What are Factions?


In Federalist 10 James Madison defines factions as “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 interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”1 Like Madison, many of the Constitutional Framers viewed factions as a “dangerous vice” and a disease of republican government. In order to understand why the Founding Fathers thought that factions were so dangerous, it is important to understand what people thought about factions in the United States at the end of the 18th century, and how they threatened the system of government proposed by the Constitution.

Enlightenment Ideas of Factions

Many of the Founding Fathers’ ideas about factions came directly from the writings of important Enlightenment thinkers. David Hume was a scholar of the Scottish Enlightenment, and his influence on the Framers of the Constitution is evident in the Federalist Papers.2

In his essay “Of Parties in General,” Hume discusses the problem of factions in society. According to Hume, the founders of sects and factions should be hated because “Factions subvert government, render laws impotent, and beget the fiercest animosities among men of the same nation, who ought to give mutual assistance and protection for each other.”3 According to Hume, factions are a danger to governments because they cause disagreement and hostility between men of the same country who should be working together to effectively govern for the common good.

Therefore, Hume believed that a government could achieve stability by balancing class against class, and interest against interest. These ideas are echoed in Madison’s Federalist 10, proving that Hume’s theories of factions were a major influence to the Constitutional Framers.4

Founding Fathers' Ideas of Factions

James Madison

To understand what James Madison thought about factions, one needs to understand what Madison meant by the term “faction.” Although some believe that Federalist 10 is an essay on Madison’s theories of the dangers of political partiesA private organization that nominates candidates for public office., this interpretation is incorrect. In 1787, groups of legislators that voted together on particular issues were the closest things to modern political parties.5 Since political parties did not exist in 1787 when Madison wrote Federalist 10, it is clear that his idea of factions referred to something else.6

To Madison, factions referred to “groups promoting selfish interests,” as well as individuals with particular legal interests, such as creditors and debtors, who sought to gain an advantage through legislation.7 Therefore, Madison viewed factions as a danger to society because such groups acted out of self-interest and against the public good, and if these groups formed a majority, they could threaten the rights of the minority.

However, Madison believed that forming factions was a natural behavior of men.8 Furthermore, Madison claimed that the “unequal distribution of property” was the most common source of factions.9 In order to control the effects of factions, Madison advocated for a republican form of government in the United States.

According to Madison, the best way to prevent the dangers of factions was to have a government based on representation over an extended amount of territory. Madison believed that elected representatives would be more likely to govern based on the public good and would be less susceptible to the temptation of factions. Also, Madison believed that in a large country, it would be difficult for factions to work together in order to carry out their self-interest. For example, in Federalist 51, Madison predicted that, "The society itself will be broken into so many parts, interests, and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority.”10

Alexander Hamilton

In Federalist 9, Alexander Hamilton claims that "A Firm Union will be of the utmost moment to the peace and liberty of the States, as a barrier against domestic faction."11 In his essay, Hamilton argues that the federalist form of government proposed in the Constitution, consisting of a combination of local and national governing bodies, would protect the United States against factions because the different levels of government would prevent any faction from gaining too much power.

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