The Federalist Papers: The Ideas that Made America
American history is a spectacular story of people fleeing persecution in search of freedom, discovering new land, reigning victorious in a revolution against the most powerful army in the world, and then becoming the greatest nation on earth. This past week, Dr. Allen’s AP American History class discussed the political disputes of early America as well as the several compromises forged by our Founding Fathers, that henceforth shaped the nature of America’s early constitutional republic.
A defense of the early American Constitution, the Federalist Papers is a compilation of essays written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay. On the eve of the Constitution’s ratification, the question facing our early republic was whether or not human beings can define their own system of government. Can we really be free to govern ourselves? If so, what is to be done, considering that men are avaricious, power-hungry, and violently ambitious? The Federalist Papers says it all.
Prior to our Constitution, America’s Founding Fathers established The Articles of Confederation. Just like every paper slapped together the night before, the Articles were a total mess. Under the Articles, the executive branch was virtually powerless, the federal government failed to generate tax revenue, military power could be charged only by “asking very nicely,” and more. Essentially, the Articles afforded total power to the states and quite literally nothing to the federal government. Evidenced to be too weak to support the republic, the Articles were then deemed necessary to uproot in their entirety by the delegates of the Constitutional Convention, so as to empower the executive and legislative branches; however, the Framers also ensured the protection of states’ rights and the safeguarding of individual liberties.
Although the Federalist Papers explain the American constitutional system, not one of the eighty-five essays outlines the creation of the Bill of Rights. Most Americans today may assume that the Bill of Rights was at the forefront of the Framers’ minds when drafting the Constitution; although, the first ten amendments are listed as amendments for a reason. In reality, the presence of a Bill of Rights was pretty controversial, at the time. After all, a Bill of Rights expressed that the government could very well act beyond its certain powers, so long as they are not enumerated in the Bill of Rights; therefore, the Tenth Amendment states that “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Very much opposed to The Bill of Rights, Federalists like Hamilton and Madison feared that issues of certain enumerated liberties would seize the public attention, rather than the ways in which factions of government may interact in order to best prevent usurpations of public power. The American tendency to focus solely on the Bill of Rights obscures what was seen to be the chief protection of the people’s liberties: the structure of the American government. The Federalist Papers is in regards, then, solely to the structural constitution.
While compiled by three different men (some of whom bitterly disagreed with each other), what’s perhaps most interesting about the Federalist Papers is that each essay is written under one pen name: Publius, one of the first two consuls of the Roman Republic known as “the friend of the people.” Madison, Hamilton, and Jay are contributing to a work of political philosophy, as well as sheer pragmatism. Madison writes in Federalist 51, “But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” Madison encapsulates the single most important expression of the American constitutional system ever written. Some suggest that those who govern us are of high mind and sound character-the bureaucrats, if you will. If these are the wisest and greatest thinkers among us, there is no need for a system of checks and balances. Others suggest, however, that human beings are degraded, terrible, and should therefore not be afforded any rights, but to be placed in the hands of one authoritarian.
The Framers intended to avoid the establishment of a Marxist utopia while also preventing a somewhat Hobbesian Leviathan state. In Federalist 6, Hamilton writes, “Is it not time to awake from the deceitful dream of a golden age, and to adopt as a practical maxim for the direction of our political conduct, that we, as well as the other inhabitants of the globe, are yet remote from the happy empire of perfect wisdom and perfect virtue?” The Framers did not believe in the idea of man as totally depraved; yet, men are certainly not angels. The Framers recognized that a virtuous society was needed to maintain the republic. Rather than government as the unifying glue of the republic, the people shared family, church, and other social institutions to which we are all engaged. While human nature is one of greed and ambition, we are also capable of tremendous good. There is no need for government to cram down its vision of good on the people.
As such, the Constitution creates a government that is to almost always be caught in gridlock. Most of our legislatures are not obstructionists, rather they work within a system that was purposely constructed so as to prevent any usurpations of governmental power that may be precipitous or a violation of natural rights. Despite efforts to violate our ingenious system of checks and balances, it will prove almost impossible. As such, the Framers have so brilliantly foreseen the dangers of pure majoritarianism, federalism (balancing the needs of the state with the federal government), and the possibility of one branch of government growing too powerful (resolved by checks and balances). Overall, the government was constructed such that “ambition counteracts ambition,” as Madison spoke of in Federalist 51.
The foundations of a building are of more importance than the superstructure built above. In a similar way, the Federalist Papers is essentially a user’s manual, though its lesser philosophical objective is perhaps much more significant. The Federalist Papers express the philosophy of The Declaration of Independence manifested in the Constitution. The Declaration of Independence invoked God-given rights that pre-exist government that are not to be overcome by any communal interest. The only reason for government is to protect God-given rights, with the system required to do so as outlined in the Constitution. Shift the foundations of individual rights to a more communal vision, destroy the superstructure of America.
Take the shift in American government since the early twentieth century, for instance. The Progressive Era explicitly rejected the founding philosophy, the Federalist Papers deemed an anachronistic miscalibration of human nature. Supposedly governing at a time in which human nature has taken great leaps towards overcoming evil, the Progressives sought to establish a government virtually unbound. In the words of the 28th President, Woodrow Wilson, “If you want to understand the real Declaration of Independence, do not repeat the preface.” The Founders held that the nature of government is inextricably tied to a fixed and imperfect human nature. Wilson, however, claimed that government must evolve with the changing human nature, progressing beyond the limitations that the Founders identified. Far from fearing man’s capacity to form majority factions and trample on the rights of others as Publius warned in the Federalist Papers, Wilson held that human beings, now enlightened by the passage of time, could be entrusted with power without abusing it.
The Federalist Papers hold up in terms of the great durability of our governmental institutions. The fact that we have any rights at all at a time when most Americans seem on edge about the unyielding power of government goes to show that the Federalist Papers have provided a bulwark against schemes to rob the people of their rights. The Federalist Papers defines the word, “responsibility” in a way unlike any other document of political philosophy. The government is to be responsive to the people while also getting to the root of its responsibility, the sacred oath of government. At least in the broad, the structures of government rooted in the Federalist Papers have yet to be torn.