The Paradox of the Republic: A Close Reading of Federalist 10

July 25, 2019 by Essay Writer

In Federalist 10, James Madison posits that the greatest threat to government and to the public good lies in the oppression committed by majority factions. Madison 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 aggregate interests of the community.” [1] Factions will necessarily emerge due to the liberty afforded to citizens under the American Constitution and because the zeal for different opinions is “sown into the nature of man” (No. 10, 58). Thus, ‘Publius,’ the collective pen name of John Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, claims that the proposed constitution must guard against the effects of faction, rather than its causes. Madison argues that the republic will successfully guard against the tyrannical effects of faction due to two principles of the proposed system: representative government and the size and population of the union. Because representative government by itself is insufficiently equipped to prevent majority oppression, Madison includes the latter principle of large union size to increase its likelihood of success. Thus, the success of the former principle depends largely on the latter. Unfortunately, the realization of the latter principle affords more power to state governments, who are far more susceptible to the compulsion of majority factions.

Madison claims that the representative nature of a republic guards against the harmful effects of factionalism, but this republican virtue is almost entirely dependent on the quality of the elected representative. Unlike a pure democracy, a republic guards against the harmful effects of majority oppression because it will “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” (No. 10, 152-156). The public voice pronounced by the representative may be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, according to Madison. For this to be true, the representative must be incredibly perceptive to the needs of those he or she represents and must have the competence to determine what actions are in their ‘true interests.’ However, Madison warns that the opposite may be the case: republics are susceptible to men of sinister designs securing the requisite votes to gain power, and then betraying the interests of the people (No. 10, 162). Thus, all rests on the perceptiveness, competence and, most importantly, incorruptibility of the representatives to prevent majority oppression.

However, even the most perceptive and competent representative would be expected to act on behalf of the majority faction’s will. Due to The Federalist Paper’s lack of limits on the number of terms that may be served by representatives in any office, an official’s desire for election and reelection would lead them to act sycophantically toward the majority faction. This subservience to the majority faction would lead the representative to support the majority’s ‘temporary or partial considerations’, rather than the ‘true interests’ of the republic. Alexander Hamilton understands that representatives will espouse the desires of the people when he poses the question in Federalist 35, “Is it not natural that a man who is a candidate for the favour of the people and who is dependent on the suffrages of his fellow citizens for the continuance of his public honors should take care to inform himself of their inclinations and should be willing to allow them their proper degree of influence upon his conduct?” (No. 35, 152-156). While it is possible that a perceptive and incorruptible representative could succeed in establishing a compromise between the oppressive demands of the majority and the more impartial general will, such an approach would be less likely to secure the representative’s reelection. To continue his ‘public honors,’ the representative would be most disposed to allow the inclination of the majority faction to have its proper degree of influence upon his conduct. While Hamilton adds the prohibitive consideration that all officials and their posterity will be bound by the laws they pass, it still appears that the official would have more to gain than to lose by serving as a sycophant to the majority faction and could potentially secure a lifetime post through continual direct reelection from a majority faction voter base.

To maximize the success of representative government, Madison dictates in Federalist 10 that the republic must constitute a large number of citizens. Madison claims that because the same number of representatives will be needed regardless of the republic’s size, larger republics have a higher likelihood of possessing competent citizens to serve as their representatives. Likewise, more citizens will participate in the election process for each representative, which may diminish a demagogue’s ability to manipulate his citizenry. Thus, to prevent majority factions from oppressing minority factions, and to supplement the insufficient principle of representative government, Madison establishes large expanse as the second principle of the proposed republic.

While Madison proposes the necessity of a large republic to prevent majority oppression, he acknowledges the dangers of expanding the republic’s borders too far: “By enlarging too much the number of electors, you render the representative too little acquainted with all their local circumstances and lesser interests” (No. 10, 181-183). This prompts Madison to level his final condition of the republic: all of the great and aggregate interests will be referred to the national, whereas the local and particular interests will be referred to the state legislators (No. 10, 186-187). According to Federalist 14, as the republic expands further and further, with both its geographic expanse and number of electors increasing, the representatives, who operate in federal government, would become less acquainted with those they represent. Madison reminds readers in Federalist 14 that when this occurs, more power will necessarily be afforded to the state governments: as the republic increases in size, “the subordinate [state] governments which can extend their care to all those other objects, which can be separately provided for, will retain their due activity and authority” (No. 14, 83-85). Therefore, as the republic expands and the representatives become less acquainted with their electors, more legislative decisions will be tasked to the state governments.

Unfortunately, state governments are far more susceptible to the oppression of majority factions than the federal government. State governments, by fault of their small size, are more vulnerable to the emergence of a faction that constitutes a majority of the whole. According to Madison, “the smaller the society… the fewer the distinct parties and interests, the more frequently will a majority be found of the same party” (No. 10, 191-194). Additionally, a smaller number of electors and candidates running for election at the state level increases the likelihood of unmerited or corrupt representatives winning elections. Incompetent or corrupt politicians are also more likely to serve sycophantically to the majority faction in order to secure their reelection. Given that a majority faction has an increased likelihood of emerging at the state level, and that state representatives are statistically less likely to be competent or incorruptible, majority oppression is extremely likely. In fact, Madison claims in the beginning of Federalist 10 that in many of the existing American constitutions (the state constitutions), “the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice, and the rights of the minor party; but by the superior forces of an interested and over-bearing majority” (No. 10, 17-20). It is rather ironic that the solution to the problem of majority oppression in state governments is Madison’s first principle of representative government, of which the success depends on Madison’s second principle of the republic’s large size, which inevitably refers significant pieces of legislation to state governments.

Madison claims to provide a “republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government” (No. 10, 226-227). Madison’s proposed republican constitution operates on two principles to temper the harmful effects of majority factions: representative government and large union size. The former principle by itself cannot entirely defend against the effects of majority faction oppression, especially due to the sycophancy expected of representatives seeking election or reelection. The insufficiency of representative government necessitates the inclusion of large union size to supplement the republic’s defense against factionalism’s effects. However, increasing the expanse of the republic necessarily places more matters of legislation under the state government’s jurisdiction, which severely increases the prospect of majority faction influence on all issues besides those “certain enumerated objects” (No. 14, 81) that fall under the care of the federal government. Thus, Publius proposes a republic whose ideal state lies in an intermediary position between a republic of small union size, inept representatives and fewer incidents of majority faction oppression at the state level, and a republic of large union size, competent representatives and more incidents of majority faction oppression at the state level.

[1] Hamilton, Alexander, John Jay, and James Madison. The Federalist. Ed. J.R. Pole. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2005. Print. No. 10, 31-34

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