Overcoming Factions: How the Founders Sought to Unify a Nation

‘Liberty is to faction what air is to fire’

By Matthew Spolar
An image from RetroReport

In November 1787, barely removed from the frenzied excitement around Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where a group of men had hammered out the Constitution of the United States, James Madison began to draft Federalist No. 10. On his mind was the issue of factions, an idea that resonates in today’s polarized political atmosphere.

Over the previous year, a violent band of Massachusetts farmers had shut down the court system there amid a debt crisis, and the toothless central government had been unable to recruit enough soldiers to quell the rebellion. Alexander Hamilton and John Jay had recently begun publishing essays in New York newspapers, printed under the common pseudonym “Publius,” trying to convince state leaders of the need for a stronger federal government laid out in this new Constitution.

Now, with the 10th entry in these public pleas, Madison entered the fray. The previous installment, written by Hamilton, had been titled “The Utility of the Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection.” Madison had spoken up in Philadelphia about this very thing, and he was keen to continue his argument in a new essay.

A faction, Madison wrote, was “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, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”

In this new American system, the creation of factions was inevitable. “Liberty is to faction what air is to fire,” Madison wrote. He felt the goal of a republic – as opposed to a direct democracy, as he and others had studied from ancient Greece, and feared could give rise to demagogues – was to control the effects of these factions.

‘Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires.'

– James Madison, Federalist No. 10, Nov. 22, 1787

In a republic, Madison explained, size mattered. The bigger the union, the more people and ideas brought together as one, the less likely it would be that any one faction could threaten the republic.

“The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States,” he wrote.

Less than 80 years after the writing of Federalist No. 10 – arguably the most famous of the 85 entries in the Federalist Papers – the United States would devolve into Civil War, the weight of slavery tearing the country in two. The war also spurred the use of a new technology, the telegraph, which enabled long-distance communication. The turn of the 20th century brought radio, then television, then cable television, then the Internet. Today, the ability of a single faction to spread its message across the American republic is instantaneous.

On Jan. 6, the anniversary of the violent attack one year ago on the U.S. Capitol, we here at Retro Report have contributed to a new two-hour PBS documentary special titled “Preserving Democracy: Pursuing a More Perfect Union.” The project brings together the work of several filmmakers examining the fragility of democracy through various lenses; our focus is on the founding of America up through the Civil War. We hope you join us by tuning in to Channel Thirteen at 8 p.m. (outside New York City, check local PBS listings) as we continue to wrestle with Federalist No. 10, 235 years on. You can also stream “Preserving Democracy” here.

MATTHEW SPOLAR, a producer at Retro Report, is a contributor to “Preserving Democracy.” This article first appeared in Retro Report's free weekly newsletter. Subscribe and receive lessons from history in your mailbox. Follow us on Twitter @RetroReport.