Study Guide

The Federalist Papers 10 and 51 Main Idea

By James Madison

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  • Main Idea

    How to Create a Goldilocks Republic

    Both Federalist Papers 10 and 51 deal with how to make a government that's strong, but not too strong—basically, like the perfect Buffalo wing.

    Federalist Paper 10 starts by pointing out that majority rule is kind of inherently chaotic. As nice as it sounds, using a simple majority to make difficult political decisions can lead to disaster when the people voting might not necessarily know the issues completely. Or, sometimes, not at all.

    This can crash democracies straight into the wall—and it has in the past. By having a representative democracy, not only can ideas be looked over by qualified office holders, but the chance that one majority group will get a stranglehold on politics is also kicked down.

    Along those lines, Federalist 51 states that the US Government will be composed of three branches, as each branch will keep the other from having too much power. Not only will the branches be entirely self-sufficient, but each will have some kind of power over the other. Since people aren't perfect, governments need to put all that explosive dictatorial power on the top shelf…where the people running the government can't reach.

    Questions About Main Idea

    1. Why would the legislative branch naturally be strongest branch of the government—what necessarily makes it stronger than either the executive or legislative branch?
    2. Why does Madison think a Supreme Court Justice shouldn't be elected by popular vote?
    3. Do you agree with him, or do you think they should be elected another way?
    4. Why doesn't Madison think a true democracy can be trusted?
    5. What does that imply about what he thought about popular movements in the United States?

    Chew on This

    In writing the Federalist Papers, James Madison was not only trying to win over the state legislatures in general, but specifically to address the concerns of the incredibly vocal Anti-Federalists who distrusted Federal power just as much as we distrust products from infomercials.

    James Madison's intense distrust of the power of political factions as mentioned in Federalist Paper 10 might have a lot to do with Daniel Shay's rebellion, where impoverished farmers clashed against wealthy Boston merchants in the largest-scale rebellion in the United States since the Revolutionary War. When he wrote about faction conflict, it was likely that the readers of this Federalist Paper had that particular throwdown in the back of their minds.

  • Brief Summary


    The Set-Up

    The Constitution's on its way, and people need to be on board with the drafters' ideas of what the Government should look like.

    Hamilton, Jay, and Madison are tasked with publishing essays in the newspaper to get people on board with the new Federal Government. They need to get nine out of the thirteen states to support the Constitution, so a lot is riding on them being convincing as humanly possible.

    The Text

    While each Federalist paper was published anonymously, Federalist papers 10 and 51 were most likely written by James Madison, because they mostly deal with things about the government that he introduced. (Not so sly, JM.)

    Federalist Paper 10 is all about warning the power of factions and competing interests over the United States Government.

    Since everyone has their own self-interests, and people's self-interests clash with others', governments have to be able to pass laws for the common good instead of any one specific group.

    To do that, the United States needs a Democratic Republic instead of a true Democracy, to cut down the power of the majority and filter it through (hopefully) qualified statesmen. This system is also made better by having a larger republic, which the United States hoped to be shortly.

    Federalist Paper 51 proposes a government broken into three branches: Executive, Legislative, and Judicial.

    Each branch should be self-sufficient, but each should have some kind of power over the other in order for them to keep each other from taking over the government. The Legislative branch needs to be split further into the House of Representatives and the Senate because it's the most powerful branch, and members of the Judicial branch need to be chosen by the President with the Senate's approval because they want qualified candidates for a position that lasts for life.

    This style of government also helps keep down the power of factions, a recurring theme from Federalist 10.


    A three-branch Democratic Republic will be able to preserve American liberties, while also stopping the Anti-Federalists from throwing rocks at our windows.

  • Questions

    1. Imagine you hated the idea of a strong central government. How would you reconfigure the Government to keep the Fed's power comparable to its power under the Articles of Confederation?
    2. It seems like James Madison and the rest of the Federalist camp really distrusts ideas or opinions held by the majority of citizens. How does that match up with their distrust of authority?
    3. How would you consider Madison's warnings against faction-formation in light of the fact that he became one of the first significant political party members in America's emerging two-party system?
    4. Was it Madison's distrust of the majority's power over the minority that shifted him from the Federalist party to the Democratic-Republican party, when Hamilton's financial plan (which he personally did not support) became the law of the land?
    5. How were these papers structured, in order to be persuasive to people who might disagree with the Federalists generally?
    6. If each state continued to work as sovereign nations, what state do you think would try and conquer the others first?
    7. How might the Federalist Papers have been different if Alexander Hamilton hadn't been able to convince James Madison to write Federalist essays? Who do you think would have been a good replacement for him?

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