The Founders’ Fight Against Faction

Samuel Stone

In his Farewell Address, George Washington warned the young American nation of the many dangers it would face in its future. These included the danger of foreign alliances as well as those seeking to undermine and change the principles upon which the government of the United States was founded. Both warnings can ultimately be traced back to the Founders’ fear of the development and empowerment of factions within the Union. This menace was, in many ways, the greatest threat to the preservation of the Union and the happiness of the people. As Washington explained in his Farewell Address, “in those [governments] of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.” As such, the Founders recognized the need to combat the passion to develop factions within the Union. Every part of the Founding aimed toward destroying the threat of faction. 

A discussion on the Founders’ response to faction requires an explanation of how they defined faction. The United States has always had a rich history of private associations and organizations. The First Amendment, for example, guarantees the right of different faiths to meet and worship as they deem fit. Improperly understood, such associations could be considered factions and harmful to the health and safety of the nation. True factions are organizations which are concerned with seeking their own good at the expense of their fellow citizens. Madison explains such groups as “actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens.” Such groups then seek to aggrandize themselves and at the same time oppress their fellow citizens. It can be said that they no longer seek the common good but instead only wish to attain their perceived private good.

With this in mind, the means by which the Founders sought to contain factions can be examined. Madison provides a clear view on how a nation can deal with the problem of faction in Federalist 10. “There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction,” he writes, “the one, by removing the causes; the other, by controlling its effects.” From there, he explains, removing the causes is also twofold. A nation could either remove the liberty that allows the diversity of opinion to develop or somehow give every citizen a sameness of mind. In a nation dedicated to protecting the life, liberty, and property of its citizens, such propositions are unthinkable. In either case, the principles the United States is founded upon would be destroyed. Most obviously, each would take away the freedom of conscience that is so crucial to a free society. One could not have the freedom of assembly or the press if such measures were enacted, for example. Because of this, Madison declares the remedies “worse than the disease.” Such an action would be akin to nuking a neighborhood because it has too many mosquitoes. 

With this in mind, the Founders turned to another method of defeating faction through control of the effects of faction. With this goal in mind, the Founders dedicated much of the structure and organization of the Union to bring this about. The popular nature of government sometimes provides the means to curtail the schemes of faction. As all lawmaking bodies in the nation required a majority vote to pass legislation, a minority faction would be of no concern. They would lose and thus be unable to cause any mischief. From this foundation, the very structure of the United States government provides relief in this first case. 

Unfortunately, this situation is not always guaranteed. If a faction acquires a majority, they would be able to enact their evils. Here, the danger of democracy and the reason the Founders stood in opposition to such a government becomes clear. Madison explains this as the tendency of man to be swept away in the passions of others which results in the oppression of the minority party. Because of such worries, the Founders turned to a republic. As Madison explains, a republic delegates power to certain citizens who represent the rest of the nation. This allows for the representatives to “refine and enlarge the public views.” In this, one can take account of the concerns of the nation and of their constituents. A republic can thus prevent the passion and interests of faction from overwhelming reason. 

The establishment of a republic, however, was not enough. In order to effectively combat factions, it had to be a republic of sufficient size. A large republic would create a multiplicity of interests which would lessen the likelihood that one faction would gain a majority. As previously stated, a faction in the minority cannot affect a popular government. They would lose in all votes without support from the majority. With more interests, the likelihood of one gaining a majority  decreases. A larger republic thus makes it less likely “a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens” will come about. Further, a large republic would prevent those likeminded people from being able to find one another and organize in any meaningful way. As territory expands, the ability for like-minded people to gather decreases. Even if they could gather easily, the multitude of other interests in the territory would prevent trouble. 

The final check on the problem of faction can be seen in the organization of the federal government itself. Through checks and balances provided by the separation of powers, the Founders established a final obstacle to factions. As Madison states in Federalist 51, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” The structure of the federal government allows each branch to check the other forces, as factions must hold all three branches to guarantee their success. This is a tall task for even a majority of the country to pull off without some other, illegal activities. The very structure of the American government works to limit the power of faction. 

The Constitution further limits faction through the implementation of the federalist system. Even if a faction managed to take over a state, they would only be able to inflict damage upon that state. A further check on this power within the state is the Guarantee Clause, which ensures that each state possesses a republican form of government. This clause makes it difficult for the faction to guarantee they stay in power by changes to the state constitution. If they sought to oppress their fellow citizens, as all factions do, the federal government possesses the legal authority to step in and prevent such evil. As Madison explains a union based on republican principles must have a central authority which can protect them from “aristocratic or monarchical innovations.” This gives the people a legal authority they can appeal to in order to protect themselves in the event of a faction taking control of a state. As such, a republic consisting of many states, as the United States does, poses even more problems to those seeking to govern for their private good. 

Factions are an eternal problem of human society. As a result of man’s fallen nature, one will always find those willing to enslave others for their own benefit. Consequently, the problem of faction still plagues America today. The power of factions today is made clear by the dominance of the two major political parties, each seeking to remake the country. The idea behind identity politics is steeped in faction. Each identity has its own interests and concerns that must be elevated above the good of the country. Yet, even with these continued instances of factionalism the checks the Founders put in place have held thus far. The two parties fight continuously, but so far neither has claimed a majority capable of remaking the country. In identity politics, all the various identities are constantly warring with each other, never able to find one with a clear majority. In these instances the Founders have proved almost prophetic. As with all things, it is the duty of those now living to protect these institutions in order to preserve them for future generations.

About the Author

Samuel Stone is a Senior Contributor for American Discourse and a Hillsdale College graduate who majored in politics. He currently is getting his masters from St. John’s College.

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