Madison versus the People

Dan Johnson

January 24, 2019

The midterm elections in November 2018 exposed a number of fundamental problems in the American political system. Voter suppression in numerous states, vote-rigging through gerrymandering, and Trump’s threat to end birthright citizenship by executive order, testify to a deep hostility to democracy (and basic standards of human decency) that now defines the American right.

Madison’s political philosophy is most clearly stated in just over 3,000 words in Federalist no. 10…

For socialists it should serve as a constant reminder of the need for an expansive conception of politics, and for the absolute necessity of independent political organization.

For many progressives, this hostility is most grievously displayed in attacks against rights guaranteed by amendments to the U.S. Constitution. While it is essential to defend the constitutional gains made by social movements throughout U.S. history, placing hopes for change primarily in elections or the courts is deeply misplaced. Though pressure from below has at times forced the courts and government to enact positive change in the past, the U.S. Constitution is far more of a barrier than an enabler of social transformation.

19th Century woodcut depiction of the Nat Turner’s slave rebellion.

While in the aftermath of the 2016 and 2018 elections more people are becoming educated in the myth of American democracy, comparatively few are versed in the political philosophy behind the Constitution and its making. The Constitution’s main author, James Madison, was (like fellow founders George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Monroe) a Virginia slaveholder and future president. One of his primary aims in writing the Constitution and working for its passage—by no means inevitable in the late 1780s—was, far from expanding political participation, to prevent the creation of a more democratic society.

Madison’s political philosophy is most clearly stated in just over 3,000 words in Federalist no. 10, one of a series of essays published in New York in 1787-8 urging the Constitution’s ratification. No. 10 is arguably the most important contribution to political thought to come out of the American Revolution. That the essay’s essential claim is that popular forms of government inevitably threaten elite privilege should warn those on the American left against valorizing a document whose existence was premised in large part on a desire to protect and preserve social hierarchy. For socialists it should serve as a constant reminder of the need for an expansive conception of politics, and for the absolute necessity of independent political organization.

The Revolutionary Context

After the outbreak of war in Massachusetts in 1775 and the Declaration of Independence the following year, all of the former North American British colonies created state constitutions in the new United States prior to the formal end of war in 1783. On the left end of the political spectrum, Pennsylvania and Vermont created what were at the time the most democratic constitutions in the world. A vastly expanded (male) suffrage, a unicameral legislature, free public education, and the abolition of slavery were some of the features of the states’ respective charters. Radicals in Pennsylvania’s constitutional caucus even argued, though unsuccessfully, for limiting the private ownership of land or urban property. They reasoned that the “enormous proportion of property vested in a few individuals is dangerous to the rights and destructive of the common happiness mankind.”

Southern states like South Carolina, by contrast, erected conservative government systems with two legislative houses requiring fifty acres of property and a profession of Protestant faith to vote. Virginia’s constitution, written in part by Madison, similarly restricted the franchise to the state’s landed aristocracy. Unsurprisingly, southern states were silent on the specific issue of slavery while going to great lengths to protect property. While the sectional North-South divide that would lead to a bloody civil war eighty years later was embryonic in the 1780s, it was clear that pronounced social and ideological differences between regions existed.

What united these very different states was a commitment to some form of republican rule (though Alexander Hamilton and other conservative Federalists were monarchists at heart) and the Articles of Confederation. The standard nationalist narrative is that the Articles, which did not allow the federal government to levy taxes on the states, were too weak for the new nation. The need to repay war debts, as well as to endow the central government with the power to suppress popular anti-debt movements such as occurred in Massachusetts in 1786-7 (known as “Shays’ Rebellion” after leader Daniel Shays), pushed American elites to revise the Articles.

Artist’s depiction of protesters watching a debtor in a scuffle with a tax collector by the courthouse at Springfield, Massachusetts

Meeting in Philadelphia in 1787, some attendees of the Constitutional Convention (like Madison) did not intend to simply revise the Articles, but to implement a wholly new form of government. The “miracle” at Philadelphia produced what was in essence a moderate system of representative government that drew on classical Roman and British models of “balanced” rule. An aristocratic upper house (the Senate) was accompanied by a more democratic lower chamber (the House of Representatives), the executive power lay with a single individual, and the judiciary was theoretically independent of both other houses, and therefore politics. Slavery was institutionalized with the “three-fifths compromise,” which counted enslaved persons as three-fifths of a person for congressional apportionment—a “compromise” that allowed slaveholding Southern elites to dominate the U.S. government until the Civil War.

Federalist no. 10

The Federalist Papers were a collection of 85 essays promoting ratification written by Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton that appeared in New York City newspapers between October 1787 and April 1788. Published under the pseudonym “Publius,” most of the essays addressed the many critics of the Constitution who feared a strong central state would result in the kind of tyranny previously imposed by the British. Suggestive of the extent of radical ideas circulating in the new nation, in no. 10 Madison sought specifically to end the “rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project.”

No. 10 is oriented around the problem of “faction,” or “party”—decidedly negative things in political theory before the emergence of pluralist liberal democracy. It was axiomatic in classical political thought that republics (ideally small city states) were corrupted by factions, interest groups that destroyed the unity required for free states to survive. Parties resulted from the privileging of self-interest over the public good; this was why only independent landowning elites could be virtuous citizens. Only they were free of ties of dependence, and only they were capable of rendering reasoned judgements in the interest of the whole. The “rabble,” by contrast, labored for a living (and were therefore dependent on employers) and were by nature incapable of rational thought and political participation.

This classical notion is evident in Madison’s definition of factions. A faction was “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens.” Yet Madison acknowledged that eliminating parties in free governments was impossible, since different opinions and interests were an unavoidable consequence of liberty. Therefore, in free states the best strategy was to control the effects of faction rather than to simply eliminate them.

One noteworthy innovation made by Madison was his bourgeois conception of the source of factions. Expanding on John Locke’s belief in government’s fundamental role in protecting property, Madison claimed that it was the “diverse faculties of men” that led to different levels of property. Since “the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property,” the state’s most elemental function was to protect the “faculties” of the naturally superior class—meaning the wealth of the rich. The minority rights Madison aimed to protect were not those of ethnic, racial, or religious groups; they were those of the propertied.

Since it was generally agreed in the 1780s that the form of government in the United States would be “popular,” the essential problem Madison set for himself was to “secure the public good and private rights” against the dangers of faction. Democracies could not solve the problem of faction in Madison’s view; not only were they riddled with contention, they were incompatible with the individual rights of property. In other words, in democracies popular civic engagement resulted in levels of economic and political equality that threatened elites’ alleged natural superiority.

A republic, by contrast, “opens a different prospect, and promises a cure for which we are seeking.” Why? In a republic based on representation (as opposed to direct democratic participation), rule was delegated to “a small number of citizens elected by the rest.” Creating an electoral system of government in which “public views” were filtered through a small group of elites who could “best discern the true interest of their country” meant avoiding the disputatious—and potentially redistributive—forms of civic engagement that are the essence of democracy. Confining political practice to periodic elections would retain the veneer of popular government while entrenching the rule of a wealthy political class.

Madison’s most important, and ingeniously Machiavellian, theoretical innovation lay in his call to “extend the sphere” of republican government. Rather than the classical republican belief in the necessity of small, homogenous polities, Madison called for an extensive republic with a diversity of interests. This was because a large government could effectively neutralize the threat of a majority faction. In taking in a variety of parties and interests in a large republic, “you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other.”

It is difficult to imagine a more explicit divide-and-rule strategy for minority class rule. While such views can no longer be stated openly in mainstream political discourse, American elites still believe social democratic policies constitute an abridgement of property rights and violate “natural” disparities resulting from different “faculties.” This is why honest rightwing libertarians are openly hostile to democracy—and why they embrace a literalist interpretation of the Constitution. The historical channeling of popular discontent into animosity toward the state and hatred of non-elite, truly oppressed,minorities are demonstrations of the success of a Madisonian vision that pits different groups against one another in a large and diverse republic.

From Received to Movement Culture

Most socialists know that the field of politics is far larger than elections. Yet for many Americans political engagement means nothing more than casting a vote for a millionaire from one of two parties once every four years. This deeply engrained belief is another testament to the success of Madison’s depoliticizing vision. While growing numbers of Americans are aware that their so-called democracy is a fiction that favors corporations and the wealthy over working people doesn’t change the fact that most see no alternative to the present economic and political system.

In his classic study Democratic Promise: The Populist Movement in America (1976), the historian Lawrence Goodwyn contrasted a “received culture” with a “movement culture.” In the U.S., the received culture teaches that the American past is a story of the progress of freedom, and that elections are the highest form of political engagement. A “movement culture,” by contrast, comes to question such conformist modes of thought, and in the process develops a radical critique of existing economic and political structures. The Populists’ movement culture began in the 1870s with the Farmers’ Alliance, agricultural cooperatives, a national lecturing circuit, mass meetings, the National Reform Press Association, and culminated with the creation of the People’s Party in 1891.

Though the Populists’ ultimately failed in their attempt to radically transform American society by unifying the nation’s working classes, their movement culture and political project valiantly tried to bridge sectional animosities and entrenched white racism at a time when the Civil War was still in living memory. That they failed testifies once again to the enduring power of a Madisonian vision designed to prevent a democratic coalition of the majority.

Though technocratic liberals today often portray the Populists as irredeemable racists and xenophobes, it was Democrats and Republicans who continually waved the “bloody shirt” of sectionalism and fanned racism to divide Populists. It was also the two main parties that engaged in electioneering and, in the South, outright terror to try to suppress the People’s Party. And it was also the success of the moderate faction of the Populists who promoted a policy of “fusion” with the Democrats in 1896 that ultimately killed the movement.

Elections are important, of course, as are legal struggles. Bernie Sanders would likely be the best president Americans have ever had, and the work of legal organizations like the NAACP and ACLU are indispensable. In themselves, however, politicians and court rulings cannot transform society in a meaningful and permanent way. The danger is that progressives may see elections and the courts as shortcuts to radical change; they neglect long-term strategies of movement-building that can lead, in Goodwyn’s view, to “a self-generated culture of collective dignity and individual longing.”

The establishment of an autonomous culture of working people capable of demanding a more egalitarian society was precisely what worried Madison and other founders. Their victory cannot also be ours.