In Federalist #10, James Madison argues that the greatest vice of popular government is its vulnerability to problems caused by factions, special interest groups who, in supporting their own interests, occasionally undermine the rights of other citizens or the good of the whole. People are diverse by nature, possessing different opinions, abilities, and resources. Because of this, they generally have different interests at heart, interests which they will support, often at the expense of other groups, if they are given the freedom to do so. Thus, human nature is prone towards faction.
There are two ways, Madison argues, to eliminate this problem. First, the causes of faction may be eliminated, or second, its effects may be controlled. There are two ways of eliminating the causes of faction: Liberty, which allows factions to form, may be eliminated, or people may be given identical interests, passions, and opinions. The first solution is foolish and unacceptable, as it would be worse than the initial problem. The second, because of the diversity of human nature, is completely impossible.
Since the causes of faction are impossible to remove, the only solution to the problems caused by faction is in controlling its effects. In a pure democracy, a minority faction poses little threat because it can be easily outvoted and suppressed. A majority faction, however, through popular vote, has the power to completely control the government. Therefore, modifications must be made to democratic government to keep the majority from oppressing minority groups or acting against the good of the nation.
A republic, the modified form of popular government proposed by the creators of the Constitution, could preserve popular government while allowing a measure of consideration for the rights of the minority. A republican government is run by representatives chosen by the people, rather than by the people themselves. Representatives, if wise and just, are more likely to vote with the interests of the people, rather than their own selfish passions. If a man is not allowed to judge himself in court, asks Madison, why should he be allowed to directly make judgments in the legislature? In both cases, he is both a party and an advocate in the decision, and would thus be too biased to make just decisions. When people are allowed to make their own laws, they will most likely have self-interest, rather than the public good at heart, and thus the majority will oppress the minority whenever it is to their advantage.
The argument could be made, however, that the United States is too large a country to be fairly run by one supreme, centralized government. Madison counters this argument by stating that a larger republic will consist of a greater variety of parties, so that one will less likely be able to suppress the others. Also, in a larger republic, a greater number of votes would be required to elect each representative. This is preferable because it ensures that politicians cannot use underhanded tricks to secure positions as easily as they could if elected by a smaller body of voters, thus increasing the likelihood that only the best candidates will be elected.
Finally, it is stated that while the leaders of extreme factions may be able to have an effect within their own state, it is unlikely that this effect would spread to other states. Thus, a nation ruled by a national government, rather than individual state governments, is ideal, as it prevents the extreme views of a few from affecting the lives of the whole.
In conclusion, James Madison believed that people are by nature diverse and self-interested, and thus every society forms factions, or groups of people with special interests that sometimes harm other citizens or the good of the whole. The Articles of Confederation did not effectively control and reduce the negative effects of factions on the nation, and thus a new government was necessary. The government laid out in the Constitution was ideal because it was a republic, a representative government that would prevent self-interested passions from holding too much sway over the government. It was also large, containing representatives from every state and many different interest groups, making it difficult for one group to dominate and suppress the others. Representatives would be elected by a large body of people, helping to ensure that only the most worthy would hold office. Finally, laws were passed by the whole nation, making it difficult for problems in one state to infiltrate and affect others. Under one centralized representative government, a diverse nation could thrive, ruled by the majority, but with a fair amount of consideration for all.
Ronald E Franklin from Mechanicsburg, PA on May 03, 2013:
Thanks for a good summary. Madison was concerned with preserving the rights of minority factions in the face of the ability of majority factions to always outvote them. Obviously, in a democracy this is a crucial consideration. But I wonder if he ever considered the opposite issue: that in a representative government the restraints built in to give minority interests power to not be overrun by majorities also gives them power to thwart the will of the majority by throwing the system into gridlock where nothing can be done. When the minority faction is one that already enjoys privilege and power, that outcome may be exactly what they want, as it allows them to maintain dominance over the majority.
Kathryn Lamoreux (author) on July 19, 2012:
Thanks, HSchneider! I always enjoyed learning about the founding of our government. A good grasp of history is important to understanding how and why the law works the way it does today.
Howard Schneider from Parsippany, New Jersey on July 18, 2012:
Excellent analysis. James Madison was a very wise man who wrote most of our Constitution. He definitely understood human nature and how to structure government to maximize efficiency and productivity without eliminating freedom.