America’s Long Journey: The Federalist

How the Constitutional convention even came to be convened is a story unlikely enough in itself, as we shall see. That a convention that was a collision of irreconcilables nonetheless produced a workable result is even less likely. Nonetheless, it happened, and the more closely you look at the process, the more clearly you see the hand of destiny, or what a more religious age would have called divine providence. Never in history was one nation blessed with the coordinated efforts of so many brilliant men – many of whom rarely agreed upon any other public issue in their whole lives. Take, for instance, the story of The Federalist.

The Philadelphia Convention sent its proposed Constitution to the Confederation Congress, which, in September, 1787, submitted it to the states for ratification. New York had an active anti-federalist movement led by Governor George Clinton, and articles critical of the proposed new government soon began appearing in New York newspapers. Alexander Hamilton, although dissatisfied with the proposed Constitution, regarded it as vastly better than the Confederation government. He decided it was time for counter-measures. He knew both James Madison and John Jay as ardent and articulate proponents of reform. An experienced and often brilliant journalistic duelist, he enlisted them to join him in writing articles defending the proposed Constitution.

(If you are wondering where Jefferson was in this effort, he was in Paris, representing the Confederation government. But even if he had been in America, he might not have advocated ratification. He had his serious doubts about the proposed document.)

Jay had succinctly described the existing situation: “The Congress under the Articles of Confederation may make war, but are not empowered to raise men or money to carry it on—they may make peace, but without power to see the terms of it observed—they may form alliances, but without ability to comply with the stipulations on their part—they may enter into treaties of commerce, but without power to enforce them at home or abroad.”

So – to the attack! The articles were written over the pseudonym “Publius.” (Publius Valerius, also known as Publicola – “friend of the people” – was one of the founders of the Roman republic, as the educated of the day would know.) Hamilton’s first essay (known as Federalist No. 1) promised that subsequent articles would cover six topics:

  1. “The utility of the UNION to your political prosperity.”
  2. “The insufficiency of the present Confederation to preserve that Union.”
  3. “The necessity of a government at least equally energetic with the one proposed to the attainment of this object.”
  4. “The conformity of the proposed constitution to the true principles of republican government.”
  5. “Its analogy to your own state constitution.”
  6. “The additional security which its adoption will afford to the preservation of that species of government, to liberty and to prosperity.”

A few of the most-cited papers:

No. 14 returns to the question of the size of the republic, which to some men born and raised to think of their State as “my country” seemed unmanageably huge.

No. 10 argues for a strong, extensive republic as a better guard against the dangers of faction than a smaller one.

The authors were vigorous and prolific. Between October, 1787, and August, 1788, Hamilton wrote and published 51 articles, Madison 26, and Jay (who wrote four and then fell ill), five. Sometimes three or four new essays by Publius would appear in print in the same week.

No. 39 discusses the nature of a true republic, which Publius argues had not yet been seen anywhere. (He sets out three necessary principles for a true republic: the consent of the people, government by elected representatives, and limitations on their terms of service.)

No. 51 describes the idea behind the separation of powers: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”

No. 78 discusses the federal judiciary, and judicial review, as a protection against Congressional abuse of power.

Late in 1788, a two-volume book simply titled The Federalist was published in New York, compiling all 85 articles and essays.

The Federalist was written specifically to build popular support for ratification by the State of New York. But – did it? New York’s vote to ratify came after Virginia’s ratification, which was the tenth. And that was just as well, since New York had elected 46 Anti-Federalists delegates to its ratification convention, and only 19 Federalists. But with the Union assured, was New York going to allow itself to be on the outside looking in? And Virginia’s vote for ratification almost certainly owed more to George Washington’s endorsement, and the advocacy of Madison and Governor Edmund Randolph at the convention, than to anything that appeared in print.

So maybe those brilliant essays didn’t really affect the ratification fight. Who knows? Who cares? What they did accomplish was impressive enough. The essays are considered to be the major contemporary interpretation of the Constitution, persuasive enough to have affected the views of generations of students, authoritative enough to have been cited in countless judicial decisions. Yet, at the same time, they rise to the level of literature in a way that precious few such documents ever do.

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