Domestic Faction in a Republic, Part II

George Seaver

Editor’s note: The following article is a research essay by one of our members, George Seaver, a former Teaching Fellow and postdoctoral Fellow at HarvardUniversity and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It is the second of a series of three essays on the key elements of stable republics: public virtue, the control of factions, and religion. In this essay Dr. Seaver emphasizes that factions—groups united by common beliefs—may be beneficial to a republic when properly checked, but they can become poisonous if given too much political license. He illustrates this by examining the various ways factions have been treated from the ancient republics to the United States today.

NAS is publishing this essay in three daily installments:  

Part 1: Factions in SpartaAthens, Plato’s Republic, and Rome
Part 2: Factions in the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the United States Founding
Part 3: Factions in the Postmodern United States

The opinions expressed in this guest article do not necessarily reflect the official position of the National Association of Scholars.

Domestic Faction in a Republic
From the Invisible Hand to Postmodern Poison

III. Factions in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment


The Dark Ages could be said to have seen the triumph of faction, of feudal tyranny, of foreigners defined as enemies, of Plato's Republic on faction come true, whose princes Machiavelli famously described. In 1513, after 1400 years, his was the first voice out of this with The Discourses, in which he describes the cycle of republics from the ancient regimes up to Florence and Venice in the 1400's; his heart was with the republics. Inevitably, the destructive aspect of faction arises, whose poisonous nature reflects the decline in public virtue. He tells us: 

...the masses...constituted themselves a new government...governed in strict accordance with the laws which they had established themselves; preferring public interest to their own, and to administer and protect with greatest care both public and private affairs. The children succeeded their fathers and, ignorant of the changes of fortune, having never experienced its reverses, and indisposed to remain content with this civil equality, they in turn gave themselves up to cupidity, ambition, libertinage, and violence, and soon caused the government to degenerate, regardless of civil rights…For it soon ran into that kind of license which inflicts injury upon public as well as private interests. Each individual only consulted his own passions, and a thousand acts of injustice were daily committed, so that…they returned anew to the government of a prince.16  

In demonstrating the destructive nature of faction as policy, Machiavelli recalls Florence in 1498 with the conflict of two factions in its dependent city, Pistoja. He concludes, "If the city is a republic, then there is no surer way of corrupting the citizens, and to divide the city against itself, than to foment the spirit of faction that may prevail there; for each party will strive by every means of corruption to secure friends and supporters."17 The Florentines, by attempting to control Pistoja by manipulating factions, became divided amongst themselves, which resulted in her loosing much territory and influence. The social justice of postmodernism accomplishes much the same.


Two hundred and fifty years later, in 1748, Montesquieu described the toll that factions took during the time of Oliver Cromwell on the commonwealth republic of England from 1649 to 1660. He observed: 

A very droll spectacle it was in the last century to behold the impotent efforts of the English towards the establishment of democracy. As they who had a share in the direction of public affairs were devoid of virtue; as their ambition was inflamed by the success of the most daring of their members [Cromwell]; as the prevailing parties were successively animated by the spirit of faction, the government was continually changing: the people, amazed at so many revolutions, in vain attempted to erect a commonwealth. At length, when the country had undergone the most violent shocks, they were obliged to have recourse to the very government which they had so wantonly proscribed.18


Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote The Social Contract in 1758 and is an often-quoted source on the structure of government, particularly on the fragility and transient nature of the republican form. In particular that: 

...there is no government so subject to civil wars and intestine agitations as democratic or popular government, because there is none which has so strong and continual a tendency to change to another form, or which demands more vigilance and courage for its maintenance as it is. Under such a constitution above all, the citizen should arm himself with strength and constancy, and say, every day of his life, what a virtuous Count Palatine said in the Diet of Poland: 'I prefer liberty with danger to peace with slavery.' Were there a people of gods, their government would be democratic.19 

All observers saw the need to control faction, even if only to maximize the lifetime of a republic. 

IV. Control of Faction in the U.S. Constitution and First 200 Years

John Adams

The experience with factional instability in the ancient republics was of great interest and instruction to the members of the U.S. Constitutional Convention in 1787 and during the subsequent ratification debates during 1787 and 1788. John Adams wrote A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States of America in 1787, was the architect of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, and was an advisor to many of the constitutional conventions of the other states. His book gave the best summary of prior republics and how they might inform the U.S Constitution then under consideration, although his book was not without imperfections in form and style. Above all he saw the lessons of the imperfect separation, independence and balance of powers of the earlier republics, and proposed, beyond this, a 'negative' (veto) of one branch over the other. "The people in each of the United States," he described, "...cannot meet in one assembly, and therefore are not exposed to those tumultuous commotions, like the raging waves of the sea, which always agitated the ecclesia [assembly of citizens] at Athens. …This [the new U.S. republic] will be a fair trial, whether a government so popular can preserve itself. If it can, there is reason to hope for all the equality, all the liberty, and every other good fruit of an Athenian democracy, without any of its ingratitude, levity, convulsions, or factions."6 

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton was a student of the history of faction in republics, and felt that a better understanding of politics would provide a greater chance of success for a republic. In November of 1787 he published his thoughts in theIndependent Journal of New York, and later as Federalist Paper Number IX, entitled The Utility of the Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection. He began: 

A firm union will be of the utmost moment to the peace and liberty of the States as a barrier against domestic faction and insurrection. It is impossible to read the history of the petty republics of Greece and Italy without feeling sensations of horror... at the rapid successions of revolutions...between tyranny and anarchy... The science of politics, however, has received great improvement. They [sic] are means, and powerful means, by which the excellence of republican government may be retained and its imperfections lessened or avoided.20 

James Madison

James Madison, the father of the U.S. Constitution if anyone was, was the most informed on the issue of factions and how to balance them in an extended republic. At the time, most quoted Montesquieu that a republic must be of a limited extent because of the destructive, even fatal, nature of factions throughout history. Madison's solution was to increase the number and type of factions so that none could wield decisive power. He presented this concept at the Constitutional Convention in September 1787, in a November 1787 article inNew York's Daily Advertiser, and finally as Federalist Paper (FP) Numbers 10 and 51, published in March 1788. The 2000-year struggle republics have had with factions is impressively outlined in FP #10. Because it is a milestone in the long history of factions in a republic, a lengthy passage is necessary: 

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...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 to it. The instability, injustice and confusion introduced into the public councils have, in truth, been the mortal disease under which popular governments have everywhere perished…The valuable improvements made by the American [state] constitutions on the popular models, both ancient and modern, cannot certainly be too much admired; but it would be an unwarranted partiality to contend that they have as effectually obviated the danger on this side, as was wished and expected. Complaints are everywhere heard from our most considerate and virtuous citizens...These must be chiefly, if not wholly, effects of the unsteadiness and injustice with which a factious spirit has tainted our public administration… 

There are two methods of curing the mischief of factions: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects. There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty, which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.1

Plato's Republic exhibits the first method, that of removing the causes of factions by diminishing liberty, to which Madison observed, "It could never be more truly said than that it was worse than the disease... Liberty is essential to political life."Sparta's republic, as described in section I, demonstrates the second method, of imposing the same opinions on all, as does the collectivization in the Soviet Union between 1930 and 1940 under Joseph Stalin. In this latter case, as Russell Kirk described it, "Fearing the existence of any minority as a potential center of resistance, and maintaining that every man should be exactly like every other man in the Soviet Union, the Communists have been eager to force out of existence scores of...minority groups within their frontiers."21 To this method Madisonresponded that it " as impracticable as the first would be unwise. The latent causes of faction are...sown in the nature of man."1 In fact, as we shall see, factions are an asset, an invisible hand, to a republic when properly incorporated.

Controlling the effects of faction was first hinted at by Voltaire in 1734 in observing the effects of religious sects in society; with but one sect the effect was oppressive, two caused violence and more than two worked out peacefully.22 Madison took this concept much further, developing the factional equivalent of the invisible hand, although at the time he was not aware of all of its implications. As part of the concept of checks and balances, of rectifying "by opposite and rival interests the defect of better motives," the infringement upon liberty thatSparta and Plato's republic represented is avoided. As Madison warned, "...a power independent of the society may as well espouse the unjust views of the major as the rightful interests of the minor party, and may possibly be turned against both parties." He then clearly commands:

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 in the multiplicity of sects. The degree of security in both cases will depend on the number of interests and sects.23

Madison had not always seen the solution this clearly. At the Constitutional Convention, just 6 months earlier, he had fought hard for a veto by the U.S. Congress over state laws. He lost that argument, but in an October 24, 1787 letter to Thomas Jefferson still believed in its necessity, "A constitutional negative on the laws of the States seems...necessary to secure individuals against encroachment on their rights."24 However, by the time of the ratifying convention in Virginia and in the Federalist Papers he eloquently supported the Constitution without that provision, that is, that the government might turn "against both parties." The next 200 years of U.S. history amply demonstrated the effectiveness of this way of empowering faction, while avoiding their poisonous nature. The results of this approach exceeded what anyone at the time expected and led to what has come to be called "American Exceptionalism"; this was catalogued in Virtus: from the Ancient Republics to the Postmodern by the author in 2010.25 That intervention by government, that "a power independent of society may be turned against both parties," is demonstrated in the postmodern era, since 1960, which we now turn to.

To be continued...



16.  Machiavelli, N. ibid., pg. 113, 114.

17.  Ibid., pg. 492.

18.  Montesquieu, Charles de, 1748: The Spirit of the Laws. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. Chicago 1943. Book III, section 3.

19.  Rousseau, Jean Jacques, 1754: The Social Contract. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. Chicago. Book III, ch 4.

20.  Hamilton, Alexander, 1788: Federalist Paper Number 9, ibid.

21.  Kirk, Russell, 1957: The American Cause. Henry Regnery Company, Chicago, Illinois, pg. 160.

22.  Voltaire, 1734: Religious Toleration. English Letters, 1734.

23.  Madison, James, ibid., Number 51.

24.  Madison, James, 1787: Letter to Thomas Jefferson, October 24, 1787. In Debate on the Constitution, editor Bernard Bailyn, Library of America.

25.  Seaver, George, 2010: Virtus: from the Ancient Republics to the Postmodern. National Association of Scholars, March 2010.

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