Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The True Meaning of Federalist #10

Many proponents of party attempt to give historical credibility to their position by bringing into play the words of the Founders themselves. Given their well-documented fear of and disgust with the concept of faction, the misquoting of the Founders in this way is a true outrage. A good starting point and one that is constantly misquoted is Madison's Federalist Paper #10.

In paragraph five, Madison writes, "Liberty is to faction what air is to fire..." This is undoubtedly the most misrepresented quote by the author, suggesting that the author favored faction or at worse he felt that it was inevitable since the only way to constitutionally extinguish it was to eliminate liberty. In that limited passage, Madison correctly pointed out that the cure (eliminating liberty) would be worse than the illness (faction).

But Federalist #10 is a long, verbose, and complex document, and the last thing an honest reading of it would unearth is an endorsement of faction or party ... or even resignation to its inevitability.

Madison begins #10 with a clear premise, that a "well-constructed Union" would tend "to break and control the violence of faction." That in establishing a government intended to satisfy the general welfare, "a proper cure for" faction was necessary; otherwise the result would be "mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished."

Another common misrepresentation of Madison's meaning here is that the Founders were against the "violence of faction," as represented by the likes of, say, Shays's Rebellion. You know, physical violence. But that is not the true meaning of Madison's words, as he clearly applies a very unconfined, nonphysical definition of the word later: "instability, injustice, and confusion ... in public councils" and "clog(ging) the administration."

Next, Madison points out that previous "American constitutions" (federal and state), although improving on popular government models, had not completely prevented the occurrence of faction. Complaints were widespread that "the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties."

[The term "parties" is meant to be equivalent to factions. It is ironic that the Founders used these terms interchangeably because within a generation actual political parties formed despite continued demonization of the concept by aging or recently-deceased Founders. It should also be noted that party organizations were eventually (1830s) formed not because they were thought by politicos of the day to be intrinsically good, but simply because they were not illegal and served the purposes of the leaders.]

Madison's final put-down of parties again refers to their influence on public bodies: "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." To use Madison's words, the two major parties today clearly form a "superior force of an interested and overbearing majority" which refuses to do "the public good."

There is nothing in these opening sentences of #10 that suggests Madison thought faction had any redeeming qualities whatsoever. Granted, there is no mention of anything resembling modern day political parties; if their writings are to be taken as insight into their thinking, the Founders frankly never foresaw them. But the crossover from recognizably insidious faction to the workings of modern political parties is easy, and I believe, if given the chance today, the Founders would write powerfully and eloquently against the character and mechanics of the two major parties.

We'll continue with the analysis of #10 in my next post.

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