CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — On Nov. 22, 1787, James Madison published, in the New York Daily Advertiser, what would become arguably his best known work — the much celebrated 10th Federalist essay. Among the advantages promised by “a well constructed union,” Madison wrote, “none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction.”
By 1787, faction or party — the terms were interchangeable in 18th-century English — had reduced politics in both the states and the nation to a condition of near chaos. The national government, the Continental Congress, in particular had become a byword for incompetence and impotence. Madison accordingly sought “a republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government.”
The young Virginian did not propose to accomplish his goal by eliminating faction or party. That, he believed, would be impossible and undesirable — impossible because the causes of faction were “sown in the nature of man” and undesirable because faction could not be suppressed without destroying liberty itself. Instead, he proposed to construct a government that would fairly represent all the various factions and interest groups in American society, in part in the hope that none would then be able to gain an undue ascendancy over the others.
But, more important, Madison did not assume that extending “the sphere of government,” as he described it, would become a formula for factional or partisan gridlock. That state of affairs could be avoided by devising systems of representation that would elect men of discernment and reputation to public office — and in those days they would all be men — and make them responsible, in the manner that an umpire calls balls and strikes, for framing wise and impartial laws to safeguard the “more perfect union” that had been established by the Federal Constitution.
At this point, some two and a quarter centuries later, we might ask how well Madison’s carefully crafted union is doing and what the “Father of the Constitution” himself might make of it. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that he could only be sorely disappointed — for the all-too-obvious reason that the American political system is now clearly failing to break or control “the violence of faction.”
With the exception of the state of national politics on the eve of the Civil War, at no point in the history of the republic have its political leaders seemed less capable of transcending their personal and partisan differences in order to make policies that serve the common good — or, as Madison described it, “the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” And at no time, again excepting the Civil War era, has the tone of national politics ever been more disheartening and uncivil.
It is true that some commentators today argue that contemporary politics are no worse than they were in the 1790s, during the emergence of the first American party system, and that the government continues to function more or less as Madison intended it to do. But to argue thus is to misunderstand, very badly, Madison’s politics and his hopes for the new nation.
Had that truly been Madison’s intention, he would never have bothered at all to have labored so strenuously to replace the radically defective Articles of Confederation as the nation’s political system. Madison may have been an intellectual in politics, but he was also a practical politician. He desired, above all else, a government that could work in accordance with his republican ideals — and one that would make policy to address national problems.
Were he with us today, Madison could easily identify many of the causes contributing to the current dysfunction of government — among them being the proliferation of factions to an extent inconceivable to anyone born in the 18th century and the growth of a lobbying industry that is funded with more than abundant means to permit its clients to manipulate the checks and balances that Madison designed to protect the rights of groups and individuals without paralyzing the legislative process at the same time.
He would, moreover, deplore the extent to which many Supreme Court rulings have allowed religious organizations to influence public policy for particular or sectarian agendas. He would also truly lament the enormous growth in executive power created by the expansion of the nation’s military establishments and our almost constant involvement in wars over the past three quarters of a century.
In response, Madison would call for a smaller government than we have today, but that is not to say that he would necessarily wish for a weaker government and one that was unable to translate the will of the majority into legislation to advance the public good. He would, almost certainly, seek reforms in campaign financing laws and in legislative redistricting — to avoid the problems arising from corruption and an excess of gerrymandering, both phenomena with which Madison was perfectly well acquainted.
And he would also want the removal of informal super-majorities in the conduct of the nation’s business, especially in the U.S. Senate, where Madison thought that proportional representation, and not state equality, should prevail. There is no place in Madison’s political philosophy for the filibuster as it has evolved in recent years. The abuse of that tactic by the Senate now threatens to take us far from James Madison’s republic and bring us uncomfortably closer to the system favored by John C. Calhoun, the quintessential architect of the minority veto. And any student of American political history should understand how dangerous that development could be.
Finally, Madison might look for more evidence of “virtue” in the American people themselves. And by “virtue” he meant not so much moral rectitude in sexual matters — though he might see room for improvement on that score too — as he did a willingness among people and leaders alike to set aside personal and selfish goals in order to serve “the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”
Even in 1787, Madison was well aware that virtuous and enlightened leaders would not always be in steady supply. Indeed, he explicitly said as much in the 10th Federalist and he repeated the point more eloquently in his 51st Federalist essay: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” Madison, nevertheless, hoped that a “well constructed union” could operate in ways that might compensate for a shortage of angels and “virtue.” He was, alas, mistaken. Madison’s system needs reform and the American people need to regain their “virtue.”
• Stagg is professor of history and editor in chief of the Papers of James Madison at the University of Virginia.