Federalist No. 10 may be the most debated of all the Federalist Papers, and its winding odyssey through American historiography has indelibly shaped interpretations of it. The essay was not regarded as one of the important numbers of the Federalist Papers until Charles Beard made it the central exhibit in his 1913 indictment of the framers for possessive individualism, setting off a century-long conservative defense of its author, James Madison, against the progressive historian’s lèse-majesté. But there was a significant sense in which Beard’s premise about the essay, if not his conclusion from it, was correct: Madison was concerned with the integrity of property and how majorities could be habituated to respect it, and the extended-republic theory of Federalist No. 10 — which appears in the great framer’s correspondence repeatedly leading up to the Philadelphia Convention and after it — was most certainly central to his constitutional theory. Where Beard erred was in his reflexive equation of property rights with naked greed.
Even more broadly than property rights, Federalist No. 10 pertains to the orientation of personal appetites toward public ends, which include both the common good and private rights. The essay recognizes that these appetites cannot be conquered, but they can be conditioned. Madison’s solution to the problem of faction — a solution he confines to the four corners of majority rule — is to place majorities in circumstances that encourage deliberation and thus defuse passion. Significantly, this solution does not depend on any specific constitutional mechanism: When he announces at the end of the essay that he has “remed[ied]” the “disease” of faction, Madison has not mentioned a single facet of the proposed Constitution — neither the judiciary nor bicameralism nor the president’s veto. Any republic deployed across an extended territory should be relatively free of faction, at least in the aggregate.
Yet Madison’s solution depends on certain assumptions. Federalist No. 10 assumes politics will occur at a leisurely pace. The regime Madison foresees is relatively passive, not an active manipulator of economic arrangements. And he is able to take for granted a reasonably broad consensus as to the existence if not the content of the public good.
These assumptions are now collapsing under the weight of positive government and the velocity of our political life. Given the centrality of Federalist No. 10 to the American constitutional canon, this collapse demands a reckoning. If a pillar of our order is crumbling, something must replace it. The alternative to outsized appetites is self-control; the political mechanisms that channel passions are set against the moral mechanisms that restrain them. If the assumptions of Federalist No. 10 no longer obtain, it seems necessary to supply the defect with something on which Madison was loath to rely. That challenge may call for a greater emphasis on the sources of civic virtue and on the means of sustaining it.
Greg Weiner is Associate Professor of Political Science at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts. He is the author of Madison’s Metronome: The Constitution, Majority Rule and the Tempo of American Politics and American Burke: The Uncommon Liberalism of Daniel Patrick Monynihan (University Press of Kansas).