Editor’s note: The following article is a research essay by one of our members, George Seaver, a former Teaching Fellow and postdoctoral Fellow at
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Domestic Faction in a Republic
From the Invisible Hand to Postmodern Poison
III. Factions in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment
The Dark Ages could be said to have seen the triumph of faction, of feudal tyranny, of foreigners defined as enemies, of Plato's Republic on faction come true, whose princes Machiavelli famously described. In 1513, after 1400 years, his was the first voice out of this with The Discourses, in which he describes the cycle of republics from the ancient regimes up to Florence and Venice in the 1400's; his heart was with the republics. Inevitably, the destructive aspect of faction arises, whose poisonous nature reflects the decline in public virtue. He tells us:
...the masses...constituted themselves a new government...governed in strict accordance with the laws which they had established themselves; preferring public interest to their own, and to administer and protect with greatest care both public and private affairs. The children succeeded their fathers and, ignorant of the changes of fortune, having never experienced its reverses, and indisposed to remain content with this civil equality, they in turn gave themselves up to cupidity, ambition, libertinage, and violence, and soon caused the government to degenerate, regardless of civil rights…For it soon ran into that kind of license which inflicts injury upon public as well as private interests. Each individual only consulted his own passions, and a thousand acts of injustice were daily committed, so that…they returned anew to the government of a prince.16
In demonstrating the destructive nature of faction as policy, Machiavelli recalls
Two hundred and fifty years later, in 1748, Montesquieu described the toll that factions took during the time of Oliver Cromwell on the commonwealth
A very droll spectacle it was in the last century to behold the impotent efforts of the English towards the establishment of democracy. As they who had a share in the direction of public affairs were devoid of virtue; as their ambition was inflamed by the success of the most daring of their members [Cromwell]; as the prevailing parties were successively animated by the spirit of faction, the government was continually changing: the people, amazed at so many revolutions, in vain attempted to erect a commonwealth. At length, when the country had undergone the most violent shocks, they were obliged to have recourse to the very government which they had so wantonly proscribed.18
Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote The Social Contract in 1758 and is an often-quoted source on the structure of government, particularly on the fragility and transient nature of the republican form. In particular that:
...there is no government so subject to civil wars and intestine agitations as democratic or popular government, because there is none which has so strong and continual a tendency to change to another form, or which demands more vigilance and courage for its maintenance as it is. Under such a constitution above all, the citizen should arm himself with strength and constancy, and say, every day of his life, what a virtuous Count Palatine said in the Diet of Poland: 'I prefer liberty with danger to peace with slavery.' Were there a people of gods, their government would be democratic.19
All observers saw the need to control faction, even if only to maximize the lifetime of a republic.
IV. Control of Faction in the
The experience with factional instability in the ancient republics was of great interest and instruction to the members of the U.S. Constitutional Convention in 1787 and during the subsequent ratification debates during 1787 and 1788. John Adams wrote A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States of America in 1787, was the architect of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, and was an advisor to many of the constitutional conventions of the other states. His book gave the best summary of prior republics and how they might inform the U.S Constitution then under consideration, although his book was not without imperfections in form and style. Above all he saw the lessons of the imperfect separation, independence and balance of powers of the earlier republics, and proposed, beyond this, a 'negative' (veto) of one branch over the other. "The people in each of the
Alexander Hamilton was a student of the history of faction in republics, and felt that a better understanding of politics would provide a greater chance of success for a republic. In November of 1787 he published his thoughts in theIndependent Journal of New York, and later as Federalist Paper Number IX, entitled The Utility of the Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection. He began:
A firm union will be of the utmost moment to the peace and liberty of the States as a barrier against domestic faction and insurrection. It is impossible to read the history of the petty republics of
James Madison, the father of the U.S. Constitution if anyone was, was the most informed on the issue of factions and how to balance them in an extended republic. At the time, most quoted Montesquieu that a republic must be of a limited extent because of the destructive, even fatal, nature of factions throughout history.
Among the numerous advantages promised by a well-constructed
There are two methods of curing the mischief of factions: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects. There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty, which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.1
Plato's Republic exhibits the first method, that of removing the causes of factions by diminishing liberty, to which
Controlling the effects of faction was first hinted at by Voltaire in 1734 in observing the effects of religious sects in society; with but one sect the effect was oppressive, two caused violence and more than two worked out peacefully.22 Madison took this concept much further, developing the factional equivalent of the invisible hand, although at the time he was not aware of all of its implications. As part of the concept of checks and balances, of rectifying "by opposite and rival interests the defect of better motives," the infringement upon liberty that
In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects. The degree of security in both cases will depend on the number of interests and sects.23
16. Machiavelli, N. ibid., pg. 113, 114.
17. Ibid., pg. 492.
18. Montesquieu, Charles de, 1748: The Spirit of the Laws. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.
19. Rousseau, Jean Jacques, 1754: The Social Contract. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.
20. Hamilton, Alexander, 1788: Federalist Paper Number 9, ibid.
21. Kirk, Russell, 1957: The American Cause. Henry Regnery Company,
22. Voltaire, 1734: Religious Toleration. English Letters, 1734.
23. Madison, James, ibid., Number 51.
24. Madison, James, 1787: Letter to Thomas Jefferson, October 24, 1787. In Debate on the Constitution, editor Bernard Bailyn, Library of America.
25. Seaver, George, 2010: Virtus: from the