James Madison was born 265 years ago today. His greatest essay was Federalist no. 10, a defense of the design of the government created by the new Constitution. Does Federalist no. 10 have anything to teach us today as voters choose the next president?
Madison favored republican government — government by the people — but he also saw its problems. In contrast, we are inclined to think elites, not the people, foster most shortcomings, public and private. Were the people truly empowered, all would be well.
Madison doubted both the people and the elites. Popular governments were threatened when majorities “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.” In turn, majorities are often misled by “men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs.” Having gained the support of majority, such men “then betray the interests of the people.”
Both the people and elites could do better. Madison thought some of the flaws of popular government could be mitigated by indirect rule of the people through representatives “whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country.” The sheer size of the country, he thought, would also complicate putting together oppressive majorities. Other aspects of the Constitution — the separation and balancing of powers, the independent judiciary, and the Bill of Rights — would also constrain majorities gone wrong.
Much is different now. Our nation is quite small as measured in media space. Direct accountability to voters trumps indirect representation; the parties now select their presidential nominees through direct voting by their members. Few believe in the wisdom of representatives and sometimes representation itself seems questionable. As the economist Randall Holcombe argues, the nation has moved some way from liberty to democracy.
Madison thought the Constitution set out a kind of republican government that would stand the test of time. But time is long, and the tests do not end, our complacency notwithstanding. On this birthday of “the father of the Constitution” we have more reason than usual to appreciate his efforts to divide and limit political power, thereby frustrating men of factious tempers and sinister designs.