The Wisdom of The Federalist

The Federalist Papers | Book by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John  Jay, Alan Dershowitz | Official Publisher Page | Simon & Schuster

I believe that when you arrive at a certain point in life, perhaps even a certain “midway” point, it’s important to understand what you’re against, but it’s also high time to start fleshing out just what it is that you are for.  To me, that’s a mark of maturity: knowing who you are, what you’re all about, who exactly you really align with, and how it is that you view the world.  

A thinker like John Dewey of course, an evolutionary Pragmatist, would surely respond that who we are is always changing.  That’s true.  But I think it’s also true that every now and then you read something that strikes a deep chord with you, something that’s bone deep inside you, something that vibrates to a particular tuning fork.  I’m talking about in your work, in your personal life, in politics, and above all, in philosophy.

Here’s something I just learned:  so far, I really, really identify with the political worldview embodied in The Federalist Papers.

Surprise, right?  An American identifies with The Federalist!  Stop what you’re doing.  But that’s just it — I don’t think I’d realized how deeply I’ve somehow absorbed a certain brand of American philosophical skepticism, just the kind that Hamilton, Jay, and Madison believed in when they wrote this series of essays in support of the still-unratified U.S. Constitution.

I came to this work through (per a previous post) Jonathan Rauch’s “The Constitution of Knowledge,” which explicitly compares our system for generating knowledge (which he calls alternatively “liberal science” and the “constitution of knowledge” with our nation’s founding document: both are deeply egalitarian, both works’ genius lies in their placing no one in particular in charge, and their employing many, many checks and balances in place in order to carefully and peacefully encourage the sifting through of good ideas.  Rauch also emphasized how both channeled opposing individuals or even opposing factions into a kind of “productive compromise” — the generation of newer and better ideas forged by rivals, constrained by the well-crafted system, to have to work together.  Rauch described James Madison as the founder of this philosophy, and cited his work in The Federalist as the best understanding of this: “Ambition must be made counteract ambition.” This sounded intriguing.

I’ve now read through some of the most famous, most influential of The Federalist, and I have found that it really resonates with me. The two examples that I found most meaningful were numbers 10 and 51, both written by Madison, particularly number 10, one of the most interesting political documents I’ve ever read.

The substance of the essay is striking. It’s all about how to regulate factions.  For Madison, it’s important for a good union to be able to “break and control the violence of faction” which he terms a “dangerous vice” and which he believes has led to “instability, injustice, and confusion” — the “mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished.” Well!

For Madison, factions are most certainly bad.  These are not interest groups or affinity groups; they are “a number of citizens . . . .  who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” 

Madison could not be less of a utopian thinker.  After at least a page of tight analysis, he concludes that it’s just not realistic for a government to remove the causes of factions; it’s simply inevitable that citizens will have different and often contrasting opinions.  Human reason is “fallible” and is too often guided by man’s “self-love.” Meanwhile, the “diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate” also means there will be diverse interests and factions.  

Madison concludes:  “The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man.”

But that’s not it.  Madison keeps going to explain the different degrees to which factions can wreak havoc on a state.  There are some great phrases here: men may develop “an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.”

“So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities,” continues Madison, “that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their violent conflicts.” 

Whew.  A few paragraphs later, Madison pushes away any thoughts of enlightened leadership with a wave of his hand: “It is vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests . . .  Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.” Incredible.  

Yet for all its apparent pessimism, I don’t see Madison’s as a dark view of human nature.  Rather, it seems to me a realistic view — perhaps the most astute and realistic view I have ever read (short of Shakespeare).  Madison’s wisdom toward mankind reminds me of a wise teacher’s or parent’s understanding toward children in their care.  You know that pretty soon they’re going to want to try things like pulling the dog’s tail, or doing donuts in the parking lot.  It’s as though Madison knows already what humans are like, and he’s sharing his view without illusions.  Ruinous factions characterized by in-fighting, greed, ambition, governments that are not always led by the best and the brightest, lurking tyrants waiting to feed of the public’s esteem — he sees us for what we are.  There’s no way to avoid factions, he says, not with human beings the way they are.  Put that one right out of your mind.  

The bottom line is that the only thing you can do is to control them, to mitigate the damage by buffering your system against the harm they can inflict.

Once again, Madison reminds us that “neither moral nor religious motives can be relied on as an adequate control . . .  [they] lose their efficacy in proportion to the number (of individuals) combined together.” In other words, mobs bring out the worst in people.

What about so-called pure democracies? They surely represent an ideal: a small number of citizens, everyone participating in government equally, right?  Wrong. Madison disabuses us of that utopian fantasy: “Theoretic politicians . . . have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions.” 

These silly innocents simply don’t understand human nature:  “Such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention . . . and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” So much for that!

Instead, it’s a republic — a representative government — that provides the remedy.  First, elected officials provide one filter through which factional interests must attempt to pass.  Then, having enough representatives will “guard against the cabals of a few,” and having a larger population to draw the elect from provides “a greater probability of a fit choice.” 

Madison is so savvy and unsentimental and practical: make the population of the republic larger and you reduce the chance that any one faction can take over (“concert and execute their plans for oppression” — !!).  Meanwhile, if you enlarge the geographic and population range, you make it more unlikely that any one faction can or will take over.  Madison is really diabolical: just the fact of having a lot of people you have to conspire with to do evil makes it harder, because men are more distrustful when they must conspire with a lot of other actors (as opposed to a small number).  Madison notes the “greater obstacles opposed to the concert and accomplishment of the secret wishes of an unjust and interested majority.” What a writer.

And what a genius:  one factious leader may “kindle a flame” within their state, but it’ll be hard to spread it to so many other states.  One religious group may become a political problem in one region, but the sheer variety of religious groups in other places will cancel them out and render them relative harmless.  Madison compares factions to fires and diseases — and in the republic he’s designing, they’re not going to be able to spread very easily or very far at all.

He ends by writing, “we behold a republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republic government.” 

Federalist 51 continues this rather “realistic” view of an unchanging (and often dangerous) human nature.  Not only are factions inevitable, but the most important way to ensure stability is to play factions against one another.  In Madison’s famous words, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.  The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.” In short, you must seek to attract the sorts of people who will not be swayed by the other branches of government, and then ensure that the system itself encourages each participant’s natural ambition to be directed against (rather than colluded with) the ambition of other participants in other branches.  

Once again, Madison returns to his understanding of human nature:

“It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government.  But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature . . . ?  If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”

Yes, it’s important to trust in the wisdom of the people, but “experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions,” as Madison dryly notes.  Human beings are ambitious by nature, just as they form factions by nature.  Both characteristics are innate human qualities, and both characteristics can prove dangerous to the welfare of the overall state.  Madison’s system, therefore, aims at “supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives . . .” in order that “each may be a check on the other — that the private interest of every individual” (the innate self-interest in all human beings) “may be a sentinel over the public rights” — all of which he terms “inventions of prudence.” It’s a variation on the old saying, “It takes a thief to catch a thief”: if you want to stop ambitious men from running amok, set other ambitious men straight in their path.  Make sure it’s in the interests of both men’s positions — if they want to advance — to grandstand and make violent denunciations against the other.  This is the way to make government not only “control the governed” but also to “control itself,” Madison writes.  

And not only is it important to protect the oppression of the various ruling departments, it’s also important to protect the minority of the people against a majority of the people.  This is best done in a republic like the U.S. by encouraging a diverse pluralism: “the society itself will be broken into so many parts, interests, and classes of citizen, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority.” The only safety for minority civil rights — as for religious rights — is “the multiplicity of interests, and . . .  the multiplicity of sects.” In other words, the more different groups exist, the harder it will be for any one particular faction to override and to oppress the rights of a minority of citizens.


Now that’s my kind of political philosophy.  What is like is that it’s the very opposite of a kind of forward-thinking, belief-in-perfection, utopian thinking.  There’s no repressive tyranny of the ideal being enacted.  Nobody’s expecting human beings to be anything other than what we are.  That’s because Madison knows what we are: sometimes wise, noble, and charitable, but other times prone to factionalism, oppression, and self-centeredness.

There’s no trying to change human nature, he says.  The only thing you can do is use it to its own advantage by understanding what it’s going to do and pitting it against itself.  You set up a system of checks and balances.  You play the numbers game in your favor.  You try to stack the deck so that the best people will rise to the top, and then you set them against each other so that they’ll balance each other out.  From these interactions you create dynamic compromises.  You try to educate humans to live according to their best principles, but you also stack the deck to make sure they can’t get into too much trouble.

But you never, ever expect them to be anything other than what they are: human beings.  Again, I am reminded of the other best knower of human nature I’ve read: William Shakespeare:  

“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me. No, nor woman neither . . .”

Madison is clearly evincing a kind of skepticism toward the perfectibility or even the changing of the human make-up.  There can be no illusions about that.  There is no false belief that all human beings can “live as one” in an Communist-style society of perfect equality and sharing.  I think here about writers and thinkers who strive to push humans beyond the Marxist dichotomy of “oppressor-oppressed” (I am thinking in particular of Paulo Freire).  Madison and fellow Federalists would say: that’s not realistic.  In fact, in doing so, you’re not only chasing something that doesn’t exist, you’re creating — by attempting to cram inherently different, inherently self-interested human beings into a classless utopian society — a vacuum into which not only will a powerful leader step, but which the people themselves will want such a leader to step in order to sort through the chaos, infighting, and factionalism that inevitably follows.

I find this refreshing, insightful, and meaningful in 2021 in part because I do not feel as though we talk very much about “human nature.” It sounds too biological.  Instead, we’re sociologists; our pervasive belief is that human beings are “blank slates” with no innate nature; everything is a social construction, everything is created by history or by context.  There is much to that, of course.  Certainly human beings are Deweyian adaptors to their environment and situations.  Evolution, in all sense of the word, is true; surely none of us would be the same person we are today had we grown up in opposite circumstances.  And yet it’s just the fact that we do adapt, learn, and act on our adaptations in entirely predictable ways that causes a “evolutionist” like Dewey to still be so right about everything more than a hundred years later.  We are blank slates — witness the remarkable variation in not only rites and customs and culture, but also in mannerisms, personalities, and worldviews.  

Yet that is, in some meaningful sense, only superficial.  Our very ways of responding to different stimuli are patterned and ordered by an original nature.  Our needs and wants are similar.  Our nature itself, in some important and deep-seated way, simply does not change.

Perhaps in the end it is this very skepticism seen in The Federalist that I identify with and share.  It is the subtle but powerful belief that, despite the evolution of society and culture, human beings really don’t fundamentally change that much.  Yes, we’re capable of greatness, but no more than we’ve ever been.  And we’re also capable of rivalry and oppression, too.  True advancement requires just the same trick that Madison and company used in creating the Constitution and The Federalist: learning from the mistakes of the past.  True learning from the past, of course, requires more than just familiarity with events; it requires a certain humility, a certain belief that we are the same as those people in history; we too are susceptible to the same temptations; we are in no meaningful way to be considered perfected or of nobler stock.  

That’s the true way to avoid the sins of the past: to understand that we are just as susceptible to them as we always were — and to plan accordingly.  That, after all, is just what Madison did.