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Why “The Federalist” is awesome

December 5, 2010

The Declaration of Independence was the first official document to refer to our country as the “United States of America,” but what is often left out of history textbooks is just how unlikely it was that those states would stay “united.” From 1776 to 1787, the Articles of Confederation governed the loose ties between the thirteen original colonies, but was so filled with flaws that the central government could not effectively do anything. So, after meeting in secret from May until September of 1787, the delegates of the constitutional convention returned to their home states to present their constituents with their brain-child: the US Constitution. That said, the document we now view as the perennial symbol of freedom and liberty was extremely controversial, which is where the Federalist Papers come in.

This series of essays by Hamilton, Madison, and Jay were absolutely brilliant. By clearly articulating nearly every logistical problem the Articles presented and describing how the new Constitution would fix them, the federalist papers introduced the constitution to the people as a pragmatic approach to solving the young nation’s problems rather than a huge compromise from which no one would benefit. Among the bigger problems addressed were the following:

1. Changing or amending the Articles required unanimous consent

The young United States comprised of 13 states that were very unique, and thus they tended not to agree on many things. So, just about any proposed change to the Articles that was good for one state would not be good for another (thus why the Articles were never changed).  Madison argues in Federalist 43 that the new constitution would simply require reciprocity rather than compromise and would provide the nation with an independent judiciary to prevent tyranny of the majority.

2. The national government was too weak

The reason most people came to the colonies in the first place was to escape a country with a strong central government, so obviously they would be likely to reject any notion of a strong central government in the New World. Hamilton argues in Federalist 9 that states had to work together to shape one political identity, or else the republic would be left vulnerable to attack and corruption. Among the institutions needed for a reasonable level of unity were a national currency, unified armed forces, and means to regulate commerce between the states.

3. No separation of powers

This, in my opinion, was the biggest reason the Articles of Confederation needed changing.  From a political theory standpoint, people need to be able to trust their government, which requires mechanisms for laws to be enforced independently from those who make it and for unfair laws to be invalidated. The unicameral legislature under the Articles of Confederation simply made laws; it had no police force wandering from town to town making sure no other political body was declaring war on other nations or deciding disputes between states (two of the few real powers of the legislature). It also had no way of ensuring that laws that benefitted some but severely oppressed others (e.g. gay rights in the 21st cent.). Hamilton advocates for the separation of powers in Federalist 47 by highlighting the constitution’s safeguards against the abuse of one branch of government by another (veto power, judicial review, etc.).

 

The Federalist Papers are unique in this class, as they are the only literature we have read that describes a detailed, pragmatic approach to government wholly within a political context. While there is no perfect way to govern a people, Madison, Hamilton, and Jay take a list of problems facing a young nation and address how the constitution will serve to address each one of those problems. One problem I have with a lot of works of political theory is that they try to make blanket statements about humanity and morality when it is impossible to do so. The best political writing takes real problems and finds the solution that will do the most good for the most people, and that is what The Federalist does.

3 Comments
  1. December 5, 2010 9:28 PM

    I definitely agree with you that The Federalist Papers are incredible and brilliantly-made. I really like American history so I was thrilled when we read the Federalist. One thing that I think you should definitely not forget about is the fact that most people didn’t necessarily come to the colonies to escape big government. There were a ton of factors that made, or even forced, them to come to the New World. I think it is also really important to remember that a lot of people viewed this new Constitution with great worry: probably the biggest problem was that people’s civil liberties would not be protected. The Federalist Papers were a way to gain support for this new Constitution. Later on Madison basically fixed everything by writing a Bill of Rights that guaranteed civil liberties and added it on to the Constitution in 1791. That was what destroyed the anti-Federalists who didn’t support it and made the people adopt it as the new form of government that we still have today.

  2. Will Butler permalink
    December 6, 2010 2:20 AM

    This is my third political science class and the last two I took were solely focused on American politics and I came to the same conclusion. Through out my studies here, I have developed so much respect for the founders, their ideas, and their ability to design a constitution and the structural framework for a nation. While each of them had different ideas and disagreed often, they truly were geniuses. While there are certain problems and inefficiencies, to build a constitution that has lasted this long is the mark of brilliant men.

  3. Eric Tellem permalink
    December 6, 2010 8:36 AM

    Like the article, I to believe the federalist papers were one of the only literatures that “describes a detailed, pragmatic approach to government wholly within a political context. “Not only did these papers persuade voters to ratify the constitution, but it also solidified the great idea of having separation of powers. The federalists knew that the members of each branch should stay independent of each other in order to prevent a mixture of order. They also knew that the obligations of the government were to provide safety and protection to all its citizens equally. Rather than other political documents, the federalists truly recognized and addressed the problems at hand.

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