Shay’s rebellion

Shay’s rebellion

As usual, the deck was stacked. The poor and dispossessed had no way to obtain justice save organized resistance to the institutions oppressing them. That resistance evoked the predictable counter-reaction among the rich and powerful decrying “mob rule.” Financial power financed physical might, which, as usual, prevailed. But, in the tangled way that history sometimes works, Shay’s Rebellion may have helped the American experiment in republican government to succeed by showing the weakness of the Confederation government.

It was 1785. The Revolutionary War was over – had been over for two years – but its economic consequences continued to accumulate. Massachusetts merchants were being squeezed by their European trading partners, who had been glad to extend credit to them while they were British, but now would sell only for hard money – that is, gold or silver: specie. The merchants, in turn, began demanding specie from their local business partners, who of course then made the same demand of their customers. But coins were in short supply.

That was bad enough in the coastal areas, which lived by trade with the other colonies, with the West Indies, with Europe. Even in bad times, cash was the norm. But towns in the state’s central and western regions saw little cash even in good times; they often bartered for goods or services, or obtained goods on credit and repaid when crops were in. When a subsistence economy suddenly is required to conform to the norms of a market economy – well, it can’t. People started losing their land to foreclosure for commercial debt, and for taxes. Adding insult to injury – or perhaps we should say, adding insult and injury to injury – many of these hard-pressed inhabitants were veterans of the war who were owed back pay and couldn’t get it.

Daniel Shays was one of these former soldiers. He and others began organizing protests such as had already occurred in 1782 and 1783. After those earlier protests, the people had requested that the state legislature issue paper money, but the legislature was dominated by the very merchants who were the lenders. The last thing they were going to do was risk currency inflation that would dilute the value of the money they were owed.

In 1785, merchant James Bowdoin was elected governor. He stepped up civil actions to collect back taxes, and the legislature made matters worse by levying an additional property tax to raise funds for the state’s portion of foreign debt. In the summer of 1786, the legislature adjourned without considering any of the petitions from the rural populace. Should it have been a surprise when people took to direct action?

In August, protestors prevented a county court from sitting, trying to halt the foreclosure process. Other states had faced similar protests, and had solved it, as usual, by calling out the militia. (It is worth noting that in Rhode Island, what was called the “country party” gained control of the legislature in 1786 and forced merchants to trade debt instruments for devalued currency, which resolved the problem. Not Massachusetts.) But when Governor Bowdoin did call out the county militia, after another court had been shut down by organized protest, he found that the men were in sympathy with the protestors, and refused to turn out.

In September and October, three more community protests shut down their courts, and courts in the larger towns and cities were able to meet only under militia protection. The legislature finally did make some concessions, allowing certain old taxes to be paid in goods rather than cash, but then it added measures prohibiting speech critical of the government. It offered pardons to protestors willing to take an oath of allegiance, but the protests continued.

In September, an armed confrontation between protestors led by Shays and Luke Day had been resolved without violence. In November, a posse arrested Job Shattuck and other protest leaders in the eastern part of the state. Protestors in western Massachusetts took note, and began to prepare not only to resist, but to overthrow the state government.

The Confederation government was broke as usual, and had no money for troops. So in January, 1787, the Massachusetts merchants created a privately funded militia of 3,000 men, which marched westward. The rebels established regional regimental organizations, and targeted the federal armory in Springfield. After a brief battle, the rebels were chased north and scattered, many escaping into New Hampshire and Vermont, which refused to yield them up to Massachusetts authorities.

The only measures the state legislature took were designed to deal with the act, not the causes, of rebellion. It passed bills authorizing martial law, and the recruitment of additional militia, and state payments to reimburse merchants for funding their private army. It passed the Disqualification Act, forbidding acknowledged rebels from holding certain elected and appointed offices. After government control was reestablished, most of the rebels were pardoned under a general amnesty. Of 18 leaders convicted and sentenced to death, all but two were freed. Two were hanged.

But Governor Bowdoin lost the gubernatorial election of April 1787. Governor John Hancock and the newly elected legislature cut taxes, placed a moratorium on debts, and Massachusetts securities fell by 30% as interest payments fell into arrears. (This was of course regarded by the merchant class as a far greater calamity than people losing their farms to foreclosure.)

But more to the point – perhaps the second-greatest good derived from the doomed rebellion, after the defeat of Bowdoin and his legislature – was the effect on statesmen throughout the 13 former colonies. The lesson they took away was not that economic oppression leads to desperation, but that the Confederation government was too weak to sustain itself. Ironically, Shay’s rebellion strengthened the Federalists in the convention that would shortly meet in Philadelphia.

Virginia, New Jersey, compromise

Virginia, New Jersey, compromise

The 13 former colonies were of three different cultures – New England, Southern, and middle – with somewhat different economic interests. They were of wildly different sizes, ranging from tiny Rhode Island to mammoth Virginia, which then incorporated the area that later became Kentucky and West Virginia. Yes, they spoke a common language and the white men (most of them) were of common ancestry. Yes, they had more or less pulled in the same direction during the long war against England. And yes, they recognized that in a world hostile to republics, they had better remain united if possible. But the practical obstacles were so great! How do you start with such mixed ingredients and federate them into a political unit that they all can live with?

One thing you do is elect George Washington as president of the Constitutional Convention. As Jefferson said to him in another context, “North and South will hang together, if they can hang on you.”

Another thing you do is hope that the various States send enough delegates of exceptional intelligence, experience and public-spiritedness to outnumber their duller, less experienced, and less idealistic colleagues, which happened. Of the 55 representatives of the States who actually attended (out of 70 appointed), more than half had been trained as lawyers, but the gathering included representatives of the professions and trades, and smallholders. Most had government experience, including several who had been governors. Most were past or present members of the Confederation Congress, many during the Revolution. Most were substantial landowners, most were wealthy. Twenty-five, or nearly half, were slaveholders.

The third thing you do is to pray for a miracle. In theory, the Convention was supposed to revise the Articles of Confederation, which functioned more like a treaty among nations than a government. (To put it into modern terms, it was more like NATO than like France or Germany.) And, remember, allegiance to their own colony, or colony turned State, is what these men knew. When Jefferson said “my country” he meant, not the 13 States, but Virginia. To turn 13 states into a nation would require a miracle, nothing less.

The delegates took a while to arrive. But Madison was there almost two weeks early, and he had a plan, and while he and other delegates waited for a quorum to assemble, he discussed it with them. Even before the gathering convened, delegates from Pennsylvania and Virginia had informally agreed to support Madison, and that became the convention’s point of departure.

Virginia governor Edmund Randolph presented it, and it became known as the Virginia plan. It envisaged the United States as a republic (in which the people elect representatives), rather than a confederation (in which the representatives are appointed by states ). It proposed a bicameral legislature, in which the lower house, after having been elected by the people, would elect both the executive and the upper house. Unlike today’s Senate, in the Virginia Plan, both houses were to be proportional to population.

Most features of Madison’s plan were familiar to these former Englishmen. English law had defined separate legislative and executive functions. English practice had accustomed them to bicameral legislatures. The idea of an upper house to check the passions of the lower house was supported by experience as well as theory, although it wasn’t clear who (in the absence of a hereditary aristocracy) should fill it. In addition, Madison created a third branch of government by severing the judiciary from the executive, so as to lessen the chances of judicial corruption. While agreeing to this, delegates disagreed on who should name them. Some thought the executive, some the legislature. (The eventual compromise led to the system that we know, of executive nomination and legislative confirmation.)

However, in June, a caucus of several small states reported what became known as the New Jersey Plan, or the Small State Plan, which proposed keeping the existing system but merely strengthening certain features such as the ability to levy taxes. The fear was that in time smaller states would be overwhelmed, not only by those largest in population at the time –  Virginia, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts – but by the future growth of the Southern states.

In turn, Roger Sherman proposed what came to be called the Connecticut Compromise, leaving the lower house proportionate to population but giving each State equal numbers in the upper house, and Benjamin Franklin added the requirement that revenue bills originate in the lower house, and made the members of the upper house free agents, rather than representatives of their states voting on instruction of their state legislatures.

As we all know, in the final document the lower house did not elect either the upper house or the president. The president was to be chosen by an electoral college, or by the lower house with each state having one vote if no candidate obtained an electoral college majority.

How the upper house was to be composed, and whether slaves were to be included in enumeration for representation, and whether the slave trade should be abolished, and the nature and tenure of the executive and judiciary branches were the most divisive issues. They were important issues, but we can’t stop to discuss them. With these things settled (as, for instance, by the three-fifths compromise), the rest was easy.

Shortly before the document was to be signed, it was proposed to lower the size of congressional districts from 40,000 to 30,000 citizens – in other words, to bring the government closer to the people by expanding the number of representatives. Here George Washington made his one substantive contribution: He said he agreed with the proposal – and the Convention adopted it without further debate.

On September 17, 1787, the final draft of the Constitution was signed and sent to the Confederation Congress for submittal to the people. As the final delegates were signing the document, Franklin commented on the painting of a sun behind Washington’s chair at the front of the room. He said he often looked at the painting, “without being able to tell, whether it was rising or setting. But now at length, I have the happiness to know it is a rising, and not a setting sun.”

Poor Richard at the convention

 

Poor Richard at the convention

It was Monday, September 17, 1787, the last day of the Constitutional Convention.

He was too old and weak for much public speaking, but Benjamin Franklin could still express himself clearly and concisely. He wrote out a little speech and asked one of his fellow Pennsylvania delegates to read it on his behalf. Here, with the silent addition of a little extra paragraphing for the sake of easier reading, is Poor Richard’s admonition to his colleagues.

“Mr. President,

“I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them: For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others.

“Most men indeed as well as most sects in Religion, think themselves in possession of all truth, and that wherever others differ from them it is so far error. Steele a Protestant in a Dedication tells the Pope, that the only difference between our Churches in their opinions of the certainty of their doctrines is, the Church of Rome is infallible and the Church of England is never in the wrong. But though many private persons think almost as highly of their own infallibility as of that of their sect, few express it so naturally as a certain French lady, who in a dispute with her sister, said `I don’t know how it happens, Sister but I meet with no body but myself, that’s always in the right.’

“In these sentiments, Sir, I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such; because I think a general Government necessary for us, and there is no form of Government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered, and believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in Despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic Government, being incapable of any other. I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution. For when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected?

“It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our enemies, who are waiting with confidence to hear that our councils are confounded like those of the Builders of Babel; and that our States are on the point of separation, only to meet hereafter for the purpose of cutting one another’s throats. Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure, that it is not the best. The opinions I have had of its errors, I sacrifice to the public good. I have never whispered a syllable of them abroad. Within these walls they were born, and here they shall die.

“If every one of us in returning to our Constituents were to report the objections he has had to it, and endeavor to gain partisans in support of them, we might prevent its being generally received, and thereby lose all the salutary effects & great advantages resulting naturally in our favor among foreign Nations as well as among ourselves, from our real or apparent unanimity. Much of the strength & efficiency of any Government in procuring and securing happiness to the people, depends on opinion, on the general opinion of the goodness of the Government, as well as of the wisdom and integrity of its Governors. I hope therefore that for our own sakes as a part of the people, and for the sake of posterity, we shall act heartily and unanimously in recommending this Constitution (if approved by Congress & confirmed by the Conventions) wherever our influence may extend, and turn our future thoughts & endeavors to the means of having it well administered.

“On the whole, Sir, I can not help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention who may still have objections to it, would with me, on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility, and to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument.”

And with that, Franklin’s long useful life was pretty much completed. He had done what he could to provide posterity with “a republic, if you can keep it.”

America’s Long Journey: Three-fifths of a man

Three-fifths of a man

It was spelled out in the first sentence of the second section of the Constitution’s first article: “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.”

In other words, whites, whether indentured or free, would be counted one for one, but black slaves would also be counted, and 60% of their number would be added to the total for whites in the state where they were living.

The idea was logically absurd, and it had consequences that extended over three-quarters of a century – which of course means that it affected our entire national life, past, present and future – and we’d have been better off if it had never been agreed to. The only thing is, there was no choice. It was accept the three-fifths rule, or no deal.

No deal meant no new Constitution, which, under the circumstances, probably meant the loss of the last chance for the former colonies to construct a common government that would have enough strength to maintain itself. In effect, if no deal, no common future. And if the 13 former colonies once became balkanized, who could believe that they would ever again have a chance to come together?

Just as in the Continental Congress a dozen years before, when the need for unanimity allowed South Carolina to block proposals to end slavery, so in the Constitutional convention, practical politics mandated the compromise. The alternative was to let the fledgling nation split into north and south, neither of which would have been viable for long.

But the consequences weren’t negligible.

Historian Garry Wills pointed out, in The Negro President, that the defeated Federalists in 1801 were calling Jefferson the Negro President. Why? Because, without the three-fifths clause of the Constitution, what Jefferson called the second revolution wouldn’t have taken place, and Adams would have been re-elected. That’s the only presidential election that was swung by the three-fifths clause, but slaver-holder over-representation affected plenty more than that, from 1789 right down to the secession winter of 1860-61. Among the consequences Wills counted were these. Without the Constitutionally mandated over-representation of slave-owners, the following votes would have been reversed:

  • Admission of Missouri as a slave state.
  • Approval of Jackson’s policy of Indian removal.
  • Repeated failure of the Wilmot Proviso banning slavery from the territories acquired after the Mexican War.
  • Passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

And as we have seen, the indirect effects were even wider. Southerners dominated the Democratic Party, which meant that even in the North, for a politician to rise above a certain level, he had to be acceptable – or at least not objectionable — to the slave power. They came to take dominance of the federal government as their right. A lot of consequences. But even after that passage of more than 200 years, we have to ask: What choice did the makers of the Constitution have? “All or nothing” is not statesmanship, but a recipe for chaos. Politics, as has been said, is the art of the possible.

But massive European immigration into the Northern states changed the equation. (What immigrant in his right mind would move to an area where his labor had to compete with slave labor?) Southerners were soon outnumbered in the House regardless of the federal ratio. With the admission of California in 1850, they were outvoted in the Senate. When the slave power saw that the North would soon be able to elect an executive without Southern votes, it began to think about withdrawal from the Union, and in 1860, it tried secession. Only after four years of Civil War and 600,000 deaths was slavery, and thus the three-fifths rule, overturned.

That’s a lot of consequences, but there were more. Wills quotes Leonard Richards: “In the sixty-two years between Washington’s election and the Compromise of 1850, for example, slaveholders controlled the presidency for fifty years, the Speaker’s chair for forty-one years, and the chairmanship of House Ways and Means [Committee] for forty-two years. The only men to be reelected President – Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and Jackson – were all slaveholders. The men who sat in the Speaker’s chair the longest – Henry Clay, Andrew Stevenson, and Nathaniel Macon – were slaveholders. Eighteen out of thirty-one Supreme Court justices were slaveholders.”

America’s Long Journey: Plato and the American revolution

Plato and the American revolution

“A republic, if you can keep it.”

The classically-educated men who were at the core of the American revolution knew what they were up against. They did their best to try to beat the odds, and died wondering if they had succeeded. In the short run, clearly, they had not failed. But had they found a formula for long-range success? They rather suspected that they had not. They all knew the cycle that Plato had described: Monarchy. Aristocracy. Republic. Democracy. Plutocracy. Dictatorship, and begin again with Monarchy.

They had been born into a world of monarchy. In all of Europe, with relatively trivial exceptions – the Netherlands. Switzerland, Venice – kings and queens were accepted as an inevitable, even a desirable, feature of government. The monarch’s interests were thought to be identical to those of his realm as a whole, and thus the very essence of monarchy – to turn Adams’ definition of a republic on its head – was an empire of men. and not of laws.

Remove the monarch, and a small group of men could govern, and perhaps govern pretty well. Knowing each other’s strengths and limitations, bound to each other with numerous ties of kinship and shared experience, they in effect – or anyway in theory – formed a governing class small enough to remain personal and large enough to be beyond the whims of any one individual. In a way, that is the situation these men were born into, for their king was always far away, dependent upon men who governed in his name but were somewhat dependent upon those they governed. The weakness of an aristocracy, of course, is the same as its strength. Its class limitations are likely to limit its understanding of, and its ability to represent, society as a whole.

Widen control of the government from the aristocracy to the electorate at large, and you created your empire of laws, and not of men. To the founding fathers, this was the ideal state. But what did this mean, under close examination? It didn’t mean universal suffrage, even where (as in New England) the unusual circumstance of universal literacy existed. It meant rule by those who were considered to have a stake in society, which in practice meant rule by those who owned property and could be considered to be independent of another man’s influence. Establishing the republic upon this basis was possible. But how would you prevent it from moving to Plato’s next stage, democracy? Moving from rule by one man to rule by a small interconnected group of men to rule by a qualified electorate creates a continual pressure to expand that electorate. And every such expansion leads toward rule by counting noses. Although we have been raised to think that full expansion of the electorate is the ideal, the founding fathers saw that the larger the percentage of men who voted, the smaller would be the percentage of voters who actually knew the candidates.

(Suffrage was originally restricted to white men who owned a certain minimum amount of property and had been resident in the country a certain minimum time. This excluded non-citizens, of course, and immigrants more recent than whatever limit was set, for they were assumed to have acquired too little a stake in the society to be trusted to help direct its course. Nor did it include women, for they were considered to be under the authority of their fathers or husbands; Nor mere wage earners, for they were dependent upon their employers and thus, in an age of public rather than private-ballot voting, presumably would vote as he directed. Not indentured servants, for the same reason, and not slaves or Indians because they were not considered to be part of the community. Free black men might or might not be given the vote, depending on where they lived.)

Rule by popular majority implied a descent into less stable rule, because it implied that the representatives would become increasingly responsive to the people, which meant, increasingly responsive to the people’s impulses, and whims, and prejudices, and their other short-sightedness. Worse, it implied that those with enough money to buy votes and to buy voter allegiance would obtain control of government, and rule by law would become rule by gold (plutocracy), at one remove.

Once a democracy becomes plutocracy, people don’t take a long time to become disillusioned. Once they realize that their republic has become a republic in name only, they lose their incentive to defend it, for it is no longer theirs. Thus, sooner or later, plutocracies breed dictatorship, either because one of the plutocrats beats the others to the draw or because some insider-outsider like Caesar uses the army to overthrow them before they can overthrow him.

At that point it is only a matter of time and manner before the dictator, or his successor, or his supplanter, declares himself king and the cycle begins again.

Only a very naïve observer could think that the new American republic would be immune to these dangers and tendencies, and naïve is one thing the founding fathers were not. Their attempted remedy was ingenious. Take into account the one, the few, and the many. Have a powerful executive (the one) and a bicameral legislature divided into an upper house (the few) and lower house (the many), and set an judiciary to watch them, and hope that in their mutual suspicions and fears and jealousies, they would keep each other in check.

How long it would work, only God knew, but they had done their best, and even they were divided among themselves in their opinions of how well they had done. Hamiltonians feared chaos; Jeffersonians feared tyranny. They all feared each other, and the secret forces that might be fermenting unseen. But – almost unique to revolutions – they didn’t set to killing each other. They set the machinery into motion and hoped for the best.

A republic, if you can keep it..

America’s Long Journey: The Ratification campaign

The Ratification campaign

Originally the convention was to have proposed revisions of the existing Articles of Confederation. But everybody knew that if the new Constitution were adopted, the former colonies would be embarking on uncharted waters. For that to happen, nine states – two-thirds of the 13 – would have to call conventions that voted to ratify. To put it another way, any five states could kill it by declining to ratify.

A prime weakness of the Confederation government was the need for unanimity. In practice, that meant that nothing that any one State objected to could be done. And that, in turn, meant that the Confederation lived on borrowed time. Nobody knew it better than the members of that Congress, so they decided – unanimously, by some miracle – to leave the decision to the states.

Then followed the process of ratification, State by State, in convention, and it didn’t come easy. Historians have guessed that the public was divided pretty evenly when the debates started.

Everybody knew that if any two of four states — Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia — rejected the proposed Constitution, it would probably come to nothing, regardless if the other states approved. And some heavy hitters were opposed. Thomas Paine, for one. In Massachusetts, Samuel Adams. In New York, Governor George Clinton and the whole state machinery. In Virginia, Patrick Henry. But the Federalists were not exactly helpless. In Massachusetts, John Adams. In New York, Hamilton. In Pennsylvania, Franklin, and in Virginia, Madison.

And towering over them all, the man who had presided at the convention, George Washington.

The Federalists argued that ratification was necessary to fix the obvious inadequacies of the Confederation government. To continue under a government that couldn’t make decisions except unanimously, and couldn’t even prevent the various states from each issuing its own currency would be to drift to disaster and dissolution, followed by – what? No one cared to guess.

The Anti-federalists viewed the strong central government outlined in the Constitution as a threat to liberty and a betrayal of the Revolution. They worried what would happen to the powers of the states, and argued cogently that the Constitution lacked a bill of rights.

The struggle over ratification was intense and bitter, but in every state, the Federalists were more united, and more used to working with politicians on a national level.

The turning point of the campaign probably came in Massachusetts, when Hancock and Samuel Adams negotiated a compromise: The convention would ratify, and delegates would recommend amendments to be considered by the new Congress. The Massachusetts compromise determined the fate of the Constitution, as it permitted delegates with doubts to vote for it in the hope that it would be amended. All subsequent state conventions but Maryland’s recommended amendments as part of their decisions to ratify.

And so it was done. One interesting and under-reported fact, if indeed it is fact, and not merely appearance: The smaller states, which one might have expected to be the most fearful of incorporation into a stronger central government, by and large were among the first signers, while Virginia and New York, which one might have thought would expect to extend their influence in a larger union, were far more hesitant. Nonetheless, the die was cast.

The ratifications, in the order in which they took place:

1787

Delaware (Dec. 7), Pennsylvania (Dec. 12), New Jersey (Dec. 18)

1788

Georgia (Jan. 2) Connecticut (Jan. 9)

Massachusetts (Feb. 6)

Maryland (April 28)

South Carolina (May 23)

New Hampshire, the crucial ninth state needed (June 21), Virginia (June 25)

New York (July 26)

Voting ratification after the new government was already functioning:

North Carolina (November 21, 1789)

Rhode Island (May 29, 1790)

It had been a long and hard-fought struggle, which in itself, perhaps, had encouraged people to look beyond the limits of their state, and come a step closer toward thinking of themselves not as New Yorkers or Virginians but as Americans. Shared experiences will do that.

 

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.