The first Federalist Paper written by James Madison is the longest paper so far in the series, but it argues a few basic principles. Once again, the subject of the paper is concerned with stability, and the ability of the proposed Constitution to achieve that.
The key word used in this paper is
faction. Madison defines
faction as a group of citizens with a
common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens… He suggests there are two ways to remove factions, either from
destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence or
by giving every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests. Madison quickly accepts the undesirability, or impossibility of both positions. A second key word in this paper is
property. Madison identifies interests in property and trade as key to the creation of factions. As examples, he identifies landed interests, manufacturing and mercantile interests as key to the development of factions, and that representatives within government can be assumed to have vested interests in any of these factious commercial interests.
This leads to a second aspect of Madison’s argument; that it must be through the institutions of government that factional interests inimical to the general population must be controlled. He uses the example of a court room to illustrate the problem:
a body of men are unfit to be both judges and parties at the same time. Yet this is the paradox of government he argues, that it is managed by men with their own vested interests. Yet if a faction is too small to exert political influence, then there is no problem, but when the interests of governing factions are large enough, a system of government must exist to check those interests.
This brings Madison back to the anti-Federalist argument. Without mentioning Montesquieu directly, he draws upon Hamilton's argument from the previous paper, that Montesquieu’s writing is used by anti-Federalists to favour smaller governments rather than a larger federal government. In other words, State governments retain their power. For Madison, this is the difference between Montesquieu's model, the smaller scale direct democratic process, and the new Constitution’s model of a larger federal republic. The republican model, as Hamilton pointed out, required that States
should be in perfect subordination to the general authority of the union. Following Montesquieu’s thought, according to the argument presented by Madison, the ideal model for a smaller democracy would be one in which all have perfect political equality, and whose wealth and commercial interests are similar, and therefore their opinions not disparate, if factionalism is to be avoided. Madison refers to this as
pure democracy and suggests that it is a government of smaller representation and geographical scale to a republic.
Madison denies that
pure democracy would be more stable or fair. In fact, he suggests, a larger republican model has the means to provide greater checks and balances against factional interests. In a small democracy a balance is difficult to achieve. To attempt it, an ideal number of representatives are needed to prevent the power of
the cabals of the few, but a balance must be struck to guard against
the confusion of the multitude. He acknowledges that either system would have
fit characters but given the theoretical systems, each supposed to have an equal proportion of
fit characters, there would nevertheless be a greater number in the republican model. The greater number of representatives and the greater number of interests in a federal government would, in fact, make it more difficult for any one faction to gain pre-eminence.
In a democracy, enlarging the number of electors means that representatives have less understanding of their needs, whereas by reducing the number of electors to each representative creates a situation where larger national issues are difficult to address. Madison says that the Federalist model balances these competing needs between the Federal and State governments, thereby assuring a purposeful role for the States in the future.
Madison restates a theme from some of the earlier papers: that a confederacy of American States will make it difficult for any one State to gain power over others, and that problems in any one State are not likely to spread across the whole Union, and can also be dealt with by other States. This applies to political influence too:
The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States. It’s a clever metaphor to end with, since early in this paper when he suggested that destroying liberty is one means of controlling factions, Madison used the metaphor of air as liberty to the fire of factions. One cannot exist without the other. Therefore, it is not the intention of a federal government to remove liberty, but by promoting it within a larger system, to bring greater stability than could exist within a smaller government controlled by factional interests. By this means he denigrates the idea of separate State powers.
19 February 2018
Revised and updated 14 March 2022