A Close Reading Of Federalist No. 10 Shows John Locke Doesn’t Have A Lock On The Founders

A Close Reading Of Federalist No. 10 Shows John Locke Doesn’t Have A Lock On The Founders

A close investigation of those who made an impression on James Madison reveals the underappreciated impact of two Founding Era philosophers: David Hume, and Adam Smith.
Robert Curry
By

In a recent article, I discussed the most famous argument in Federalist No. 10, which is itself the most famous of “The Federalist Papers”:

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 10, and this argument specifically, have generated a mountain of scholarly writings and commentary for the past century. As virtually every political pundit has chimed in, you have almost certainly read discussions of No. 10 before this.

However, scholars and commentators have consistently overlooked the profound insight it reveals into the thinking of America’s Founding Fathers. To properly understand the tenth Federalist at all, it is important for us to consider the sources of Madison’s thinking in writing it.

We have all been told that John Locke provides the key to understanding the thinking of the Founders—that they took Locke’s ideas to invent America. Yet, on closer inspection, No. 10 tells a very different story and challenges the narrative about the founding we all know.

Madison’s argument is quite straightforward. His central claim is that a small republic can’t solve 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. However, if you “extended the sphere” of the hypothetical Manhattan Republic to include voters who live in rural Texas and the Bible Belt states, assembling a like-minded national majority in support of such policies would be difficult, to say the least.

Messing Up Federalist No. 10 For More Than a Century

Although multiple generations passed without taking much note of Federalist No. 10, it suddenly became the center of a raging controversy 100 years ago. It earned its fame in much the same way as Fort Sumter and Pearl Harbor. The Progressives’ assault on No. 10 signaled their war on the Constitution had begun in earnest, with the first shots fired by Charles Beard.

In 1913, at the outset of the Progressive Era, Beard presented a Marxist interpretation of No. 10. As, until recently, Marxism was a “non-starter” in America, Progressives were forced to come up with different ways to attack No. 10.

With Garry Wills as the one notable exception, modern-day leftists have been careful to steer clear of any effort to discover the actual intellectual roots of No. 10. Leftists have stayed on the attack anyway, using their favorite theoretical tools of the moment—the doctrines of cultural Marxism and the like.

Remarkably, most scholars and pundits who have tried to defend No. 10 have shared the leftist’s lack of interest in the actual sources of the arguments Madison advanced. For more than 100 years, it’s been a war of abstractions fought in the clouds.

There have been two remarkable exceptions to this trend. Douglass Adair and Samuel Fleischacker showed what could be accomplished by a close and careful reading of No. 10.

Hume Had a Large Influence on Madison’s Thinking

Adair’s examination found the fingerprints of the Scottish philosopher David Hume all over the tenth “Federalist”: “a borrowed word, a sentence lifted almost in its entirety from the other’s [Hume’s] essay, and, above all, the exactly parallel march of ideas” showed Madison’s reliance on Hume. Adair argues quite convincingly that a copy of Hume’s “Essays” “was open on the table beside” Madison as he wrote. Here is the key passage:

In a large government, which is modeled with masterly skill … the parts are so distant and remote, that it is very difficult, either by intrigue, prejudice, or passion, to hurry them into any measures against the public interest.

It is clear from the context that in using the phrase “in a large government” Hume’s wording went slightly awry. Hume’s actual subject is the size of the territory, not the size of the government. Hume is saying that the extent of the territory itself makes “measures against the public interest” more difficult.

As for “a borrowed word,” perhaps you recognize this quote from the tenth Federalist: “Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment, without which it instantly expires.” If you have read Madison’s sentence previously, you were probably struck by the unfamiliar word “aliment.” It means food. Today it appears in terms such as the “alimentary canal” (the digestive tract), but its use was unusual even in Madison’s time. It was, however, used by Hume.

Here is the passage from Hume Adair points to, edited for brevity: “If mankind had not a strong propensity to such divisions [into rival factions, the] foolish animosity, that had not any aliment of new benefits and injuries” [would expire]. Adair points out that Madison never used “aliment” again in all of his writings. Adair argues this shows that in 1787,  “[Madison’s] head was full of such words and ideas culled from David Hume.”

Madison Adopted Core Concepts from Adam Smith

In his brilliant paper, “The impact on America: Scottish philosophy and the American founding,” Samuel Fleischacker acknowledges that Adair succeeded in demonstrating that Hume’s influence can be seen all over No. 10. However, Fleischacker finds even more direct connections between the famous argument in No. 10 and the work of another Scottish philosopher, Hume’s close friend Adam Smith.

For Fleischacker, Madison’s argument about the benefits of the many “distinct parties and interests” in an extended republic is “an extension of the argument Smith offers in ‘Wealth of Nations’ for the advantages of a multiplicity of religious sects.” Smith argues that in a society with many religious groups, it is difficult for any one of them to become dominant. As Fleischacker points out, Madison alludes to Smith in No. 10:

… a religious sect, may degenerate into a political faction … but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it [the extended republic], must secure the national Councils against any danger from that source.

Additionally, in Federalist 51—often discussed as the companion to No. 10—Madison returns to this same way of stating the argument: “In a free government, the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other, the multiplicity of sects.”

While these are only glimpses of Fleischacker’s discussion of Madison’s debt to Smith, as well as Adair’s discussion of Madison’s debt to Hume, these brief investigations are enough to show the strength of their accounts. Both demonstrate how recognizing the sources of Madison’s argument clarifies his meaning.

The Founders Were Big Fans of Scottish Philosophers

It’s worth considering the implications that Federalist 10 and its most famous argument owe much to two Scottish philosophers. In an earlier article, I presented an account of how much the most famous statement of the American idea—that sentence in the Declaration of Independence containing the words “self-evident” and “unalienable”—owes to Scottish philosophers Thomas Reid and Francis Hutcheson (the unusual, but to us familiar, word “unalienable” is even more directly traceable to Hutcheson than “aliment” is traceable to Hume).

We’re all acquainted with the most famous sentence in the Declaration, and many of us are familiar with Federalist 10, but how many know that these iconic statements of the American idea have deep roots in Scottish philosophy?

In earlier times, there was a deep and wide understanding of the importance to the American idea of these Scottish thinkers. It was widely known by the general public and deeply known by American scholars. The distinguished American historian, Allen Guelzo, made the latter point in this way in his truly great lecture series, “The American Mind”: “Before the Civil War, every major [American] collegiate intellectual was a disciple of Scottish common-sense realism.”

This is no longer true. The influence of the Scots on the Founders has, for the most part, been forgotten. Even a passing familiarity with these thinkers is rare among collegiate intellectuals today. As a result, when reading the writings of the Founders they fail to notice what is glaringly obvious to anyone who has read the thinkers the Founders themselves were reading at the birth of our nation.

Robert Curry is the author of "Common Sense Nation: Unlocking the Forgotten Power of the American Idea," and "Reclaiming Common Sense: Finding Truth in a Post-Truth World," due out in September. Both are from Encounter Books.

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