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PS103 Syllabus - Summer 2009

James Madison's Federalist No. 10 and the American Political System
Russell D. Renka
February 2, 2007

    Madison's Federalist #10 provides us today with a good rationale for the American political system's use of both separation of powers, and federalism--even though he addressed federalism mainly in other papers, including Nos. 39 and 51).  Separation of powers means each branch of government is occupied by officials serving only there (with one minor exception); and the chief executive is selected independently from the choosing of a national assembly or congress.  This distinguishes our system from the alternative democratic arrangement of parliamentary government, in which the chief executive and cabinet are derived from that assembly (or parliament).

    A federal system divides power between a central nation (with a constitution) and a set of states or provinces with their own constitutions.  This has proven an excellent remedy for certain problems illuminated in No. 10.  Federalism is not the more commonplace way to allot power among nations, even those 50-odd that are democratic.  Most instead opt for unitary power, with all formal authority resting in the singular central government operating under its constitution.  But federalism works particularly well for a very large geographic nation-state such as ours.  It works well also for nations with highly diverse populations based upon distinct ethnic groups (who often have their own distinct language).  Federalism need not be connected to separation of powers.  For instance, Canada has both a parliamentary system and a federal division between its central government located in Ottawa and its provinces such as Ontario and Quebec (CIA - The World Factbook -- Canada; and Canada's Portal - Quick Guide > Federalism).

    Now, both separation of powers and federalism are the less traveled roads among the world's democracies.  Why then is the U.S. reliant upon both of these?  In part the answer is historical, namely that we began in the late 1700s that way.  We had states before a true nation in the 1780s, thus ruling out any unitary vesting of power in the nation.  And our Founders shared with us an abiding suspicion against giving all authority in the central government to one person, group, faction or coalition.  That worked against vesting all power in a national parliament.

    And in part the answer is philosophical.  Madison wrote for an immediate audience in No. 10, yet his rationale has proven enduring as a statement for the American scheme.  It is a frank acknowledgement of human class division based upon economic standing (Beard 1913).  Madison begins with the premise that human nature inherently divides us into factions, of like-minded persons with some shared goals or objectives achievable by political means.  Factions exist for various reasons, especially inequality of wealth or property (creditors v. debtors, for example).  Factions have historically been the chief cause for demise of small democracies (and large nation-level democracies were unknown in the late 1700s).  Factions behave very rudely indeed toward loners or those in rival factions, to the point of imposing tyranny on outsiders.  Tyranny can "cure the mischief" by eliminating other factions, but Madison flatly declares that an unacceptable cure.  Therefore he concedes their existence and says we must minimize the damage factions can do.

    Factions also vary by size.  Small or minority factions are curbed by democracy itself, since "the republican principle" confers equal voting power to each citizen.  Thus a minority simply falls short in votes of controlling an elected government.  But a majority faction is another story.  Here the republican principle invites takeover by an abusive majority.  Madison is mindful of the rising power of "aggressive dirt farmers" (Rakove 1999) who dominated many state governments in the 1780s.  These he and other Founders saw as responsible for Shays' Rebellion, and for Rhode Island's notorious anti-creditor practices.  Even without Charles Beard's claim that the Founders were conspiring to enrich themselves through their deliberations in Philadelphia, No. 10 still brilliantly displays that they were a self-conscious elite minority.  What could they do to protect property and the propertied from the threat?

    Madison offers solutions based on the recommendation that you "extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests" to make it less likely any one faction actually achieves majority status and power.  First is representative rather than direct democracy (the former being called "republican" government by the Founders).  Representation will "refine and enlarge the public views."  Election of representatives will result in more statesmanlike behavior than direct local democracy in the town square could produce.  Madison believed something the Anti-Federalists feared, namely that common men would select distinguished and outstanding men in their midst if given half the chance.  This would improve on factional behavior, although it would not eliminate it.  Another improvement (cited in much more detail in Federalist 51) in factions is forced on them by separation of powers, since that makes it much harder for a faction to control everything.  A faction running Congress may face a rival in control of the presidency and executive branch.  One controlling both might still face a truculent judicial branch of holdovers from an earlier regime.  Many American states exhibit exactly this kind of split and diversified control over their governance.

    The most important solution follows from large size itself.  Large size is the best protection from tyranny.  Madison insisted that a large republic was harder to subvert or tyrannize than a small one.  Diversity is the reason.  A larger society is sure to be more economically diverse than a smaller one.  Factions therefore proliferate; big schoolyards surely have more playground cliques than do small ones.  A high diversity of factions is the best warranty that no faction can become a majority.  Large size promotes a greater diversity of interests and pursuits and therefore a plurality of small factions instead of a handful of big ones from which a numerical majority faction might emerge.

    And of course this meant the citizenry of the time should support ratification of the handiwork of the Founders.  Madison and Hamilton knew the crucial state was New York, a large and centrally located state crucial to success of the whole endeavor where predominant opinion was against the Philadelphia enterprise ( - Reference - Ratification of the Constitution, 1787-1790).  One big nation would prove far better than 13 separate small ones, if only New York could be brought into the fold to allow this great experiment to proceed.

    But big countries suffer from social tensions inherent in different cultures, races, languages and religions existing in proximity to each other.  The bloody map of 20th and 21st century ethnic warfare is a constant reminder of this.  Ethnic groups world wide are agitating for self governance and nationhood separate from rule by others.  Tibetans would prefer to rule themselves from Lhasa rather than be an outer province of China ruled by Chinese from Beijing.  What allows a big country, then, to exist with its diversity?  China resolves that by imposing its rule on provinces that have little to no choice about it.  China is not a democracy.  So what about big democracies?  Here, federalism is not a complete solution, but it helps mightily!

    Federalism divides the essential powers of government between a central unit and provincial ones.  In a true federalist system, both nation and states have important real powers derived from their respective constitutions (Riker 1955, 1964; McKay 2001).  The U.S. has long been a geographically and demographically large country with relatively high immigration rate.  We have 3.6 million square miles and an estimated 290 million citizens spread over six time zones (see CIA - The World Factbook -- United States).  We have one prevalent language, but several regions where separate languages are widely spoken (French in Maine and south Louisiana, Spanish in New Mexico and south Texas).  Government officers in Washington D.C. do not necessarily speak French, but a great many in Baton Rouge do.  The tradeoff is more diversity for more size.  Size permits the U.S. to be a military and economic superpower among modern nations.  It's an immense advantage to all Americans to have a huge country with a single military, foreign policy, president, currency, postal system, interstate highway system, and set of rules for commerce.  It's also immensely irritating to have so diverse a population that square dancing and hip hop exist almost side by side.  Large American cities are now cultural pastiches with cab drivers from many lands and public schools struggling to handle children from many cultures.  There is a price for diversity.

    Reconciling diversity is helped by devolving some governmental powers out to the states.  Gun control and motor speed regulations are examples.  Gun rules are different in the crowded urban eastern corridor than in wide open Wyoming; so are standards for automobile speed.  From 1974 through 1996 a single national law stipulated a 55 mph speed limit on freeways in all 50 states.  This suited the New Jersey Turnpike well but invited wholesale disregard and contempt in Wyoming, where the next medium-sized town might be 100 miles up the pike.  Once states regained a measure of prerogative over speed regulation, the crowded eastern states predictably kept low speed with strict enforcement while western states dispensed immediately with meaningful regulation below 70 to 80 mph.  Both were reflecting the prevalent sentiment of citizens and drivers in their respective areas of the single nation.

    Taken altogether, America today is still a Madisonian political system.  Size and diversity is our permanent lot.

Russell D. Renka


Beard, Charles A.  1913.  An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States.  New York:  The Macmillan Company, 1913 (updated 1962).

McKay, David.  2001.  William Riker on Federalism:  Sometimes Wrong But More Right Than Anyone Else.  Paper before the William H. Riker Conference on Constitutions, Voting and Democracy,  CNISS and the Center for Political Economy, Washington University, St Louis, December 7-8th, 2001.  URL:

Rakove, Jack N.  1999.  A Tradition Born of Strife.  In Allan J. Cigler and Burdett A. Loomis, eds., American Politics:  Classic and Contemporary Readings, pp. 3-8.  New York:  Houghton Mifflin.

Riker, William H. 1955. "The Senate and American Federalism." American Political Science Review, 49: 452-469.

_____________, (1964), Federalism: Origins, Operation, Significance. Boston, Little, Brown.