In Federalist 10, James Madison chose a republican form of government over a democratic form. He told us why he did it. His essay is one of the most famous, perhaps the most important, and definitely the most misunderstood essay in the entire Federalist series.
Its importance stems from two considerations: the first is that he explains why he chose a republican form of government over a democratic one, and the second is that his justifications for making that choice are seriously flawed.
He said that the greatest danger to our new government would be “factions.” He said that many of the then current colonial governments were in the grip of factions, and he said that throughout history, “popular” governments (democracies) had failed because they had a natural tendency to fall victim to factions. He said that this propensity was due to the very structure of a democracy.
In several other Federalist essays the Framers disparaged democracies, particularly those of ancient Greece, and especially that of ancient Athens.
Here is Madison’s definition of faction:
By a 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 of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.In other words he was talking about groups of citizens who join together in pursuit of policies that are against the common good. He said that such groups are natural, he said, “The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man, and we see them everywhere…”
He had this to say about the definition and the nature of democracies:
From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.Not a very pretty picture is it?
Here is his definition of a republic:
A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking.So, James Madison, if no one else, says clearly that our form of government is a republic not a democracy.
Many people are confused about this point, and their confusion is understandable. The Framers themselves, as well as many other leaders of that generation, used the terms “republic, democracy, pure democracy, and popular governments,” in loose and confusing ways. When they were comparing our new government to that of Great Britain, then these various forms of government were equal: they were all better than Britain’s system. But when it came down to the specific features of our new government then they were talking about a “republic.”
If one can throw out the biases that our culture, including our education system, has placed in our minds about our form of government, and if one can approach Federalist 10 with an open mind, it become easy to see the differences between republic and democracy, and it easy to see why our government has failed to achieve the primary goal that Madison set for it: to control the harmful effects of faction.
Madison gave us an excellent example of what our new government was supposed to accomplish with respect to the operation of our legislature, and he gave us his reasons for believing that a republic would be able to control the effects of faction. But it is also easy to see, in the examples and reasons themselves, that his republic would never accomplish his goal, and we can see that it has failed to control factions by looking at our history, and by looking at our current predicament.
Factions here, factions there, factions, factions, everywhere.
Madison told us where factions were likely to do their dirty work: in Congress, or as he called it, the legislature. He said:
No man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity. With equal, nay with greater reason, a body of men are unfit to be both judges and parties at the same time; yet what are many of the most important acts of legislation, but so many judicial determinations, not indeed concerning the rights of single persons, but concerning the rights of large bodies of citizens? And what are the different classes of legislators but advocates and parties to the causes which they determine? Is a law proposed concerning private debts? It is a question to which the creditors are parties on one side and the debtors on the other. Justice ought to hold the balance between them. Yet the parties are, and must be, themselves the judges; and the most numerous party, or, in other words, the most powerful faction must be expected to prevail. Shall domestic manufactures be encouraged, and in what degree, by restrictions on foreign manufactures? are questions which would be differently decided by the landed and the manufacturing classes, and probably by neither with a sole regard to justice and the public good. The apportionment of taxes on the various descriptions of property is an act which seems to require the most exact impartiality; yet there is, perhaps, no legislative act in which greater opportunity and temptation are given to a predominant party to trample on the rules of justice. Every shilling with which they overburden the inferior number, is a shilling saved to their own pockets.Madison said that, normally, there is no way to prevent the dissensions and injustices that abound in ordinary legislatures:
It is in vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm. Nor, in many cases, can such an adjustment be made at all without taking into view indirect and remote considerations, which will rarely prevail over the immediate interest which one party may find in disregarding the rights of another or the good of the whole.It is natural to expect that Madison, having identified and defined the main problem facing our new nation, would give us his solution. It is natural to expect that he would explain just how his republican form of government would control the harmful effects of factions. He developed his answer by contrasting the essential differences between a republic and a democracy. In other words, he was emphasizing that a democracy would not solve the problem of factions, but a republic would. He said:
The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended.He then discusses the first difference: the delegation of the government:
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.This proposition is many things. It is highly desirable, highly contingent, and highly unlikely. It depends on getting just the right people—wise, discerning, patriotic and just—who will do the right thing. It seems natural at this point to expect, to hope, that Madison would launch into an explanation of how his system would put the right people into office. But he didn’t have such an explanation. Instead, in the very next sentence, he said, “On the other hand...”
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.So the nature of our government depends entirely on the nature of the men who control it. This is starkly clear, but Madison’s statement is virtually unknown. I will wager that almost no Americans are now, or have ever been, acquainted with this important warning—I will double the bet by saying that no American at all can recall any national politician ever making reference to this essential point in any campaign speech. Madison’s system did not provide protection against factions gaining power—he said so himself. And, as a consequence, our national government is in the hands of factions: groups of people who have joined together in pursuit of policies that are harmful to the common good.
Madison had no answer to the problem. Democracy, which could handle the problem, could not be used in a nation such as ours with its great population and great geographic expanse. The technologies necessary to implement democracy did not exist at that time, so Madison had no real choice. But there is another reason that Madison chose a republic: it kept power out of the hands of the People. Madison and the other Framers did not want the People ever to be able to act directly. Madison and the other Framers gave the People only one way to exercise their power, through elections every two years. There is no other way. And the Supreme Court serves as a control on any such adventures by the People.
But we now have the technologies necessary to implement a democracy in our nation. We have the tools and the knowledge, but we do not yet have the will.