“The smaller the society, the fewer probably will be the distinct parties and interests composing it,…the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression…Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will…invade the rights of other citizens.” — James Madison, Federalist No. 10
Thomas Jefferson called The Federalist Papers “the best commentary on the principles of government, which was ever written.” It was true then, and remains true today. The masterpiece of American political thought began as a series of newspaper opinion pieces encouraging Americans to ratify the Constitution. The 85 essays were written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay under the pseudonym “Publius.”
For the past century and more, one of Madison’s essays, the tenth Federalist, has taken center stage, and the quoted passage above presents, very briefly, Madison’s most famous argument in No. 10. An extended republic of the kind the Founders envisioned, Madison argues, has a built-in feature that safeguards the rights of its citizens arising from the very nature of the society itself. Because there will be many “parties and interests,” the rights of citizens will be safer than in a republic confined to a small society.
Madison’s argument is quite straightforward. Here is the central claim: a small republic can offer no solution to the problem of a majority faction oppressing the minority. Think of it in this way: we can imagine the elected government of a republic of Manhattan Island with today’s population outlawing the ownership of automobiles by private citizens and rescinding the tax-exempt status of churches. But “extend the sphere” of the republic to include voters who live in rural Texas and in Bible Belt states, and assembling a like-minded national majority in support of those policies becomes a much more difficult challenge.
The tenth is often cited as the most important Federalist paper. It is both great and prominent. Its greatness is intrinsic, but its prominence is the result of a decision by the Progressives at the beginning of the Progressive era. They decided to attack the Constitution by attacking No. 10. It has been under constant attack from the left ever since.
Charles Beard fired the first shots. Beard, an early and influential Progressive, offered a Marxist account of No. 10. He argued in his An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution (1913) that No. 10 provided “a masterly statement of the theory of economic determinism in politics.”
In those early days the Progressives were much more open about their enthusiasm for everything Marxist. For example, Lincoln Steffens, another prominent Progressive, made a three-week visit to the Soviet Union in March 1919, declaring on his return “I have seen the future, and it works.” The title page of his wife Ella Winter’s book Red Virtue: Human Relationships in the New Russia (1933) carries that famous quote. Beard, Steffens, and Winter were eager for Americans to turn away from the American Constitution and build a bridge to the Marxist future.
The stupendous evil and stupidity of every Marxist state from the USSR to Venezuela has taught the Progressives to be coy about their Marxist roots today. Consequently, they have shifted the ground of their attacks on No. 10, but the assault continues unabated. Garry Wills, for example, attacks No. 10 head-on in his book Explaining America: “What he [Madison] protects is not the common good but delay as such.” The shift from “economic determinism” to “delay” reflects the Progressives’ abandonment of Marxist utopianism for straightforward opposition to the Constitution’s design and purpose.
For the founders, the purpose of the Constitution was preserving liberty in a regime of limited, republican government. Their design for liberty is a work of genius, enabling the American people to accomplish the incredible feat of governing themselves.
But the Progressives have a different purpose for government. They want to use the vast powers of government to change America. The features of the design Madison and the other founders celebrate for protecting liberty the Progressives deplore for creating “delay.” The Constitution, you see, still occasionally gets in the way of their agenda. Consequently, they want to be rid of it.
Have you noticed the Progressive left’s increasing opposition to key features of the Constitution? They denounce the Electoral College, have taken aim at the First and the Second Amendments, and lately even have come out against the Constitution’s provision of two senators for each state. They won’t be satisfied until the Constitution is unable to hamper them ever again.