The Problem of Majority Tyranny


America was governed under the Articles of Confederation from 1781 to 1789. Unable to redress the problem of “majority tyranny,” the Articles were abandoned in favor of the Constitution, which created a “more perfect union.”

The creation in the Constitution of “a more perfect union” did not mean that the union—or its people—would get more and more perfect with time. Rather, this phrase meant simply that the Constitution marked an improvement over the Articles of Confederation.

The majority tyranny that prevailed under the Articles meant that instead of strong but limited government, the nation labored under weak and ineffectual government.

The Founding Fathers featured in this week’s readings—George Washington, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson—were united in their fear that America’s future under the Articles of Confederation would be short-lived. The Articles, they agreed, not only failed to solve the problem of majority tyranny, but in fact made that problem worse.

In Federalist 10, Madison outlines how the problem of majority tyranny is best solved by enlarging the republic. Factions, or groups acting adversely to the rights of citizens and the interests of the community, can thereby be multiplied, and in their multiplicity counterbalance the pernicious effects they produce. This solution is realistic but not cynical, for it is based on the idea that even though human beings are imperfect, they are still capable of self-government.


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