The Federalist papers, the federalist debates

Posted on February 26, 2019. Filed under: Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , , , |

Hello and welcome to a replay of our series on the Federalist debates. We have to admit that this was a topic we avoided for a long time here on the HP; somehow these impassioned, immediate debates over the very nature of our founding principles, carried out with and for the general public, have failed to capture the imagination. Part of this, perhaps, is because the Federalist debates are one of the worst-taught areas of U.S. history in American schools. You’re told there was a debate over whether to have a strong federal government, the Anti-Federalists are represented as idiots fighting an obviously good idea, and you’re sat down to read a laboriously expressed Federalist Paper or two, and that’s that. The debates seem pointless, and the Papers seem unreadable.

The debates weren’t pointless, however, and the Anti-Federalists weren’t idiots. And “Federalist” search activity here at the HP has moved us to repost. Enjoy!


The Papers can be dense: classical references; long, semi-historical digressions; sentences that are a full paragraph long, using more semi-colons than even the HP would dare. But generally when they have a point to make they hammer it home with minimal rhetoric and maximum good sense. So we’re going to quote from some of the Papers in this series, to make our own points. (We are also indebted to the powerhouse lectures on the Federalist debates of Dr. Thomas Pangle, UT Austin, for the flow of our series.)

We do this because Americans in the 21st century are still having the Federalist debates. The questions the anti-Federalists raised are still valid today, and not just for that minority of Americans who want to dismantle the federal government completely. The questions the anti-Federalists raised, and the answers the Federalists gave, are eerily modern, and the most eerie part is that Federalists like Hamilton explicitly stated in 1787 that they were thinking forward hundreds of years, trying in vain to fully anticipate the problems the nation would face centuries after them, and trying to build in protections for the government and liberties for the people to preserve freedom in the face of threats they could not even imagine. As Hamilton put it, in Papers 23 and 34 (the capital letters are his, not ours):

“IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO FORESEE OR DEFINE THE EXTENT AND VARIETY OF NATIONAL EXIGENCIES, OR THE CORRESPONDENT EXTENT AND VARIETY OF THE MEANS WHICH MAY BE NECESSARY TO SATISFY THEM. The circumstances that endanger the safety of nations are infinite, and for this reason no constitutional shackles can wisely be imposed on the power to which the care of it is committed. This power ought to be coextensive with all the possible combinations of such circumstances… We must bear in mind that we are not to confine our view to the present period, but to look forward to remote futurity. Constitutions of civil government are not to be framed upon a calculation of existing exigencies, but upon a combination of these with the probable exigencies of ages… There ought to be a CAPACITY to provide for future contingencies as they may happen; and as these are illimitable in their nature, it is impossible safely to limit that capacity.”

These remarkable statements not only anticipate cyber-age threats no one could have dreamed of even 40 years ago, let alone 227 years ago; they also describe an argument about government power that is whipsawing American society today as we face the reality of NSA surveillance.

But that’s leaping ahead. Let’s start this series with a quick update to refresh the collective memory:

The Articles of Confederation adopted during the Revolutionary War by the Continental Congress established, as the name says, a confederacy: a league of friendship between sovereign political entities—in this case, the 13 states. The federal government, which consisted of a single-house Congress, did not impinge on the sovereignty of these states very much: it was authorized to handle foreign policy, national defense, disputes between states, interstate commerce, and legislating for new territories under U.S. control but not yet organized into states.

There was general concern that the states were headed for disputes that the weak federal government would not be able to resolve. Populist state governments were making zealous proclamations/warnings about maintaining their sovereignty, and it seemed increasingly likely that if the U.S. did face an external threat, like war with Britain or Spain, the federal government would be powerless to stop each individual state from going its own way—making separate peace treaties, or joining blocs of states that followed different policies, or refusing to pay federal taxes needed to levy an army in favor of prepping its own militia to defend its own borders and nothing else.

James Madison of Virginia and Alexander Hamilton of New York were the main leaders of a convention called to revise and edit the Articles of Confederation in the summer of 1787 in Philadelphia. The delegates to the convention met in secret, which worried many Americans, who were afraid they would make and pass substantial changes to the government without public input, and present the new Articles as a done deal after the fact. Those fears were realized in part when the delegates decided not to revise the Articles but to scrap them completely and write a new document. But fears that the new document would be railroaded through were not realized.

This is one of the amazing facts about the Constitution: the finished document was not referred back to the existing Congress for approval (many Americans think that members of Congress met at the convention, but while some delegates were also members of Congress, most were not; they were specially appointed by their states to go to the convention). The new Constitution was also not sent to the state governments for ratification. Instead, the proposed Constitution was sent directly to special conventions set up in each state and made up of delegates elected directly by the people. The Founders’ faith in the people, and their dedication to creating a republic where the people ruled, was unprecedented in western history. As the first Federalist Paper put it:

“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.”

In other words, the American people will decide what system of government they will have because they have earned that right, “by their conduct and example”. A people so devoted to liberty, as proved by their conduct in fighting the Revolutionary War, must be “capable of establishing good government from reflection and choice.”

And so the debates in the special conventions began, and the Anti-Federalists and Federalists began their writing campaign to instruct and sway the people. The Federalist Papers, as well as the many documents written by the Anti-Federalists (they have no one unifying name) were published in newspapers and broadsides from October 1787 through August 1788, as the state ratifying conventions met, to educate the people about the issues at stake so they could influence their state conventions. It was a remarkable campaign on both sides to impact a vote not with lies, scandal, rumors, or personal attacks, but with logic, reason, examples, and thoughtful questions. Passions ran high, to be sure, but the passion was for the truth, and the best form of government, not for personal or party gain.

We won’t address every issue canvassed during the campaign to ratify or reject the Constitution, but we will look at those which are most pertinent to us today, in our “remote futurity”, so that we can call upon the Founders once again to help us decide our important issues of good government.

Next time: the pros and cons of big government

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The Constitution and Slavery

Posted on April 7, 2008. Filed under: Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , , |

We the people… whenever we see it, we ask ourselves who they were. We ask ourselves about slavery. Just like the Founders did.


For people who are often accused of “not caring” about slavery, the Founders spilled a lot of ink arguing about it. Just as the Declaration of Independence dealt with slavery, so did the Constitution. People still thought and hoped slavery was just about to die on its own. But since it hadn’t died, yet, the same problem arose as had arisen in 1776: how do we deal with slavery when founding a nation on natural rights?


Well, the answer is to get rid of slavery. So why didn’t they?


Because the slaveholding states threatened to break up the Union if slavery was abolished. The question at the time was, do you want an imperfect United States or no United States at all? The states in which slavery was protected, where slavery was crucial to the state economy and social structure (almost all southern states), were serious in their answer. They were not about to remain part of a union that abolished slavery.


When you look at all the demands slave states made at the Constitutional Convention, you see both how radically they would have changed the United States, and how hard antislavery delegates had to fight to control them. Slaveholding states wanted to maintain or expand the slave trade (keep slave ships going to and from Africa) and hopefully take it over and run it themselves, supplying the world with slaves. They wanted no federal restrictions on slavery in the western territories, and a specific section of the Constitution prohibiting any federal restriction of the rights of slaveholders—that is, a guaranty that slavery would not just be allowed, but allowed to flourish. It was clear that the southern states would leave the union if a national emancipation policy was ever attempted. See Joseph Ellis’ fantastic book Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation for a full examination of this.


So we see that it wasn’t so much “the Founders” or “uncaring northerners” or even “the Constitution” that allowed slavery to exist. It was a concrete group of southern slaveholding delegates and politicians, led by James Madison, who threatened to leave the Union and destroy it if slavery was not protected.


We know that organizing representation to Congress was the biggest headache facing the delegates, and slavery was part of it. The solution of the three-fifths clause, which counted three-fifths of the number of enslaved Americans as population, is shameful. But delegates accepted it, relying on the imminent death of slavery to make the question moot, and again, unwilling to sacrifice the entire experiment of America over slavery. Their feeling was, get the nation stabilized, and then we can perfect it. We see that as a cop-out, but at least it came after 12 years of constant churn and effort. We often lose our collective will today after much less time and almost no effort at all.


While slavery was protected from abolition by the Constitution, and the slave trade could not be abolished for 20 years after ratification (1808), the document itself never uses the word slavery. Why? Because people were embarrassed and ashamed to put that word into the Constitution. Because they knew it was wrong. Just as the Declaration put in Happiness instead of Property, the Constitution put in interests instead of slavery.


The Constitution was written; now it had to be ratified by popularly elected state legislatures. And here’s where we see that it wasn’t a small group of rich white wig-wearers who dictated the course of American history.


The American public was utterly passionate about the Constitution. They weren’t going to just ratify whatever they were given. And they weren’t going to let the issue get strangled in red-tape and delay. In short, they didn’t leave it to the politicians. In Pennsylvania, when the state assembly fell short of a quorum to call a state ratifying convention, a mob dragged two assemblymen from their homes to the State house, forcing them to stay while the assembly voted.


Americans also clamored for a Bill of Rights. Why? Because they wanted those original natural rights to be explicitly protected by the new government. Americans were not pretending to carry the revolution from the battlefield to the legislature; they were really doing it.


With human rights on their minds, Americans faced the compromises over slavery. Most were not happy with them. But in the end, most Americans agreed that the experiment was not worth abandoning over slavery. It seems like a cop-out to us today, knowing that it would take a civil war to end slavery, but it is actually true that in 1787, many Americans believed slavery would die out within a generation. And what would guaranty that process more firmly than establishing a democratic union? What good would it do to insist on abolishing slavery now, thought people in 1787, thus driving the southern states out of the union? That way, slavery was guaranteed to go on in the south. But if those southern states were coaxed into the democratic union, slavery would end. Northern states were passing gradual emancipation acts; so would the south.


The Constitution was ratified, but it was close. The nation was established. It was a remarkable achievement. We’ve seen that the nation really was founded on revolutionary ideals, and that all those ideals were not betrayed by the Founders. The inclusion of slavery in the new nation was a problem and a mistake, but it was not the result of apathy or complacence. Slavery was protected because the Founders, and most Americans, could not bear to destroy the nation by abolishing slavery and losing the southern states of the union.


Today, we think that would have been preferable. Why not just lose the south and create a free union with the states that were left? It would have been better. But in reality, if the southern states had seceded in 1787, the likelihood of the remaining states banding together was small. We’ve seen that the states had only the loosest ties with each other, and almost no loyalty to each other. If some left, others would go, too, unable to resist the lure of sovereignty. Americans at the time knew this.


The Constitution sums up the achievements of the Founding Generation, both the men in the paintings and the people at large. No people had ever formed a working government based on natural rights before. Hammering out ways to guaranty fair representation to the government, prevent government tyranny, and protect individual rights was blood, sweat, and tears difficult. Ending slavery, so insidiously entwined in southern American life and northern American commerce, “was a challenge on the same gigantic scale as these achievements.” [Ellis 108] It was not done in one generation, not even a generation so remarkable as the Founding Generation. But the wheels were set in motion. A person born in 1787 could live to see the Civil War fought, and slavery ended; the span of one long life was all it took to finally make good on the Constitution’s promise of liberty and equality.


So. Can you be proud of the Founders of your nation? Yes. Absolutely. They did the impossible. And by Founders I mean all Americans, not just the men in the paintings. The Founding Generation. The challenge of creating the United States was mind-boggling. We take it for granted today. We take the intelligence and creativity and passion and struggle of the Founding generation for granted. As if the rules were clear and they just had to write them down.


But America is exceptional. An exception to all rules. We were the first people to found a long-term working government dedicated to the preservation of natural rights. Today as I write, nations with this form of government are still in the minority. It’s very hard to live up to the principles of natural rights. We fail at it all the time. But we do also succeed at it. And we have a responsibility to do so.

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The Articles of Confederation: Not Totally Lame!

Posted on April 7, 2008. Filed under: Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , |

The problem the Founders grappled with when writing the Articles of Confederation was how to create a workable government without authorizing a tyranny. How do you keep life, liberty, and happiness for all while subjecting all to a central authority which must make general laws?


We’re so used to hearing about this struggle that it bores us, because we know the problem was eventually solved by the Constitution. It’s like knowing how a book ends before you read it. There’s no suspense for us. No tension. Plus, with hindsight, the solutions the Constitution came up with seem so obvious. But think about it. Usually  new governments struggle not with how to make everyone happy, but with individuals fighting for power. Each revolutionary leader is fighting to establish his faction, to grab power. The people are just a labor source, mob power, or cannon fodder.


But in America, the argument, struggle, and problem was not how to get power but how to give it away. How to have a workable government that didn’t trample people’s natural rights. The Founders would not take the easy way out and just give someone power to tell the people what to do. They wouldn’t even allow an executive branch to be created, because they were afraid if power was represented by the body of one person, he would become a dictator not only from his own greed, but because the people themselves would gladly give up their rights to a powerful leader. The Founders resisted the urge to fall back on the familiar.


And all this in a time of war. The Revolution was not going well in 1777, when the Articles of Confederation were written. If ever there was a time when people might be forgiven for assigning power to one person who could unify and lead them, it was then. But even in this time of ultimate crisis, when the federal government was broke and could not pay Washington or his army, the men who were dying for the independence of America, the Founders would not institute unfair taxes, would not assign an executive, would not give up on trying to establish a fair government, would not give up on the ideals of revolution. War is usually the ultimate excuse for abuse of power, or failure to live up to high ideals. Not for the Founders.


And, when the Founders finally had the Articles of Confederation, and saw that they just didn’t create the best government for the people, they came back and went through the whole agonizing process again, and wrote a new set of rules—the Constitution. That’s dedication. That’s inspiration. That’s stamina.


So instead of seeing a string of half-assed failures leading up to the Constitution, we should see a gritty resolve to make the dream a reality that no amount of hardship could weaken.

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