The Jeffersonian Perspective

Commentary on Today's Social and Political Issues
Based on the Writings of Thomas Jefferson


Democracies and Their Discontents

The following quotation from James Madison from Federalist #10 is frequently used by the detractors of democracy:

The most significant part of this quote is the " . . . " because by that means, the quote is lifted out of its context and made to mean something that Madison had no intention of saying: something, indeed, that contradicts the very essence of the Founding Father's philosophy.

Democracy is acknowledged to be a vague term, but its essential meaning is "government by the people." And the above excerpt is often quoted by the enemies of popular government and majority rule as an indication that the Founding Fathers were also enemies of popular government.

But the key to understanding what Madison was saying lies in the " . . . " What that ellipsis replaces is the beginning of the sentence, which reads:

And what does SUCH DEMOCRACIES refer to? It refers to the earlier part of the paragraph, which was speaking of PURE DEMOCRACIES.

Those who use this quote as a proof text against democratic government do so because they fail or refuse to understand what Federalist No. 10 was all about, and that is FACTIONS, i.e., a party or a group within a democracy that seeks its own interest over those of the whole. Madison was saying that in the case of pure democracies, such factions are unavoidable and lead inevitably to the downfall of the state. HE WAS NOT SPEAKING OUT AGAINST THE BASIC PRINCIPLE OF A GOVERNMENT OF THE PEOPLE, as today's enemies of popular government and majority rule would have us believe. What he was arguing was that the REPUBLICAN FORM which the new Constitution had instituted was one that would prevent the formation of factions, and that it was a form of democratic government that was far superior to the "pure" form.

Therefore, those who use this quote in order to destroy our faith in democratic self-government are not only distorting the true intent of Madison, they are making themselves the enemy of everything Madison and the Founders stood for. More to the point is what Jefferson wrote:

And this one:

And this:

The only alternative to a government of the people is some form of despotism based on force. Those who oppose "democracy" are usually unable to see that the extension of their argument necessarily results in a despotic government. For as Jefferson wrote regarding majority rule, which is the way decisions are made in a democracy:

    "The first principle of republicanism is that the lex majoris partis is the fundamental law of every society of individuals of equal rights; to consider the will of the society enounced by the majority of a single vote as sacred as if unanimous is the first of all lessons in importance, yet the last which is thoroughly learnt. This law once disregarded, no other remains but that of force, which ends necessarily in military despotism." --Thomas Jefferson to F. von Humboldt, 1817.

Those who wish to discard democratic government and who seek a form of government based on "Individualism" and the rights of each individual in opposition to the majority fail to realize that what they propose could only be instituted by a dictator, because the only alternative to democracy, i.e., government by the people, is dictatorship.

Cross References

To other essays in The Jeffersonian Perspective

To Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

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Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government: Table of Contents

© 1996 by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.

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