Thinking and Teaching the Implications of Federalist #10 for Democracy
When I picked up my copy of Federalist #10 to begin writing this article, I was stunned by the subtitle: “The Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection.” Despite my 30 years of teaching this document, the emotions that welled up in me upon reading “Insurrection” were a shock. These are hard times. That the present shapes our understanding of the history we study was brought home to me with new force.
Knowing that Shays’ Rebellion was a cause of the calling for and high attendance at the Constitutional Convention, and the prominence of the phrase “to insure Domestic Tranquility” in the preamble, helps explain what the framers thought was at stake in 1787. As a high school teacher, I always spent 10 or 15 minutes parsing the meanings of the preamble, but even though I taught the Constitution more than 150 times over the years, I never felt the depth of those words as I do at this time. The January 6, 2021 insurrection at the United States Capitol by followers of Donald Trump puts us in a situation James Madison would recognize. Donald Trump and his followers have been frightening us every day for years now. It is time to analyze the most famous of Madison’s Constitutional commentaries: Federalist #10. This essay is addressed to teachers.
This article is in two major parts: An analysis of Madison’s Federalist #10 on his terms in the first section, which is a pared down student-led lesson, and a second section which builds on the first to critique #10. Usually historians and political scientists refer to the electoral college as the major anti-democratic feature of the Constitution, but in Federalist #10 Madison, as you will see, had fundamentally no respect for the will of the of the people. He baked this idea into his theory of the republic.
That final section takes on the chimerical idea of the (single) public good and Madison’s outright rejection of “the people themselves” to protect the government from dangerous majorities. In 2022 the white supremacist Republican Party has ditched democracy and gerrymandered Madison’s constitutional structure. We are on the brink of a fascist takeover. These contradictions could not be compromised away in 1787 and cannot be smoothed over in 2022. “The Miracle in Philadelphia” nearly failed as a system on January 6, 2021. Democracy cannot be defended by depending on a group of men of “wisdom” to lead us to control “the mischiefs of faction.” Instead we need majority rule.
Part I: Federalist #10 taken on Madison’s terms
When I assigned Federalist #10 I asked the students to download and read the document. They were required to choose two sentences from the beginning, three from the middle, and two from the end of the document. As I have explained in detail in “The Tarzan Theory of Reading,” on my Substack site, the students were to single out sentences with which they agreed or disagreed strongly or those that they thought were important and explain why. The students will lead the discussion with their questions, comments, and the sentences they choose which they will read out loud to the class. In addition, I asked them to identify the sentence that was at the logical center of the argument in Federalist #10, which has an elegant architecture.
When I began the class, I asked for questions or comments. Students often made comments on the definitions of faction or insurrection, which is now a term many students will encounter in the news. The definition of faction is “a majority or minority… opposed to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” The students will come up with the common term “special interest,” but how can that be a majority? This is key problem with Federalist #10, since Madison’s understanding of the term faction is not intuitive. The students may object that the Constitution describes a democracy: does not the majority rule? You should put that idea in a separate list on the board and leave it until the end of the discussion (we will discuss that separate list of ideas in depth in the Part II critique). The students know that Shays’ Rebellion (1786 – 87) was an insurrection, an attempt at the violent overthrow of a government.
Majority faction is itself a contradiction that can be addressed by working through Madison’s series of subtopics: the climate of disorder in the country, his diagnosis of factions the proposals to eliminate them, or to control them, and a critique of his solution. Although the discussion will jump around the document, as the students volunteer their sentences those subtopics will organize the notes as we go along.
Disorder in the country
Shays’ Rebellion was a major factor in Madison’s concerns. The students will know that indebted farmers in western Massachusetts denounced unaffordable taxes and complained that they were losing their mortgages to foreclosure. Daniel Shays was a Revolutionary War captain who led his followers to attempt to close the courts to prevent the foreclosures. In addition, they demanded representation equal to the proportional per capita representation in the east close to Boston. After the rebellion was quashed, Shaysites were elected to the Massachusetts legislature. Another problem was that the rebellion was a protest against unfair taxation reminiscent of the protests in the 1760s and 70s. It reminded many leaders in Massachusetts of the lead-up to 1776 (similarly, some of the insurrectionists in 2022 used 1776 as a threatening slogan). This armed insurrection was a major cause of the convening of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, because the Articles Congress had no power to raise an army directly: the state had to defend itself along with any allies it could muster.
Madison describes how, in his view, the public good was being ignored. “The friend of popular governments” opposes the “violence of faction” which causes “instability, injustice and confusion.” There are “overbearing” majorities that cause “ governments” to be “too unstable” because they do not respect the “rights of the minority,” and governments controlled by “specious (unsupportable) arguments” causing “mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished.” Madison blames the “factious spirit that has tainted our public administrations.”
Madison’s definition of faction
“By 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 or passion or of interest adversed (sic) to the rights of other citizens or the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” If a student chooses this sentence, you have to be careful to explain each part of the definition. I ask, “How do you explain this definition?”. Eventually the students come to realize that Madison expected that the people would support particular conclusions (how else could he call it a majority faction?). How could a leader find “the permanent and aggregate interests of the community,” I ask. This should also go in the Critique section for discussion. The rest of Federalist #10 discusses how to eliminate factions or how to control them.
This is the first of the methods to secure the government against the “mischief of faction.” There are two methods to eliminate factions: destroying liberty or giving everyone the same opinions. The students will then come to the conclusion that restricting liberty is not possible in a democratic government because we depend on freedom of thought and action to maintain democracy.
The second method, giving “everyone the same opinions,” is also an impossible solution because “as long as man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed.” I ask, “How do you understand that?” Here, students might note Madison’s identification of opinions based on “self-love,” the diagnosis that “reason is connected to passion” and the observation that “Diversity in the faculties of man” were factors in the differences of political opinions.
The rights of property and the ownership of different kinds of property and the faculties to obtain those kinds of property all cause divisions. “Faculties” seems to mean “abilities,” students will likely conclude. So, Madison describes it thus: “(t)he latent (underlying) causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man.” It soon becomes clear that Madison was not making an argument for the change in distribution or the control of production or property or goods in the U.S. — Madison was not a Marxist! Instead, the students will conclude that Madison was attempting to find ways to manage the political effects of that inequality or those differences. But in whose interest did he want to manage those inequalities: was it to be a country of the enslaved, the ordinary people, or did he favor his class of the southern gentry?
Controlling the effects of faction
“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 controlling its EFFECTS.” In the ensuing discussion students will come to the conclusion that this sentence begins the second half of the argument. It is the sentence at the logical center of the argument. Here Madison turns to the idea of controlling the effects of factions instead of eliminating them, and eventually introduces the republic as a solution.
“If the faction consists of less than a majority” voting, the “republican principle” is the remedy. There might be disagreements, but majority rule does offer a solution. Therefore, what to do about a majority faction is the most intractable problem. Someone is likely to pick the sentence: “To secure the public good and private rights against the danger of such a (majority) 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.” The ensuing discussion can conclude that it is a thesis sentence pointing to the chief point of the whole article.
The “existence of the same passion in the factional majority” must be prevented or “the majority must be rendered unable to concert. When people “concert” they work together. Madison is actually opposing the rule of the majority here. A pure (direct) democracy in which the citizens are the legislature “can admit of no cure” for “the mischiefs of faction” because “the common passion or interest will in almost every case be felt by a majority of the whole and there is nothing to check… an obnoxious individual” or group from influencing everyone.
In a republic as envisioned by Madison, however, “the representatives refine and enlarge the public views by passing through a medium of a chosen body of citizens whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country (my italics).” He added, “the public voice pronounced by the representatives of the people might be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves.” Here Madison added the idea of making the republic cover larger areas. He suggests that by “(e)xtend(ing) the sphere — you take in a greater variety of parties and interests (and) you make it less possible they will concert….” The conclusion of this part of the argument can lead to a choice of more famous and experienced statesmen who possess the “wisdom” referred to above, because the a large number of voters would be participating in a larger district, the chances if a more famous or experienced person (i.e. of wisdom) would be greater.
Finally, “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.” He uses religious sects, a rage for paper money, and abolition of debt as examples that are more likely to “taint a particular county or district than an entire State.” These are some of Madison’s most famous statements. The students will see that the purpose of representation and extending the area of the republic was to elect men of wisdom. The factions may cancel each other out or the men of wisdom will convince the other legislators to follow the “true ideas” of the public good because ordinary people cannot end the controversy. Madison and his fellow leaders will decide for them.
Madison’s essay seems clear as a the ringing of two groups of bells: There are two groups of opposing solutions: Eliminating Factions or Controlling its Effects. Each has two methods of solution: He moves through the ideas with alacrity going from one solution to another. The logic is stunning and elegant, like a mathematical proof.
Part II: A critique of Madison’s argument
Now we have to confront the sentences we have put aside or left without exploring thoroughly, in particular the idea of the majority faction: “By 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 or passion or of interest adversed (sic) to the rights of other citizens or the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” Eventually, the students will conclude that a majority vote is not what Madison is seeking as a solution to the problem of the majority faction. Somehow the government must override the majority.
Another example of Madison’s majority problem: The “public voice pronounced by the representatives of the people” might be more consonant “to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves.” The students will determine that Madison is counter-posing the representatives to “the people themselves.” Representatives certainly do not have to vote by taking instructions from their constituents, but it is clear that Madison is trying to circumvent the majority. Why would a legitimate republic be so designed? When we discuss this idea the students reach the conclusion that he does not trust the people to make the right decisions. It is obvious from the sentences that are there for the choosing.
Another of Madison’s sentences expresses the same contradictory view: “To secure the public good and private rights against the danger of such a (majority) 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.” What, students may ask, is the “public good” other than the will of a majority? If you have not yet discussed “public good,” it is an opportunity to discuss the major contradiction. When the students analyze this, discussion is not done until students understand that although Madison seems to be arguing the solutions benefit all the people, he is claiming the right of the elite to decide for the majority, which citizens are going to benefit.
Eventually the students reach the conclusion that everyone does not have the same interests in society or that the public good may change. It is not clear how to determine the public good, or that the public good can be expressed as a singular rather than a series of public goods. Madison believed, however that the public good was not only attainable, but a key factor in overcoming the mischiefs of the majority faction. Do we really think that the Constitution has been a success for all the people as Madison designed it and the conventional wisdom in the US has always assumed?
Now we have entered a realm of ambiguity and contradiction. Madison’s elegant proof, which seemed so clear, becomes murky, and most importantly, unreachable by the majority of ordinary men — or women! I ask, “How do you understand this “public good” now?” The students will determine that not all people under the Constitution have the same interests as propertied white men. There are women and Black people and the poor and wealthy. In 1787 these individuals were not all formally part of the political community. The First Peoples, “not taxed,” were excluded from representation by the clause on taxing and the 3/5th clause. The Black underclass in the U.S. has been living without the protection of the law for the vast majority of American History; much of white America seemed to only discover the true level of relentless and widespread violence against Black people on May 25, 2020 — the day of George Floyd’s murder. Madison had been fine with slavery and its terrible consequences; violence against Black men and women was not a new development.
The interracial uprising that resulted was unique. They were the largest multiracial demonstrations ever in the US. The violence against Blacks has been a dark undercurrent in the US since the ratification of the Constitution. What is the public good? Do you think now that Madison was protecting the whole people as he implied in paragraph after paragraph by calling his goal the public good?
Now we come to the final sentence in the statements we have put aside for critique. When Madison brought up the danger of Shays’ Rebellion, he blamed the eastern leaders of Massachusetts for the unequal taxation, which caused the rebellion. The western farmers rebelled against the unfair taxation as they had in the 1760s and 70s. Madison commented: “Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm,” i.e. elected to office.
These men on whom Madison depended must convince the other representatives and the senators that they know the public good better than the people themselves. Are these people philosopher kings who see the reality in Plato’s cave? Or are they advocating legislation based on the general will in the theory of Rousseau? The general will is discerned outside of debate, and expresses the “true will” of the people. This ability is a “faculty” of enlightened statesmen. It depends not on majority vote but on “the permanent aggregate interests of the community” or the “public good,” determined by the men “whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country” in Madison’s phrase. These men of the “better sort” must convince other legislators to follow their lead. What in Madison’s argument places these statesmen in power, I ask. The students eventually identify the layering that takes the decisions out of the hands of the direct voters who have elected men of deeper perception or who represent more conservative interests that protect the government from the “vexed,” the poor or the enslaved, in other words, the factions born of ambition race, and class. These men can find the public good for the benefit of the permanent aggregate interests of their countrymen. But as I stated at the outset such a belief is a chimera.
How can we call the history of the US a long story of a developing public good for all the people when the 3/5th Compromise was in effect until it was repealed by the 14th Amendment in 1868, when the large white population of the North overwhelmed the slaveholders’ advantages, and up until the Civil War the small population states controlled the Senate with the help of the “dough-faced” northerners who voted with the South in the Senate and the House? These all acted together to repress democratic solutions to slavery and keep women, the poor and the First Peoples in literal and virtual shackles and chains.
When the slave power was overthrown and the Reconstruction Amendments were passed after the Civil War, there was a brief period from 1866 to 1877 when a fragile interracial democracy existed in the South, which for a time kept the Republican reformers in power. But then violent mobs attacked and killed Black Republican voters, overturned that hard won peace between the races, and Blacks lost suffrage in nearly the whole South. White supremacy ruled again until the Civil Rights Revolution capped by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 produced a second period of Black and minority participation.
Now we are in a different era in which our political life has also been commandeered by white supremacy in the form of Republican re-districting in the states so, despite the large populations in the Democratic-controlled states, the Democrats have only bare majorities in the House and only the tie-breaking vote of the vice president in a 50-50 Senate. Democratic senators represent 41.5 million more Americans than the Republicans. These are problems quite different from Madison’s majority factions. It is minority rule that the majority cannot use the “republican principle” to “cure.” It is a deadlock caused by the filibuster and the small population states, which have controlled the Senate since they were born in the Great Compromise. Madison’s “Machine that Would Go of Itself” has been rejiggered. There is a fascist threat to democracy led by the followers of the former President. Madison’s governmental structure has been under threat by these insurrectionists and the democratic traditions have been undermined to the breaking point. It is unclear whether democracy shall survive the next election, let alone the ones after.
The call in Federalist #10 for the protection of the public good and for the permanent and aggregate interests of the community was based on the will and experience of a minority Madison called the “enlightened statesmen,” who protected slavery for the white majority. The white majority in the country is now disappearing and the movements to defend the “historical white republic” are threatening the lives of workers, women and all minorities. This is our problem now, and it is rooted in the ideal of the public good which Madison believed he and other enlightened statesmen could conjure up to protect the true interests of the “whole” community. He fought to maintain the rule of people like himself. There was no working compromise between the interests of slavery and freedom, or today between the evangelical radicals opposed to abortion and advocates of women’s rights, or between the refusal of the rights of the poor to health care and advocates of Medicare for all, or finally, the interests threatening the rights to clean air, water, food, and jobs and the movement for a Green New Deal. The Electoral College and the unrepresentative Senate must not control our politics. We are at a crossroads.
The myth of the “divinely inspired” Constitution has sustained Madison’s reputation of infallibility, but the flaws in his reasoning, as we have pointed out, have come to haunt us and brought us to the brink of losing our democracy. What, after all, is the public good if it does not represent a clear majority of the US population? As the students realized in their analysis there is no single or public good. We are a country of classes, races and genders. We should not be controlled by rich white men or their MAGA insurrectionists. We are still being ruled by the magical thinking of former centuries, from ancient Greece to the early modern concepts of the virtue of the white landed aristocracy. All this is embodied the persons of senators from states with populations smaller than assembly districts in New York or the city of Washington DC. These modern-day conservatives talk about the Constitution as a document describing a republic, not a democracy. They believe that the proper leaders of this republic are the whites: the real Americans. This idea brings us back to the earlier argument concerning the dangers of reaching for the single public good or the “permanent aggregate interests of the community.” The chimera of the public good turns out to be a smokescreen for white supremacy — as it always was. No amount of leisure or learning can motivate the white supremacists to discern the true interests of our country; they are in it for themselves.