Factions and Federalist #10

GabeGovernment(ML), Mini Lessons

Common Sense Government eBook: The Constitution

Federalist 10 is widely held to be a high water mark in American political thought, and this number gets to the heart of why the Framers gave us both a republic instead of a democracy, and a large republic instead of a small one. Following the analysis Publius offered in Federalist 9, we here find him presenting the greatest threat to self-governance: faction.

What is a faction? Publius defines the term clearly when he writes:

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.

The first thing to realize is that factions, in Madisonian terms, are always destructive. There is simply no such thing as a good faction. Factions are destructive either to the rights of some, to the interests of the community, or both. Further, a faction can represent a majority or a minority of the citizenry. Less obviously, factions are animated by passions, which are always a negative thing for Publius in The Federalist. Passions are opposed to reason, and reason must rule. But how can that be made to happen?

Publius does not place his faith in good politicians in this consideration. He writes: 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.

And if enlightened statesmen cannot be relied upon, what can? The answer that emerges over the course of The Federalist is that institutional arrangements can go a long way toward ameliorating the ill effects of faction, but the answer goes much deeper than that.

  1. One of the central ideas of the American system of government, as it was designed, is that we can’t rely upon the goodness of politicians and statesmen to assure that we have a government that acts in our best interests. Do you agree or disagree with this?
  2. In what parts of your life can you rely upon love, friendship, and goodwill to trust others? In what parts of your life do you rely upon rules, and checks on power? For instance, is the notion that it is important to get a good night’s sleep a better way to enforce a Friday night curfew? Or the authority of your parents, your friends’ parents, or the police?
  3. Federalist # 10 talks a lot about factions. Today, the political parties often act as factions, in the sense of the Federalist. Do you think political parties are helpful or harmful to American politics? How would politics work without them?

This reading is an excerpt from Certell’s Common Sense Government eBook.  Certell offers curriculum materials and eBooks free of charge for use by students and teachers.  Click here to download the Common Sense Government materials.

Image Citation:
[Federalist Paper #10 Digital image].  (2013) Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GNN95-ICOMI