1774 — First Continental Congress meets to complain about the British Parliament
1775 — Revolutionary War begins; Second Continental Congress convenes
1776 — Declaration of Independence approved by Congress on July 4
1781 — Articles of the Confederation ratified; War effectively ends
1783 — Treaty of Paris officially ends the war
1787 — Constitution ready; Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers begun
1788 — Constitution ratified
The Federalists argued for ratifying the Constitution; Anti-Federalists against ratification.
Under the Articles of Confederation, the United States of America was a 'league' of sovereign governments. The new Constitution would create a new federal government over the state governments. Those opposed to this mainly did so because they were afraid the federal government would become too powerful (hard to argue against that one in hindsight!) and because the Constitution lacked a bill of rights (later corrected, thankfully). However, the federalists made very persuasive points about the benefits of making the United States into one nation (many of those predictions came true as well).
Protecting Rights and the Public Good
People aren't always interested in doing what's best for the whole group. A shocking truth, I know! Madison wasn't so much worried about individuals as groups or factions with interests detrimental to other groups of citizens, or the nation as a whole. So he considers the options:
1. Removing the causes of factions.
2. Mitigating the negative effects of factions.
Madison rejects (1) by further breaking it down into two fixes: either destroying liberty or giving everyone the same desires. He calls the first a remedy 'worse than the disease.' The second simply ignores human nature. We will disagree over practically anything if given the chance.
This leaves (2) as the only realistic option. If a faction is in the minority, the majority can keep it under control. The really tough question is how to keep the majority from oppressing the minority or harming the nation as a whole.
To secure the public good, and private rights, against the danger of such a faction, and at the same time to preserve the spirit and the form of popular Government, is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed.Again, he breaks the solution down into two fixes (call him James 'Binary' Madison). The first is to make sure there is never a majority of people interested in the same thing. Unrealistic. So the answer is to somehow keep the majority from being able to 'concert and carry into effect schemes of oppression.'
A Democracy or a Republic?
You'll never guess how many forms of government Madison considers for the task of keeping the majority reigned in. That's right: two!
A pure democracy — or 'direct democracy' — features citizens making all government decisions directly. Imagine if all laws were passed by ballot initiatives.
A republic — or a 'representative democracy' — features elected representatives who stand between the people and the governing process.
Madison believed direct democracies are dangerous to rights and the public good:
A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of Government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party, or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is, that such Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security, or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives, as they have been violent in their deaths.A republic is therefore the cure to the ailment of factions. Hopefully, the process of having elected officials run the government will be to "refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations."
Elected officials are intended to be wiser and overall more fit for governing than the average citizen. Hence the word 'aristocracy' in this thread's title, which means rule of the best [people]. An elected aristocracy (periodically) answerable to the people is no doubt better than a hereditary aristocracy, but there's still a risk of officials gaining power under false pretenses then 'betray[ing] the interests of the people.'
Big Nation or Small Nations?
Madison argued that a larger, more diverse federal government could guard against this risk more effectively than could independent state governments. ...and gave two reasons:
I. Representatives from a larger, more diverse nation are are less likely to share interests — or, conversely, more likely to represent all interests — than smaller, less diverse nations. In contemporary terms, this is Blue State and Red State elected representatives keeping the country as a whole somewhere between Red and Blue ideals.
II. Representatives drawn from a larger nation are more likely to be fit for the duty. Same reason why large countries win more Olympic medals.
So there you have it, folks. The United States was intended to be run by a diverse group of elite citizens drawn from a large population to make better decisions for everyone than everyone would make as a group. How is it working out?