“It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”
– Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 1
The Constitution of the United States is one of the most important documents in American History, and it caused its share of controversy when it was first proposed. The Federalist Papers were written to defend it, and to convince the American people of its merits. Consisting of 85 essays, the Federalist Papers were written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, and covered six basic arguments:
- Why and how America would be more prosperous politically and economically as a union than as independent states, or a loose coalition.
- That the Confederacy was not strong enough to keep the states together.
- The need for a stronger government to preserve the union (resulting in prosperity).
- That the proposed constitution is in line with the principles of republican government.
- How the Constitution is similar to existing state constitutions.
- Adopting the Constitution will secure republican liberties, not infringe on them.
Keep in mind that the Federalist is only one side of the debate. There were many prominent figures on the opposite side, and the reader must decide for himself whether the arguments with which the authors back up these bold assertions are sufficient. Whether or not you agree with them will most likely depend on your own political philosophy, rather than the authors’ persuasive powers.
I could not possibly cover all the essays in one post, and some of them are now outdated and irrelevant, due to changes in our political system, but I will link to a few of my favorites, and summarize them.
The Federalist 10: The Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection
Madison argues that one of the main dangers of a “popular government” is its propensity to divide people into factions, (by which Madison specifically means a group motivated by a common cause or belief that is antagonistic to the beliefs of other citizens, not just a difference of opinion), and the chaos caused by these factions clashing. To avoid this danger, one can:
- Remove the cause or
- Control the effects
Within option one, there are two ways to remove the cause: by taking away liberty, or by brainwashing everyone into having identical beliefs and goals. Neither of these is an acceptable solution (and the second one is impossible), so Madison moves on to option two: controlling the effects.
This is most difficult if the troublesome factor makes up a majority of the population, since a popular government is supposed to carry out the will of the majority, and this is one reason that America is a republic, not a democracy. Governing by representation rather than a direct democracy helps to control factions, because issues are decided by men at one remove from the concern, and thus able to look at the matter with more fairness, and the bigger the republic the better, since the sheer number of people makes it less likely that a majority will agree on something that hurts the public welfare. It does happen occasionally, but less often.
Some of these arguments are countered by the two party system we have set up now, but it is still a fine piece of reasoning.
In No. 37, Madison explains how difficult was the task of the constitutional convention, and how impossible to get everything exactly right. The founding fathers never expected a perfect government, but they were striving for balance. They intentionally set people’s personal interests against one another. No. 38 continues this theme, going back into the history of Greece to further illustrate how difficult a task the convention has undertaken. Madison also attacks the arguments of the anti-federalists, showing that their objections are incoherent and they do not even agree with each other—there is no unity in their dissent. In addition, many of the things they dislike about the Constitution are even worse in the Articles of Confederation. No. 39 argues that the Constitution conforms to republican principles, and explains the difference between the terms “federal” and “national”.
Hamilton describes the role of the judicial branch in this essay (the subject is continued in No. 79), how the judges will be appointed, the length of their tenure, and why it is essential that the judicial branch be independent from the legislative.
Overall, I prefer Madison’s style of writing to Hamilton’s. He lays out his arguments very logically, and is more even-handed as he deals with the questions raised by the opposition.
The Federalist is excellent to read in small doses; if too much is attempted in one sitting the topics tend to run together.
When I was about three quarters of the way through the essays, it occurred to me that perhaps I should have re-read the constitution before starting them. I’ve read it a few times, for different courses in high school and college, but it has been a while. For others embarking on The Federalist Papers, I would recommend you begin by re-familiarizing yourself with the constitution, as it will help you follow the arguments.
If The Federalist Papers looks interesting to you, you might also enjoy:
Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville
The Constitution of the United States
The Articles of Confederation
The Anti-Federalist Papers (I read a few of these as I was going through Federalist, and it was interesting to see the other side of the argument.)
If you’re feeling especially ambitious you could even look into:
Leviathan, by Thomas Hobbes
Two Treatises on Government, by John Locke
The Rights of Man, by Thomas Paine
The Spirit of Laws, by Charles de Montesquieu