Notes on “Federalist N10” by James Madison

In Federalist N10, under the pseudonym of Publius, the roman consul who helped overthrow 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 by 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 choice 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 but 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 than 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 believes a good compromise for representation is to have local interests be reflected at the state level while the greater national interests be reflected in the federal legislature. 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 defeat attempts to impose any unjust will of a majority.

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