Federalist 10: Liberty Is to Faction What Air Is to Fire

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I’ve written about the mob before. I teach about the mob in my classes. The mob, the irrational, emotional and violent mob is almost more terrifying than a tyrant…almost.

When I teach my students, I always step through Federalist 10, and dispel the lie they usually come in believing: that America is a democracy. As you, my readers, well know by now, America is not a democracy.

Madison was almost as afraid of tyranny by the minority (or government) as he was of tyranny by the majority.

You will find much of what he says, the issues he was facing in his day, very familiar to what we are facing today. Gear up, there’s a lot of Madison language here. Read it all… it’s worth it.

Federalist 10

Let’s start how Madison started. He wrote this article to his fellow countrymen in New York. He said:

“AMONG the numerous advantages promised by a well-constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction.”

Remember, the Federalist papers were written in defense of the newly proposed Constitution as a way to convince the states to ratify it.

Madison says here that no advantage (of the new Constitution) deserves more attention, than the fact that the new government could control and break the violence of faction.

man people woman sign

He continues:

“The instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils, have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished; as they continue to be the favorite and fruitful topics from which the adversaries to liberty derive their most specious declamations.”

Here he accurately points out the greatest argument, the greatest weapon, that those who oppose liberty have, is this: in a free state, freedom promotes the prime environment for the mob. He says, “Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires.”

“Liberty is to faction as air is to fire”. What a beautiful quote. Yes, liberty is the ignition for faction just as air stimulates fire. And this is why something must be done to curb the consequences or side effects of liberty.

He says: “Complaints are everywhere heard from our most considerate and virtuous citizens, equally the friends of public and private faith, and of public and personal liberty, that our governments are too unstable, that 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 force of an interested and overbearing majority.”

Is this not fascinating and highly relevant to what we are facing today? See, during the mid-1780s, under the Articles of Confederation, unrest, anarchy and violence were prevalent, culminating with Shay’s Rebellion in 1786-1787. Madison was greatly concerned about the force, the power, and the irrational and emotional rage and the resulting anarchy and tyranny that an overbearing majority could cause. And complaints around the nation spoke of such a thing at the time.

Faction

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Madison spoke of what he called faction. He defined 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.”

So, essentially, a faction is any group of interested citizens, be it a majority or minority, who share a common impulse of passion that is averse to the rights of other citizens. Interesting. Perhaps the key point here is that faction is driven by an impulse that would harm the rights of other American citizens.

Madison faced this quandary: how to preserve liberty while at the same time preventing faction. He says that there are “two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects. There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.”

The Cause of Faction

Of course, he knew neither of these methods were plausible.

He says, “The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man…” So, faction is the result of human nature. Remember, the way a government is created depends on whether or not those creating the government believe humans are innately good or bad.

He continues “…and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice;” Humans are prone to zealous fervor and attachment to issues surrounding religion and government as as well as “an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions….”

All of these things have, ”in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.”

Sound familiar?

He says, “So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.”

I’d say.

black smoke coming from fire

“But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society.”

Ah, property, the reason for government. Those who have versus those who have not. Everything boils down to property. He proceeds to explain that even legislatures cannot be trusted to solve these ever competing interests.

“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.”

The Effects of Faction

Therefore, Madison concedes that the cause of faction cannot be remedied, which means that he is left with the task of remedying the effects of faction.

He says, “To secure the public good and private rights against the danger of such a 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.”

In other words, he didn’t want to completely shut out the people from government or to limit liberty—-both the causes of faction. Therefore, the goal of the Constitution was to somehow remedy the effects of the factions that were sure to arise in a country with liberty and democratic principles.

He explains why a democracy is doomed to fail and then says, “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. Let us examine the points in which it varies from pure democracy, and we shall comprehend both the nature of the cure and the efficacy which it must derive from the Union.”

The Remedies for the Effects

female police officer maintaining order on protest

First, he says, “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,” In other words, one remedy for faction and the irrational emotion of the mob is to force the citizenry to put their preferences before a smaller group of people, (i.e. representatives) before any major decisions are made.

I always explain it this way to my students.. If you are about to make a huge decision and you are very emotional, is it not wiser to stop and seek advice from others before proceeding with such a big decision?

It’s the same principle here in the United States. The citizenry does not rule directly because they need to be forced to “cool down” before making major decisions that will affect the whole country.

Madison explains that: “It must be confessed that in this, as in most other cases, there is a mean, on both sides of which inconveniences will be found to lie. By enlarging too much the number of electors, you render the representatives too little acquainted with all their local circumstances and lesser interests; as by reducing it too much, you render him unduly attached to these, and too little fit to comprehend and pursue great and national objects. The federal Constitution forms a happy combination in this respect; the great and aggregate interests being referred to the national, the local and particular to the State legislatures.”

In short, Madison is saying that if there are too many citizens per representative, their interests will be neglected but if there are too many representatives, the representatives will be too locally minded and miss the national interest. Hence, the Constitution creates the perfect hybrid and way to provide a little national and a little local interest with its federalist structure.

Next, Madison argues that if the country is large or if it can “take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; “

In other words, a large republic allows for a vast number of competing factions and interests, which, in turn, prevents any one faction or interest from dominating or tyrannizing over the whole. In a sense, he’s saying that ambition will counteract ambition at the citizen level—much like he said at the federal level.

city group people police

He concludes by saying: “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. A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national councils against any danger from that source. A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it; in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular county or district, than an entire State.”

The concern, in Madison’s day, was that insurrections and unrest in one state could and would spread to other states, so they needed a country big enough that such violence wouldn’t overtake everyone. Further, it couldn’t take over everyone since the people were not governing themselves.

Conclusion

The foresight that our founders had is rather staggering. Imagine if we had a country that was democratically controlled or not broken up state by state, county by county, district by district?

Fortunately, even though there are representatives in government who fall prey to the whims of the mob at the expense of the Constitution, they are counteracted by other politicians who do not support or promote the mob. This friction forces people to slow down and start thinking rationally.

Madison was keenly aware of and highly concerned about the power of faction—the power of the irrational mob—-and did everything he could to create and support a government that did not and could not easily cave to the emotional demands of such a group. America has weathered its fair share of tumults over time. She’s survived because of the foresight of her ingenious creators.

The question is, will she continue to survive?

The Liberty Belle

3 thoughts on “Federalist 10: Liberty Is to Faction What Air Is to Fire”

  1. Great article, LB! I am so excited about this Federalist Papers series. Thank you for my continued education in America!

  2. I hear more and more politicians and news media keep calling our government a democracy and it’s not. they know it but it leads the uninformed to believe that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. We would all be so much better off if the government just followed the constitution. The corruption that has run amuck in our government makes my dang brain hurt. And the lazy citizen’s of this country that just don’t want to have anything to do with politics make me want to naw the bark off a tree. Just sayin

    1. Bob Manderville

      “Decent people should ignore politics if only they could be confident that politics would ignore them.”……….William F. Buckley

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