Federalist 10 offers a timely warning about the dangers of factionalism.

By Roger Kimball – WSJ Article – Sept. 2, 2016 5:41 p.m. ET

On Labor Day, we celebrate both the stupendous achievements of American industry and a well-deserved break from work. But Labor Day comes just a week or so before Constitution Day—Sept. 16 this year—and that holiday should also prompt us, especially in this fraught election season, to reflect on the American system of government.

The U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1787 but not finally ratified until the summer of 1788, is by far the oldest national constitution in the world. How has it lasted so long? A large part of the answer lies in the political realism of the Founding Fathers. “Wherever the real power in a Government lies,” James Madison wrote to Thomas Jefferson, “there is the danger of oppression.”  Madison went on to become America’s fourth president. But in the fall of 1787, when he was still in his mid-30s, he began collaborating with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay to write a series of 85 newspaper essays explaining the U.S. Constitution and urging the people of New York to adopt it.James Madison20

Historians are divided on what influence The Federalist had on the New York vote. But it stands as a tour de force of political reflection. Its genius was recognized immediately. George Washington and Noah Webster were but two of the Founders who sang its praises.Given the talismanic power the word “democracy” has to modern ears, it is worth reminding ourselves that the U.S. Constitution was largely an effort to curb or trammel democracy. Democracies, Madison wrote in Federalist 10, the most widely read and cited of the essays, “have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” Why? A mot often attributed to Benjamin Franklin explains it in an image. “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.”

So, in one sense, the problem of democracy is the problem of the tyranny of the majority. But Madison saw deeper into the metabolism of liberty and its constraints. The biggest threat to “popular” governments, he wrote in Federalist 10, are “factions,” interest groups whose operations are “adverse to the rights of other citizens” or the “permanent…interests of the community.” Factions are thus not accidental. They are—famous phrase—“sown in the nature of man.” Why? Because freedom and the unequal distribution of talent inevitably yield an unequal distribution of property, the “most common and durable source of faction.”There are two ways to extinguish factions. The first is to extinguish the liberty they require to operate. The second is to impose a uniformity of interests on citizens. Some collectivists have actually experimented with these expedients, which is why the pages of socialist enterprise are so full of bloodshed and misery.Eliminating the causes of faction, as Madison put it, offers a cure that is far worse than the disease. If protecting both liberty and minority rights is your goal, then the task of government is to control the effects of faction. How can this be done?

Talented statesmen are sometimes successful in balancing the contending interests of society. But—understatement alert—“Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.”  Madison’s solution was the creation of a large republic in which a scheme of representation and a large variety of interests “make it less probable” that they will be able to “invade the rights of other citizens” successfully.  Most political philosophers before the American founding had insisted that republics had to be small to succeed. But Hamilton and Madison saw that there was safety in size.

Madison, Hamilton and other supporters of the Constitution worried about the potential incursions of federal power just as much as did the anti-Federalists, who opposed adopting the Constitution because it seemed to bring back many of the infringements on liberty that they had all risen up against in 1776. But they concluded that the creation of a strong state was the best guarantor of liberty in a republic. Hence the irony, as the historian Bernard Bailyn notes, that “now the goal of the initiators of change was the creation, not the destruction, of national power.”

Madison’s central insight was that power had to be dispersed and decentralized if it was to serve liberty and control faction. In Federalist 51, a companion to Federalist 10, he elaborated this idea of balancing interest against interest to remedy “the defect of better motives.” “Clashing interests” would not be stymied but balanced against one another. If men were angels, Madison noted, government would be unnecessary. But in framing a government “which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”  The American republic has survived for nearly 250 years because it has, more or less, remained faithful to Madison’s vision. But Madison was right. Threats to liberty are “sown in the nature of man.” We’ve also had nearly 250 years of human ingenuity chipping away at Madison’s safeguards.  As Constitution Day approaches, the sobering and nonpartisan question is whether government has become its own party, a self-engrossing faction so large, domineering and impertinent that we, the people, can no longer control it.

—Mr. Kimball is editor and publisher of the New Criterion and publisher of Encounter Books.