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Was Madison Mistaken?

As the convention at Philadelphia wrapped up on September 17, 1787 there was no fist-pumping. Benjamin Franklin was supposedly asked what sort of government the delegates had invented, a monarchy or a republic. The 81-year-old is said to have responded, “A republic, if you can keep it,” as ambiguously as any Greek oracle, and dour. Did he mean, “If you can defend it from foreign powers”? Did he mean “If you can avoid civil war”? Or—as Nancy Pelosi implied when she invoked the quotation to support Trump’s 2018 impeachment—did he mean “If you don’t fall victim to demagogues”?

A clearer guide, in fact the best guide to the framing of the American Constitution is James Madison. At our current moment of dangerous national division, we may well remember Madison’s greatest fear about the future of the Republic he did so much to shape: the problem of factions. But it is also a good time to celebrate his overall contribution to the design of our Republic. Perhaps, if we can now display even a fraction of Madison’s resourceful integration of theory and practice, we will manage to hang onto the gift that he and his fellow framers bequeathed to us. 

Madison regarded the chief challenge to keeping a republic as the human tendency to separate into factions, posing an inescapable danger to popular governments. Since factionalism could be eliminated only by “destroying… liberty,” the principal task of the Constitution, he maintained, lay in “controlling its effects.”

Madison’s Federalist 10 depiction of the sources of faction reads like a prophetic blueprint of American divisions ever since. “A zeal for differences of opinion concerning religion” comes first, followed by “attachment[s] to… leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power.”  “But the most common and durable source of factions,” his list concludes, “has been the various and unequal distribution of property.”  Those divisions “grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views.” Writing six decades before the Communist Manifesto, Madison’s prescient insight into class conflict depicted “an equal division of property” as a “wicked project.” Instead, managing economic and other societal divisions would form “the principal task of modern legislation,” involving “the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of government.” The challenge was to involve factions in ways that do not suppress the liberty of the citizens or unravel popular government.

Since a pure democracy would offer “no cure for the mischiefs of faction,” Madison proposed “a republic” governed by “the scheme of representation.” A republic, unlike a direct democracy, could accommodate a large number of citizens and be extended over greater territory. But the question remained “whether small or extensive republics are most favorable to the election of proper guardians of the public weal.” A larger republic was better, Madison argued, not as a means to wealth and power, but because it was less likely to be overwhelmed by “factious combinations.” Greater size would encompass a wider variety of parties and interests; making it “less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens.”

The flaws in that hope were manifest in 1861, when the factional division over slavery devolved into Civil War. And Madison could not have foreseen, at a time when news could travel no faster than a horse, how instantaneous mass communication—radio, then television, then the internet and social media—could become nationwide organizers and simplifiers of faction (conspiracy theories, though, he could imagine). The years since 2016 have, sadly, revealed that what Madison called “a man of sinister design” could forge a powerful faction “adverse to the rights of other citizens” and “to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” Vast size alone, we have learned, offers no permanent solution to the challenge of preserving a republic.

But the immediate problem Madison faced was creating one. When the Constitution’s draft was published, opposition was fierce. Federalist 10, like all the 85 Federalist essays by Madison, Hamilton and Jay, were efforts to persuade New Yorkers in particular to ratify the Constitution, and that state only did so a month after it went into effect on June 21, 1788. However one judges Madison’s views on how factionalism could be managed, his persuasive optimism contributed to an epochal turning point: the union of all thirteen fractious former colonies under one sovereign American government.

Madison was a politician after all, not just a theorist, and the Constitution proved a practical solution to an exigent problem. To his credit, the polemical challenge of the moment did not lead him to mask his belief that factional sources of “instability, injustice, and confusion,” those “mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished,” would pose a permanent challenge to the United States.

Madison’s contribution is of course far greater than his case for a geographically large republic. He authored the “Virginia Plan” that served as the basis of discussion at the Constitutional Convention, where he was the most frequent and persuasive speaker. He took the only full set of notes recording all the discussions, later published in two substantial volumes that remain the best source of information on what the framers meant. Finally, he wrote several of the most decisive Federalist Papers, and number 10 is the best single explanation of how and why his generation could hope for an American Republic to last, and to become an example to other nations.

 After all, in very few pages, Federalist 10 presents a whole political theory, explaining why popular government is better than monarchy; why a republic is superior to a democracy; how factions or parties pose its greatest danger; why a larger republic is a better hedge than a smaller one; and, finally, why none of those solutions to preserving liberty and self-governance, or to managing conflict while advancing the general welfare, is guaranteed to last. After watching a classic demagogue deliberately polarize us we see more clearly than ever that Madison was not mistaken. And Franklin? “If you can keep it” was apposite.