Republican Factions and the Public Good

In this paper, I will argue that the measures that James Madison installed into the U.S. Constitution to protect against the spirit of faction in the American republic have worked and continue to function, even though significant factions have always existed in American political life. First, I will explain Montesquieu’s three-pronged concern for the viability of a stable democratic republic in the face of competing individual interests. Then I will discuss how Hume and Madison conceive of a means to protect the republic from the perceived negative effects of factions. Lastly, I will describe how the republic has been held together with a dystopian concept of virtue.

Montesquieu’s trilemma

In The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu contemplates the political nature of human beings. He proposes that there are three possible forms of government: republics, which can be aristocratic or democratic, monarchies, and despotism. Of these, democratic republics are the most desirable but also the most difficult to preserve. He holds that “virtue is necessary in a republic” (Montesquieu 58). For Montesquieu, virtue is defined as “the love of the laws and of our country” or “a love of the republic” and is “not a consequence of acquired knowledge” (67, 74). Each person in a republic must have a sense of acting for the common good that supersedes simple self-interest, whether for a person individually or a group of like-minded individuals known as a faction. The pursuit of interests of an individual nature is considered to be in conflict with the general welfare and destructive to the survival of a democratic republic. In a small republic, it is much easier for people to share a common interest and to therefore be virtuous in a Montesquieuan sense. A small republic without this sense of common identity would simply dissolve. Thus, the first prong of the dilemma is to ensure that people are possessed of an identity within a republic that allows them to suppress their own private individual interests or the interests of their family, tribe, faith, or community to the common good of the nation. A small republic that does possesses virtue is compromised by its size and thus is vulnerable to outside attack. This is the second prong of the dilemma—a society must be large enough to protect itself from outside military aggression. The solution then for a small republic would seem to be to form associations and bonds of affection with other small groups to become a larger more defensible group. This, however, inevitably gives rise to factions. As Montesquieu writes, “In an extensive republic the public good is sacrificed to a thousand private views… in a small one, the interest of the public is more obvious, better understood, and within the reach of every citizen….” (169). The third prong of the dilemma is therefore that in a larger society, it is more difficult to foster and preserve the virtue of acting in the common good because the likelihood grows that the desires and intentions of the disparate groups contained within differ materially from one another, even to the point of being opposed to one another.

Montesquieu hints at a solution to this trilemma.  Firstly, he stresses the need for the people to choose senators and other representatives, when he writes: “The people are extremely well qualified for choosing those whom they are to entrust with part of their authority” (40).  This also ensures that laws “are adapted in such a manner to the people for whom they are made” (37). Although this popular rule is essential, he believes that there is a natural hierarchy of lesser and greater reason and faculty among people. He thinks that there are elements of aristocracy at work in a healthy democratic republic. He writes: “The lower sort of people ought to be directed by those of higher rank” (41). Also: “The people, in whom the supreme power resides, ought to have the management of everything within their reach: what exceeds their abilities must be conducted by their ministers.” (39). Montesquieu recognizes that there are responsibilities in government, such as a need to act in a timely manner or to entertain compromise with an opponent, for which the general public may not be fit. Moreover, he thinks that people would admit to their own personal limitations and be able to appreciate and recognize superior faculties in the people that they willingly promote to positions of authority. This way of thinking about the tiers of responsibility in society lays the groundwork for Hume and Madison to suggest a solution to the rise of factions in a republic.

Montesquieu also states that a “confederate republic” that is a “kind of assemblage of societies” could be large enough to withstand an external force and yet “may be able to support its greatness without any internal corruption” (176). Again, the corruption that concerns Montesquieu is the emergence of factions which do not place the common good above their more parochial self-interests. The implication is that with local rule in the individual societies, parochial needs are met, while the confederacy can stay together because of the dire and pressing need for a powerful defense. This mirrors the conception of humans in a state of nature. People have individual needs, and “their nature requires them to be free agents” (33). They are naturally inclined to recognize their own weakness, and desire peace, nourishment, each other’s company, and a society with the benefits of acquired knowledge (33). Once in this society, the previous sense of weakness dissolves, and thus a state of war arises as a person begins to entertain ambitious thoughts of domination that arise from their newfound sense of strength. This desire for domination is checked by the desire to have company, but where the differences are too great, the need for a feeling of safety requires domination of the perceived enemy. Montesquieu believes that there can be a happy medium between these competing tensions, where if “abuses creep into one part, they are reformed by those that remain sound” (177).



Hume and Madison

James Madison believed that the problems of faction could be addressed in the design of the laws of the republic and was influenced in this thinking by David Hume. In his essay, “That Politics May Be Reduced to a Science,” Hume writes that the force of laws is sufficient to produce results without dependence on “the humors and tempers of men” with consequences deducible “as any which the mathematical sciences afford us” (Hume 16). This post-Enlightenment idea is significant in that it steps away from a supernatural belief in the superiority of particular men (nobles and royalty, or the aristocracy) and proposes that an understanding of the nature of people is sufficient to devise a system for administering to their political needs. It asserts, to a degree, that the superiority of these particular men in society arises from their individual character, and this fitness can be discovered through the application of reason.  Hume does not mean to suggest that all people are in fact equal, as will be seen. Madison states at the outset of Federalist Papers #10 that “a well-constructed Union” should “break and control the violence of faction” (Madison 554). He defines a faction as a group, whether majority or minority, “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” (Madison 556). Madison thinks that because liberty contributes to the cause of factions but is an essential, unmitigable component, the only recourse is to handle the destructive effects factions can create. Hume goes on to say in his essay, “Of the Independency of Parliament,” that every person “ought to be supposed a knave, and to have no other end, in all his actions, than private interest” (Hume 42). This again puts forth the general assumption of Hobbes that human beings are naturally in a state of war, as opposed to Montesquieu’s idea that it is society itself that produces such competition. Either way, the result is that people individually and in groups have interests, where those interests differ there arises conflict, and the aim of political associations is to control for and mitigate those conflicts.

Hume believes there are two main ways to control for the effects of these conflicts, and James Madison ultimately adopts and enacts these in the US Constitution and explains them in the Federalist Papers #10. The first way is by filtering the effects of individual or factional interests through a series of representatives. In “Of the First Principles of Government,” Hume writes that the whole body of people is not fit for government, but groups of people “dispersed in small bodies… are more susceptible both of reason and order” and thus the “force of popular currents and tides is… broken” (Hume 36). This parallels the sentiments of Montesquieu cited earlier. Also similar to Montesquieu, Hume states in his essay, “Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth,” that there is a natural hierarchy among the people where some are of a “lower sort” who are fit for choosing representatives but “wholly unfit… for electing into the higher offices of the republic” (Madison 522). The concept in Montesquieu and Hume is that the spirit of a shared interest in the common good is upheld by allowing the masses to participate in choosing who is the fittest among them to serve in a position of authority, but then it is necessary for the masses to allow these better individuals to act as is necessary for their benefit. These people who are chosen will more closely mirror the interests of those over whom they exercise authority, thus promoting harmony in the smaller units of the confederation. Although the common people may not agree in every detail of how these better people wield authority on their behalf, petty differences will be forgiven for the common good and more severe trespasses can be addressed by either their peers or by successive elections. In Federalist Papers #10, James Madison adopts this philosophy when he writes, “the delegation of the government… to a small number of citizens…[will] refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens” (Madison 558). This filter technique is enshrined in the Constitution in Article I, Sections 2 and 3, which set out how the legislative branch fills their seats. The lower House of Representatives are elected by the general public and are rotated out frequently, while the more senior Senate positions are voted in by the more fit state legislatures for longer terms. There are some ironies here as well that will be addressed in this paper before its conclusion.

The second way to control for the disruptive effects of faction is through an expanded sphere of influence. The idea here is that with a large collection of interests and a vast geographic area, a common good can emerge. As Hume writes, when “parts are so distant and remote… it is very difficult… to hurry them into any measures against the public interest” (Madison 527-8). This aspect of the effect of an expanded public sphere suggests that disgruntled individuals would be spread too far apart to organize well enough to constitute a threat to the republic. James Madison similarly explains in Federalist Papers #10 that by spreading interests across a broad geographic area and by moderating the influence of the dull masses of humanity through an electoral process that anoints the better sorts among them to the lower rungs of power, the spirit of faction can be diffused before it has an opportunity to kindle. He writes: “Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; 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” (Madison 559). In the Constitution, Article IV, Section 3, provisions are made for the addition of new states which would allow for an expanded sphere under the “needful Rules and Regulations” of the Congress. This played out with various compromises as states were added leading up to the greatest factional crisis of our nation’s history, the American Civil War.


The chief reason I contend that the Hume-Madison wards against faction have served their purpose is that the republic is, in fact, still together. Factions exist, as they are wont in a republic that allows people to form associations freely, but the people in America by and large are not tearing the country into pieces because of them. Things may seem dire in a pedestrian, casual sort of way because of how a salacious public media frames the nature of debate between the two major political parties, but in a literal and rational view of the country, it is just simply not the case that groups of people motivated by their shared yet distinct political beliefs are disrupting the mainstream channels of political power that protect and contribute to the common good. Of course, it is important to note that the definition of the common good has always been and continues to be defined by a class of white, male property owners.

The closest we came in our history to factions splitting up the Union was the Civil War. The irony to which I referred earlier is that in the same part of the Constitution that sought to enfranchise the common man to his democratic political power in the election of representatives to Congress also disenfranchised Indians and blacks and entrenched their legally inferior status. That women were inferior barely required any mention. The institution of people as property eventually came to a moral and legal flashpoint, but wards against faction did not care for that. The only concern was to balance the slave states with free states so that one faction could not hold sway against another. It was only when moral outrage rose to an unsustainable point that violence was required to put down the insurrection that resulted. Similarly, arguments against women’s suffrage went along the lines that a wife’s vote would only support or negate her husband’s, as a sort of political compromise. There is a built-in hierarchy to the nature of the filter approach to protecting against factions, but the spirit of that hierarchy had its origins in reason and a desire to push back against the arbitrary hierarchies of European nobility. While this may have been the stated intention, in practice Founders like Madison created a new version of nobility and arbitrary hierarchy in protecting their own property interests from the mass of poor people who they judged to be inferior. Madison points to the poor as the faction most to be guarded against when he writes, “the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property…. A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union” (Madison 557, 559). Why are these things deemed wicked? Does such behavior necessarily confront the common good? It is hard to see how they do, unless you are the one with a claim to all of the property. Furthermore, the real estate part of that property was only recently acquired without compensation to the human beings (Indians) who previously inhabited and laid claim to it. This technical point is shuffled aside with a puff of Lockean logic by asserting that the property was not being put to the best use by people who had the “right stuff.” A similar injustice in modern times might involve the seizure of private property from some citizen by the government through the rationalization of eminent domain to provide it to a private developer who will then contribute more to the tax base.

Ultimately, the goal of protecting against faction cares nothing for justice. It only seeks to preserve the peace of the republic. I am reminded of Aquinas, who thought it was enough to preserve peace and pursue holiness and justice in one’s own sphere, but I do not find such an approach satisfying. In order to preserve peace, the chief requirement is a sense of virtue tied to the oligarchical definition of the common good. When certain people are anointed as superior to others, they become seduced by the power and money that accompanies their position and lose the work to further the interests of the higher class. If a faction pursues a perception of the common good that is outside of the proscribed definition, it is shunned, and the coercive force of government brought to bear against it. In this way of thinking, Martin Luther King, Jr. was a threat to the harmony of the state and an “outside agitator” because he facilitated the growth of factions. Although a tipping point came along where the heretical views of the minority were adopted by the nation as part of our core virtue, little has been done to redress the effects. A similar path was followed by labor movements before World War II, until an outside enemy emerged to draw the nation together with patriotic fervor. A modicum of concessions to labor were implemented, but the supremacy of capital is defined as necessary for the common good regardless of evidence.

For many of the common people, racial and gender equality was and continues to be an assault on the identity that they had accepted as the core virtue of the nation. Most people in America accepted their place at the lower rungs of the American hierarchy because there was someone else who was lower. That person was either black or female, or both.  The effects are clearly visible in the representation of women and blacks both in Congress and in their share of wealth. The factions known today as special interests are ridiculed by many of these commoners, and the Democratic Party that seeks to be their voice endures the confusion and inefficiency that results from their lack of comity, while the Republican Party promotes a vision where a significant plurality of the exploited classes see themselves united in their passion for hierarchical authority.  As Steinbeck wrote in 1960, America doesn’t “have any self-admitted proletarians. Everyone was a temporarily embarrassed capitalist” (Steinbeck). The ills of the nation are not attributed to wealth inequality by these simple folk, it is attributed to either the de-masculinization of people through culture and fear of a dark skinned “other” moving next door and enjoying a relatively comfortable lifestyle. The faction that should rise and eventually must—that of free, equal individuals sharing the gifts of life responsibly—is so far successfully depressed by the means that Madison created: a myth of national virtue based on constant competition among petty interests, capricious hierarchy, and disenfranchisement of entire classes of human beings.


Matthew Ebert
PHIL 318
Dr. Jason Fisette
April 12, 2018


Works Cited

Hume, David. Essays Moral, Political, and Literary. ed. Eugene F. Miller (Indianapolis: Liberty Press 1985).

Madison, James (as Publius). Federalist Papers #10. Political Philosophy: The Essential Texts. Third Edition. Cahn, Steven M. Oxford University Press, 2015.

Montesquieu, Charles de Secondat, baron de, 1689-1755, et al. The Complete Works of M. de Montesquieu (London: T. Evans, 1777), 4 vols. Vol. 1. 4/12/2018.

Steinbeck, John. “A Primer on the ’30s.” Esquire, June 1960: Pg 85-93