The Constitution, Taste, and “Violence of Factions”

The Constitution, Taste, and “Violence of Factions”

James Madison, who understood democracy better than most then or since, would have been perplexed by Sanford Levinson’s piece in the summer issue that treated interpretations of the Constitution as mere matters of “taste.” Madison was quite sure what he was about in proposing the Constitution as an answer to such political uncer- tainty. He very likely would have seen this and the many other discussions of what the Constitution is all about as evidence of a failure to comprehend what he expected it to do. The currently prevalent notion of democracy as an arena for the uncon- strained combat of a plurality of factional interests was precisely what he hoped the Constitution would prevent, for the thrust of his conception of that document was that it would control what he called “the violence of factions” and so assure what Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist 80, called “the inviolable maintenance of that equality of privileges and immunities to which the citizens of the union will be entitled.” Madison, in Federalist 10, recognizes that the existence of a plurality of factions is unavoidable but expected that a “well constructed union,” for which the Constitution was to provide what today might be called a “hegemonic frame,” would “break and control the violence of factions.” And I suspect, further, that he would have been puzzled that anyone would question the ethical essence of the document, without which there would be no need of a Constitution at all.

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