A Second Look: James Madison & the Tea Party

The current government shut down over the Affordable Healthcare Act speaks directly to issues found in the nation’s beginnings. Among the many ironies of Tea Party foolishness is that while its adherents are enemies of federalism and shape minor deities of the nation’s founders, the nation’s founders very purposefully opted for federalism. This post from February 2011, about Federalist paper No. 10 considers James Madison’s clear and famous thoughts about political “factions,” the “aggregate interests of the community,” and the “rights of large bodies of citizens.”

James Madison and Madison, Wisconsin

300px-FederalistConservative deification of the Founders regularly overlooks their choice – in a constitutional, federal government over the prior confederation – of stronger, more centralized national government. In argumentative recourse to the Federalist Papers, conservatives neglect, as history does, the Anti-Federalist Papers. The Federalists won the day. It was their constitution, with the addition of a Bill of Rights, that was passed.

James Madison’s Federalist No. 10 is famous for its consideration of factions, or as we call them today, “special interests.”  Of course any interest not universally held is a special (in the sense of having a limited constituency) interest. Any interest one does not like is termed a special interest.

Complaints are everywhere heard from our most considerate and virtuous citizens, equally the friends of public and private faith, and of public and personal liberty, that our governments are too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority. However anxiously we may wish that these complaints had no foundation, the evidence, of known facts will not permit us to deny that they are in some degree true. (Emphasis added)

When Madison refers to “public…liberty” he is citing a concept traceable to Spinoza and more immediately to Hume. Constant would later distinguish public from personal liberty as “The Liberty of Ancients Compared with that of Moderns.” The latter is what we think of as individual civil liberties, the former as systematic political liberty, in the American case, as Madison saw it, republicanism. The distinction is often overlooked, and the two are not inseparable. A benevolent monarch or philosopher-king could grant personal liberty in the absence of public liberty.

By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community. (Emphasis added)

How can we ensure public liberty if some faction “whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole,” or more clearly “by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority” act “adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community’? Observer that in Madison’s concern for public liberty he includes the “aggregate interests of the community” – a phrase that would elicit from contemporary conservatives and Republicans cries of “socialist” or worse.

As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves. The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties. (Emphasis added)

Madison acknowledges natural disparities in the faculties (not innate worth) of men in acquiring property (wealth) and upholds the purpose of government to protect this individuality. He also attributes to these disparities what can be seen as the equally natural “division of the society into different interests and parties.”

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts. But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government. (Emphasis added)

James Madison, Hamilton's major collaborator, ...
James Madison, Hamilton’s major collaborator, later President of the United States and “Father of the Constitution” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Contemporary conservatism hails inequality of outcome. It is the hard dictate of nature. The American dream, sold wholesale, retail, and on street corners is that since anyone may raise himself by his natural faculties and character to a favored position on that scale of inequality, any moderation of it is a limitation placed on his or his offspring’s prospects. If one has not the faculties, well, such is life, and people are encouraged in principle and at the pulpit to be kind. But Madison – that Founding Father, giant of the Federalist Papers –  rather than sanguine about the unequal distribution of wealth, tells us that “[t]he regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation.” That’s legislation that regulates the “interfering interests” that flow from the unequal distribution of wealth.

No man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity. With equal, nay with greater reason, a body of men are unfit to be both judges and parties at the same time; yet what are many of the most important acts of legislation, but so many judicial determinations, not indeed concerning the rights of single persons, but concerning the rights of large bodies of citizens? And what are the different classes of legislators but advocates and parties to the causes which they determine? Is a law proposed concerning private debts? It is a question to which the creditors are parties on one side and the debtors on the other. Justice ought to hold the balance between them. Yet the parties are, and must be, themselves the judges; and the most numerous party, or, in other words, the most powerful faction must be expected to prevail. (Emphasis added)

Almost all Americans are workers, their labor determined and directed by owners or managers (the latter of whom, too, are mostly workers subject to a comparable subordination in a hierarchy), and their subsistence, employment security, health, pursuit of happiness, and last years subject in quality not only to the gains of their own abilities but the will of employers and the employment market. The rights, the benefits – in personal and economic wellbeing – of these workers represent the “aggregate interests of the community.” The element of public liberty, that mechanism of the republican system, that can regulate the interfering interests produced by inequalities of property, wealth, and economic power in society is the labor union. James Madison could not have anticipated on November 22, 1787 that these inequalities of wealth and power in a nation two hundred years into the future could reach such staggering proportions – that what he conceived as majority factions of number could be replaced by a stupendous majority in dollars.

For they are the economic interests of the nation’s wealthy – with the Koch brothers in the forefront – and their political centurions, like Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, that for three decades have steadily sought the destruction of organized labor and stalled the economic progress of the multitude of Americans, while the inequalities of wealth Madison wrote of have grown. Now these interests set “taxpayers” against “government workers,” but what are the overwhelming number of taxpayers but workers of any kind, and what are government workers but taxpayers? But many worker/taxpayers have been led to see that illusory dichotomy as a critical factional divide: when they should be seeking the advantages of government workers and resenting the greed of the wealthy, they have been lured into fantasizing about wealth and resenting the advantages of fellow workers. Those who do not have pensions and healthcare are divided in enmity from those who do, and those who have almost everything play the two against each other like cocks in a ring. One is left done on the ground while the other gets to peck and claw another day. And the oligarchic power of Wall Street and big business only grows.

It is in vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.


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4 thoughts on “A Second Look: James Madison & the Tea Party

  1. Professor, did you change the punctuation? because, if not, i didnt read carefully enough…I would also point out that even though the “Founders” ratified a new constitution with a stronger central govt than originally existed, they fought like cats and dogs over interpreting where the govt’s proper boundaries were…and once in power, naturally,TJ(that outstanding hypocrite and slave raper) and Madison both exercised more power than one wouldve expected from their earlier pronouncements…clearly, today’s right wingers are a “bit” off base when referring to them for support of their hateful and twisted actions! Oy vey!

    1. I added the dashes, creating the interrupter, which should make clear that the “stronger, more centralized” reference is to the federal government they chose to create. And, yes, of course, they fought bitterly about all this, and once in office, presidents like their power. Ted Cruz would probably turn into Mussolini.

  2. Hey Professor, nice to see someone actually examine what these “demi gods” actually wrote….i must interject a slight miswording…in the 2nd para you refer to the “prior confederation of stronger, more centralized, national government.” no doubt you meant the prior, stronger decentralized state governments created under the Articles of Confed. which ultimately failed to protect the econ interests of these Founders.

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