Madison on Factions
In their quest to establish a new government for the United States, the Founders sought to create a free society while avoiding the many problems caused by factions. James Madison, a Founder and an author of The Federalist Papers, defines a faction as "a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community" ("The Federalist No. 10" 43.) Factions, when allowed to thrive, may form tyrannical majorities and deny rights to holders of minority views, causing instability in the government and disregard for the public good. Still, factions become unavoidable in a free society because liberty breeds the formation of differing opinions (43). To avoid the dangers of faction, Madison says that in government, "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition" ("The Federalist No. 51" 262). By forming a republican government, Madison argues, the country can control the effects of faction without depriving citizens of liberty. Thus, the Constitution lays out the framework of a republican government that checks the power of factions in the legislature.
While ultimate sovereignty belongs to the people in a true republic,
as in a democracy, a republic differs from a pure democracy in that the
people elect representatives to speak for them in government rather than
directly participating in the process. The people's ideas for the country,
instead of being directly presented, are passed through a smaller body
of statesmen selected for their personal merits, a process which, Madison
claims, refines the ideas ("The Federalist No. 10" 46-47).
Each house of Congress consists of a specific number of representatives,
as outlined in the Constitution. The House is based on population, with
the each member representing a given number of people, and each state
is guaranteed at least one representative (Article I, Section 2). In the
Senate, every state has two senators to represent it (Article I, Section
3). Madison feels that since a relatively small number of representatives
will be chosen from a great number of people, the people selected will
likely have great merit ("The Federalist No. 10" 47). That even
sixty-five people of poor characters or minds could convince the millions
of electors spread out over the extended republic that they deserve to
be elected seems highly unlikely to Madison ("The Federalist No.
55" 283). Also, since a few people will represent many, those representatives
will only be partially acquainted with and attached to the various interests
of their constituents. Therefore, representatives will better see the
nation's needs and serve the cause of justice instead of interest ("The
Federalist No. 10" 47).
The Constitution also prescribes periodic elections for the two houses
of Congress. A written constitution, like the American Constitution, that
has a greater authority than the government it establishes, can limit
the representatives with rigid terms of office, after which new representatives
chosen by the people may take office ("The Federalist No. 53"
271). Madison claims that they will be unlikely to betray the people's
trust when limited to relatively short terms ("The Federalist No.
55" 283). In addition, since election of representatives depends
directly or indirectly on the people, the people have ultimate control
of the government ("The Federalist No. 51" 262). Still, as Madison
states, "experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary
precautions" (262). The two houses of Congress, Madison says, must
have as little in common as possible in order to provide a check on each
Bicameralism, claims Madison, is the Constitution's ultimate check on
the power of the legislature. The people are safe from the evils of faction
with a two-house legislature because for any unjust scheme to be successful,
it must have the support of a majority in two very different houses, the
more changeable, population-based House and the more stable, equally distributed
Senate. By ensuring that the two houses have very different characteristics,
Madison contends that their interests will rival each other (263). Madison
also argues that the Senate, because of its smaller numbers and its members'
longer tenure, will likely be less susceptible to factionalism, unlike
most large assemblies, and so will check any House faction's attempt to
take control of the government ("The Federalist No. 62" 315).
Madison strongly advocates republican government in The Federalist Papers, and the fact that the same basic government that he helped create and define continues to function over two hundred years later adds newfound weight to his arguments. Although the party system dominates contemporary politics, the parties focus on winning elections and making compromises instead of causing dissention and usurping power. The basic republican principles of Madison's proposal for government remain intact. Madison may overlook one point, however. He derides factions as the great evil threatening all government, yet at the same time, he speaks on behalf a faction in the country seeking the establishment of a strong federal government. Still, perhaps Madison draws a portion of his particular dislike of factions from this very experience and uses his feelings to fuel his argument for a republican government that will check the power of factions.
Copyright © 2002 Colleen Fischer | Last updated October 7, 2002