Factions are impossible to prevent, but their effects can be limited.
The Federalist Papers seemed to have lost its place as a staple piece of reading for Americans, young and old. It in many ways embodies American civics and should be revisited time and again, for it serves as an endless well of wisdom for our nation. You cannot truly claim to understand the Constitution if you do not read the explanation of it, from the men who created our founding document. Over the next few months we will be exploring some of the most consequential pieces written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay.
I am by no means a constitutional scholar, but the Federalist Papers were not written for that small niche of people. They were published in a time of immense confusion for America. Having secured our independence years earlier, we stood on the edge of an abyss looking into an increasingly unknown future. The Constitution had just been written and presented to the states for ratification. There was genuine confusion as to what the Constitution meant for the nation and how our individual and political liberties would be impacted. The Federalist Papers were written for us. It still applies to our day-to-day life, and some may argue it’s more important now than it ever has been before.
One of the most consequential of the Federalist Papers was Federalist No.10, which tackled the idea of factions in a republican form of government. Factions are a natural occurrence in any society. By our very nature, we group ourselves with people of the same opinion and worldview resulting in friction due to our differences. This is precisely why our founders elected to establish a republic rather than a democracy. All governments based in popular democracy succumb to the instability caused by factions.
Factions are next to impossible to extinguish, and no matter how much instability they seem to cause, it would be detrimental to society if they were eliminated. In Federalist No. 10, Madison describes how there are only two ways to remove the causes of faction: by “destroying liberty” or “giving every citizen the same opinion.” The first option is more dangerous than factions themselves and the second is utterly impossible and erroneous. Rather than try and control the causes of faction, means should be taken to control its effects.
“Madison makes it clear that we can only control the effects of factions if we remain a moral, virtuous society.”
The ability to control the effects of faction exist in the U.S. Constitution. There are really two types of factions: those that exist as the minority and those that exist as the majority. At times a faction may appear to be on the verge of completely breaking society and halting progress. We have seen this more than a few times in American history, the civil war likely being the best example. However, the Constitution will prevent these minority factions from reaching their end if it be sinister due to the ingeniously designed mechanism of checks and balances.
Factions that reside in the majority are significantly more dangerous. This is precisely why, as described earlier, a republican form of government is superior to a pure form of democracy. In a direct democracy the passions of the people can viciously take hold over a short period of time, making it virtually impossible to stop. A majority faction in a democracy runs rampant and can establish systematic injustice. Just because you establish political rights does not mean that they can be preserved if a majority faction desires to enact a certain agenda. The natural progression in this scenario is tyranny. But in a republic, those in the minority are protected by the will of the majority. Also, with elected representatives in place we are able to minimize the impact of sudden passions in society, quelling the dangers of majority factions.
“Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm,” Madison wrote in Federalist No. 10 and it rings as true today as it did in the late 1780s. We cannot rely on men alone to preserve our liberties or maintain a peaceful society. At times we have serious lapses in leadership. But the Constitution shields our freedoms and halts the march toward tyranny or anarchy. However, if we continue down our over 100-year road of further democratizing America, the power of factions will grow leading to increasing civil unrest and threats to our liberty. Madison makes it clear that we can only control the effects of factions if we remain a moral, virtuous society. That responsibility falls on all of us, the people.
You can read the full Federalist No. 10 by clicking here.
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