• Mike McGroarty

Greece, Rome, and Federalist Papers Nos.10 & 34

In Federalist No. 10, Madison states, “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.” He defines a faction as a group of people, large or small, minority or majority, "united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens.”


He explores two possibilities for extinguishing factionalism. One is government suppression, which he dismisses as “folly.” If a faction is “fire,” perhaps it can be squelched by lack of oxygen, but so too will all other living creatures—as well as democracy—in the process. As he further discusses the origin of factions, he argues that not only are they “sown in the nature of man,” but that “unequal distribution of property” is a primary source of social antagonisms.

To Madison, the crux of the matter is how to “balance” competing interests for the common good when the lawmakers, judges, and officials are likely to be biased in favor of their own interests. Since “enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm,” then there’s no point in placing faith in the individual wisdom of leaders. Madison concludes with advocacy for a republican versus purely democratic form of government as the best way to deal with the “effects” of factions, as opposed to engaging in a futile attempt to erase the “causes.” The relationship between a federal government and the states is one essential factor in creating healthy, robust political tension as a buffer between warring interests, factions, revolutionary minorities, and tyrannical majorities.

Paul MacKendrick (1914-1998) sees strong shades of Thucydides in Madison’s text:

Madison's discussion of faction in Fed. 10, one of the most concise and objective expositions of the class struggle ever made, owes much to Aristotle, writing in the Politics, as a constitutional historian, on revolutions, their cause and cure; but something, too, to the grim anatomy of revolution presented by Thucydides in the Corcyrean Episode: "The leaders, each provided with the fairest professions, on the one side with the cry of political equality of the people, on the other of a moderate aristocracy, sought prizes for themselves...engaged in the direst excesses...making the party caprice of the moment their standard, and invoking with equal readiness the condemnation of an unjust verdict or the authority of the strong arm to glut the animosities of the hour." (98)

I recently listened to this podcast on the Corcyrean conflict. Here’s the gist:

Corcyra, a colony of Corinth, had a strong navy relative to Corinth. Corcyra had its own colony, Epidamnus. When a “revolution” broke out in Epidamnus, its aristocrats asked Corcyra for help, but Corcyra refused. So Epidamnus was assisted by Corinth, which had sway over both Epidamnus and Corcyra. Corcyra, outraged, sent its navy to Epidamnus to demand a restoration of the

aristocrats and an expulsion of the Corinthians. To make a long story short, all attempts at negotiation and settlement broke down and the whole thing escalated to a bloody victory for the Corcyreans. Later, after a period of relative peace, the Corcyreans tried to join an alliance with Athens, saying, “Sorry, we made a mistake. But we’re the real victims here.” The Corinthians also spoke to Athens, accusing the Corcyreans of being ridiculous (and arrogant and dangerous). The Athenians decided to accept Corcyreans into a “defensive alliance,” which they figured didn’t break any previous agreements with Sparta. Corinth then attacked Corcyra and ended up between two very strong militaries. Thucydides said, apparently, that it was “the biggest battle that had ever taken place between two Hellenic states.” There was no clear victor as both sides suffered huge losses. But when the Spartans got wind of all of this, the question for them was, “did Athens break the truce?”


Without having read much Thucydides, perhaps I can say that MacKendrick sees Madison’s worries about factionalism as reminiscent of the war between the Hellenic states. Madison does not directly refer to these events, at least not in Federalist No. 10, but it’s fair to assume that he was well-read in these historical accounts. Disunity and the sudden fighting that can erupt between states that are not fully integrated into one central governmental authority was on his mind, and we can see from the initial Corcyrean revolution how a situation of competing interests can spiral out of control.


McKendrick also notes Alexander Hamilton’s direct reference to the coexistence in Rome of the comitia centuriata and the comitia tributa:

His future interest in fiscal matters is foreshadowed in the argument (No. 34) that a Federal Union is needed to levy taxes, without harming the states; an argument reinforced, not altogether aptly, by the analogy of the aristocratic comitia centuriata and the plebeian tributa in the Roman Republic; they might have been thought antagonistic, yet under them Rome achieved greatness (99).

In Federalist No. 34 (“The Same Subject Continued: Concerning the General Power of Taxation”), Hamilton argues for the federal government’s right to levy taxes and points to the “balance of power” between patrician and plebeian interests in Rome as historical evidence that an arrangement like this is possible:

It is well known that in the Roman republic the legislative authority, in the last resort, resided for ages in two different political bodies not as branches of the same legislature, but as distinct and independent legislatures, in each of which an opposite interest prevailed: in one the patrician; in the other, the plebeian. Many arguments might have been adduced to prove the unfitness of two such seemingly contradictory authorities, each having power to ANNUL or REPEAL the acts of the other.

It’s no surprise that Hamilton, like Madison, was focused on "reconciling" the interests of the wealthier landowning minority with the rest of the population. The economy of the early United States was, naturally, centered around agrarian capitalism, of which slavery was inextricably linked. He portrays Rome as having almost perfected a stable state of cooperation (or healthy competition) between aristocrat and pleb (not slave), and while Rome’s achievements in this regard cannot be dismissed, it’s an idealized version of Rome meant to win over the skeptics of his day.


Works Cited

Admin. “Historia e Epidamn,Dhe Pse u Quajt ‘Verë Në Epidamn!” Festivali "Vere Ne Epidamn", 10 Mar. 2017, vereneepidamn.wordpress.com/2017/03/10/historia-e-epidamndhe-pse-u-quajt-vere-ne-epidamn/.

“The Federalist Papers.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 9 Nov. 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Federalist_Papers#/media/File:The_Federalist_(1st_ed,_1788,_vol_I,_title_page)_-_02.jpg.

“Federalist Papers: Primary Documents in American History: Federalist Nos. 1-10.” Research Guides, guides.loc.gov/federalist-papers/text-1-10#s-lg-box-wrapper-25493273.

MacKendrick, Paul. “‘This Rich Source of Delight’: The Classics and the Founding Fathers.” The Classical Journal, vol. 72, no. 2, 1976, pp. 97–106. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3297080. Accessed 11 Nov. 2020.

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