Bench Memos

The Perennial Publius, part 10

What to say of Federalist No. 10, James Madison’s debut essay in the series? That it is justly the most studied, anthologized, and dissected of all the 85 Federalist essays? That its twenty-three paragraphs contain more wisdom on American politics than the last twenty-three volumes of the American Political Science Review? That Madison is to be credited with a practical application of an innovative democratic theory that had hitherto appeared only in the speculations of David Hume? That all accounts of interest-group pluralism in America must begin with the arguments and insights of Madison?

All true. Interestingly, the “Tenth Federalist” seems to have been thought no more important than others in the series until the Progressive historian Charles Beard brought it to the front rank when he discussed the founding in An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution (1913). And Beard misunderstood the argument in key respects, wrongly taking Publius to be intent on securing the position of a static upper class of property owners, against democratic impulses from below. Generations of historians have replicated his error.

The essay presents the novel idea that republics are both more just and more stable when constructed on a grand scale, rejecting the traditional republican model that looked ultimately back to the small, intimate polis of ancient Greece. Majorities in an extended republic will be constructed of more heterogeneous materials, forcing the compromises that produce more moderate majority rule. The “mischiefs of faction” are decisively ameliorated by the multiplication of interests-more of a bad thing producing a good thing, as I tell my students.

When you start quoting this essay it’s hard to stop. But this will do for a Friday’s cogitations:

“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 excited their most violent conflicts.”

Do you suppose Madison was thinking of Gulliver’s voyage to Lilliput?

(For explanation of this recurring feature, see here.)

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