Thursday, April 28, 2011

Hamilton on Faction

Regarding yesterday’s post, it would happen, of course, that the next thing I read, that evening, was an essay by Alexander Hamilton entitled “The Numerous Advantages of the Union.” It is essay No. X in The Federalist, written by Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison in the late 1780s. My own yellowing copy came out in 1901. Herewith some quotes:

Among the numerous advantages promised by a well-constructed union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction. The friend of popular governments never finds himself so much alarmed for their character and fate as when he contemplates their propensity to this dangerous vice. He will not fail, therefore, to set a due value on any plan which, without violating the principles to which he is attached, provides a proper cure for it. The instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished; as they continue to be the favorite and fruitful topics from which the adversaries to liberty derive their most specious declamations.

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 interestd and overbearing majority.

It will be found, indeed, on a candid review of our situation, that some of the distresses under which we labor have been erroneously charged on the operation of our government; but it will be found, at the same time, that other causes will not alone account for many of our heaviest misfortunes; and, particularly, for that prevailing and increasing distrust of public engagements, and alarm for private rights, which are echoed from one end of the continent to the other. These must be chiefly, if not wholly, effects of the unsteadiness and injustice with which a factious spirit has tainted our public administration.

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


These quotes from the first two pages of the essay. Hamilton goes on and succinctly but precisely describes the causes of faction. To entice the reader to pick up the book, I’ll provide these hints. Faction arises from liberty, inequality, and property. After that Hamilton argues why the U.S. Constitution curbs the effects of faction although it cannot eliminate it. If the crick don’t rise I’ll return to this subject and argue that changes since 1787 have made Hamilton’s own arguments much weaker today.
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1 comment:

  1. Madison's response to Hamilton advocating the control of factional dangers through their proliferation is probably my favorite of the Federalist Papers.

    It's the main thing that sometimes lets me contemplate a system awash in umpteen combative special interests and divisive party politics, shrug my shoulders, and say, "Well, that's the way it's supposed to play out."

    As long as the balance of special interests plays out in a reflection of the overall body politic, I reckon all is well.

    There are, however, several potential distorting factors that you need to watch out for in that sort of system -- money and mob rule chief among them. And yeah, the current system has waaaaay too much money and mob rule to be healthy.

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