is impractical as men are motivated by their diverse faculties of reasoning and self-love, have differing opinions based on their experiences and act differently depending on their passions. It is in this diversity that Madison believes the Rights of Property originate and it is of the utmost importance to preserve this diversity, so much so that their protection is “the first object of government”. Hence faction is inevitably part of the human fabric and one of its most common and most durable source argues Madison is the unequal distribution of Property, which divides people into multiple classes according to their interests whether landed, monied, mercantile, or industrial or others. Factious behavior therefore can only mitigated by never fully eliminated.

When people legislate they are involved in deciding what is good for them and often take only a narrow view of their immediate interests. Madison warns, “no man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause”, and yet that is what is at play when all citizens are involved in legislating policies about such topic as taxation, debt, or industrial manufacturing. The question is how can we have a popular form of government and at the same time “secure the public good and private rights against the danger of a majority faction”? Madison argues that a Republic is better suited than a pure democracy.

In that form of government, citizens elect a body of representatives to legislate for them. Doing so is a better assurance of mitigating the immediate feelings and the passion of people, by using the wisdom of a select number whose “patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice” the public interest to temporary considerations. However Madison warns the opposite might happen, evil minded people might try to secure the votes of the public and then work on pushing their own designs once elected. Madison believes a larger republic helps make this less likely then a smaller one and thus argues for extending the country’s boundaries and population together with adopting a republican form of government. First, by limiting the proportion of elected representatives as compared to a small republic, a greater choice from the population is available to insure a better fit of the elected body. Secondly, the difficulty of running an election will make unworthy candidates unfit to run, and favor the most attractive candidates, those with the “most diffusive and established characters”. Thirdly, the greater the population and the size of the country, the more diverse the passions and interests and the less likely it is that one interest will find itself in the majority. Finally, the ratio of electors to their representative must be well chosen for if too high, the representative will not be acquainted enough with their needs, too little and she will be too attached to them and little incentivized to pursue national interests.

Hence, Madison argues that to have local interests be reflected at the state level while the greater national interests be reflected in the federal legislature will insure a good compromise for representation. He concludes that the constitution proposed to the American people for ratification is a proper remedy to the disease of faction. Having a federal legislature together with a state legislature will allow the people to separate local interests from national interests, isolating factions whenever they arise from affecting the good of the whole. It will secure the nation against the oppressive behavior of a few and defeating attempts to impose any unjust will of a majority.


How did Madison’s ideas play out in practice? Do you think the constitution functions pretty much the way he argued it would?

This country has gone through one civil war since its inception yet has kept the same system of governance as described by its original constitution and Bill of Rights. In practice, the system has been very resilient, and has not led to the doom that Madison saw happening to all other forms of popular governments. However, it came really close to it in the years 1861-1864, because the economic interests of slavery overwhelmingly led to war. From the beginning, the constitution never dealt with this issue and allowed it to go unresolved. Factions that were supposed to be localized in a few states spread and divided the country in two, south and north of the Mason Dixon Line. The conflict had moral and religious dimensions and the institution of slavery was deeply interwoven with the concept of Property whose freedom to dispose of and move around the consitution aimed to protect. How could such contradictions be resolved? In the history of the United states, the civil war stands as the only time where the constitution miserably failed at securing national unity. Was there anything in it that could have been changed to prevent such outcome? I would argue that unity of the whole collapsed due to reasons too diverse to be pinned down to a particular form of government, that it may be that no constitution could have done any better. Yet overall, it has sustained drastic transformation of social and economic conditions in the time of industrial revolutions, a move from an agrarian to an industrial society, from rural to urban populace, and two world wars. This resiliency surely does great honor to the genius of Madison and the framers who came up with this document in 1787 at a time where almost all other countries in Europe were ruled by monarchies, where no country had such popular representative government and division of power to pose as a model.

Does filtering the will of the people through elected representatives and senators lead to greater deliberation and more sensible governance? 

Filtering the will of people is essential if one wants to have a working government. Only small city-states such as greek cities like Athens could have supported pure democracy, but America already in 1789 had four million people and a vast territory to rule over. It was an agrarian society where people lived far from each other and with no easy and fast means of transportation and communication. An elected body of representative was therefore crucial to deal with day to day challenges rather than asking all citizens to vote on all laws. Madison also gives reasons for why elected representatives provide security against the destructive effects of factions, as the wisdom of the elected and their patriotism would make them less likely to succumb to the immediate and temporary will of a certain group. He also argued that a small number of representatives in a growing countries will create competitive conditions that insures the best are elected that would uphold the general good. Less likely are those interests to unite people in a growing and diverse society.

Madison also argues for a federal system that separates local interests from national interests. A national congress thus operates to secure the national interest while state legislatures focus on local and state issues. Besides slavery, there are various economic issues that states can decide on their own, but many other that involve other states such as interstate commerce. While the congress legislate to force a national strategy, the problem of deciding whose law stands higher, state or federal, becomes crucial. Without the Supreme court’s judicial power to interpret the constitution, respected by all and with the credibility to lay a final word on where some power lays, sensible governance would not have been possible. Without the executive power strong enough to veto congressional bills, sensible governance would also not have been possible. I think the constitution thus balance multiple powers to achieve the best outcome.

Finally the need for two houses in congress is also meant to separate immediate local interest versus national interests. The choice to have a large number of representative elected from small district every two years will reflect those local and immediate interests which will be debated in the house of representative. The senators however, will bring all state together to legislate over a long term strategy, they are elected for 6 years and each state is equally represented by 2 senators. We therefore see here another place where an attempts is made to control and separate issues that are of immediate concerns and those that are of national importance.

Are minority views and interests adequately protected? Are they too protected?   

Madison in Federalist 10 said that the first object of government is to the protection of the diversity of faculties from which originates the Rights of property. Many of those are provided in the Bill of Rights. Yet as we shall see the 1833 Barron v. Baltimore supreme court will rule that the Bill of right does not apply to state Law and many individuals including slaves will not be protected by the constitution for a very long time. I think the constitution does provides protection for some fundamental rights as well as mechanism by which minorities can have recourse to courts to right their wrongs. However, it is clear from reading history that the circumstances of the day greatly affect how a minority is treated and the interpretation of the constitution differs greatly based on the will of the people, in particular the majority. If it is the mood of the country to protect property against governmental interference, this shall be reflected in the interpretation of the constitution as it happened during the Gilded age and the economical boom. For example, the slaughterhouse cases in the 1870s show that states can override the will of some people and give monopolies to one company over the butchering of animals, under the pretext that the 14th amendment does not prohibit state-granted monopoly.  One the other side, the due process clause of the same 14th amendment can be used in favor of the individual property owners rather than the public good, such as for example in the railroad cases or the general hours or rend and price regulation by states. So it seems that the constitution can be used to protect the minorities or to hurt them, depending on the social, political, and ideological circumstances that are thriving at the moment.


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