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The Federalist Papers: America Then and Now

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Recently published in the new-look Oxford World’s Classics series is an edition of The Federalist Papers, which has been edited by Lawrence Goldman. Lawrence is Tutorial Fellow of Modern History at St Peter’s College, Oxford, and has been the editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography since 2004. In the post below, Lawrence talks about how reading The Federalist Papers helps our understanding of present-day America.

The Federalist Papers comprise 85 essays published in the New York city press in the winter of 1787-88 and were written by three of the most eminent of the founding fathers of the republic: Alexander Hamilton, aide-de-camp to George Washington during the Revolutionary War and the first Secretary of the US Treasury; James Madison, the fourth president of the United States and the most influential figure in the drafting of the US Constitution in 1787; and John Jay, a leading American diplomat during the Revolution and the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. These three, all of them ‘federalists’, or supporters of the projected federal union of individual states to form the United States, came together to commend the Constitution to the people of New York in articles published every 2-3 days over several months.

During the War of Independence the thirteen former British colonies had been held together by a very weak form of national government. By the mid-1780s many Americans believed that this was no longer sufficient to meet the new challenges of nation and state formation. Through the summer of 1787 a federal Constitution was drafted at a convention of all the states in Philadelphia; it then had to be ratified by popularly-elected assemblies in each state. When 9 of 13 states had so ratified it, the Constitution would become operative and the United States created.

The state of New York – large, wealthy and populous – was crucial to the federalist design, but there was considerable opposition to joining the Union there, in a state which had fared well since independence from Britain in 1776 and in which many citizens wanted to ‘go it alone’. Hence the need to persuade the people by publishing these essays which explained and defended the draft Constitution and the need to form an American Union.

The Federalist Papers are thus a detailed account and analysis of the new Constitution, but are more than just an operational manual on how the projected federal government would work. They are also fluent philosophical discussions of the nature and purposes of government which have an important place in the development of western political thought and which may help us understand enduring American values and national character.

A first feature of the Federalist Papers is a sense of the vulnerability of the American experiment in self-government which the essays impart. The authors, reflecting their age, were critically aware of the threats to the republic they hoped to create. Some of those threats were internal, including social disorder on the one hand and the threat of tyranny on the other. Others were external, including the very real possibility that Great Britain or another of the European colonial powers might try to re-conquer the North American continent. Hence the need to form a ‘more perfect union’ with the internal strength and centralised control required to deter future aggression and defend the novelty of popular government. It could be argued that America’s peculiar sensitivity to threats of this nature, whether of internal subversion such as during the McCarthyite era, or of external aggression from nations and cultures hostile to the American way of life, as also during the Cold War, dates from the historical experience of the 1780s and is enshrined in the discussion in the Federalist Papers. In Europe it is now customary to think Americans rather too quick to imagine themselves beset by enemies and thus too ready to adopt aggressive or threatening policies. A reading of the Federalist Papers suggests that concern over the vulnerability of the American republic has been an aspect of an enduring national perspective.

A second enduring aspect of these essays is the counterpoint in the American mind between idealism and realism. The Federalist Papers display both of the American behavioural archetypes so beloved of modern commentaries on the United States and its people. On the one hand there is an element of the utopian about them as the authors commend to their readers an entirely innovative form of government unlike any elsewhere on the globe. They capture the optimism and enthusiasm of the American spirit. On the other hand, the psychological foundations of the essays are intensely realistic and pragmatic: the authors also adopt an unflattering view of human nature which is frequently presented as avaricious, factional, and selfish, and for that reason needs to be controlled and directed by a stronger central government than had existed hitherto among the newly-independent states. Men are sometimes angels but are more often not: for that reason they need the guiding hand of a central government.

What follows from this is another revealing tension between a republic of virtue and a republic of laws. Hitherto in human history, as the Federalist Papers make clear, it had been accepted that self-government in a republic required, above all, individual and public virtue: if men and women were morally good in themselves and careful for the civic good as well, they might be able to govern themselves; if not, republics must fall. But what happens to this traditional view of republicanism if, in reality, men and women are self-interested and lack moral sense? The answer provided in the Federalist Papers is to build a system of government on laws rather than on virtue; the enduring American faith in their constitution and constitutionalism in general is related to this fear that left to themselves the people would descend into disorder and conflict, and there seemed to be evidence of this in the states in the 1780s after independence had been secured. In the view of the Federalist Papers, if men and women are not naturally virtuous they can be constrained to be so by a shared obedience to laws – laws made by the people for their own welfare.

In line with the belief that republics depended on virtue, conventional theories of republicanism from the ancient Greek philosophers to Rousseau held that republics had to be homogeneous and also of small extent so that all the population shared the same basic interests. But in perhaps the most famous of the essays, number 10, written by James Madison, he overturned this classical view and made the case for a plurality of interests in a large and extensive republic, the kind of society the proposed United States was to become. As Madison argued his case, if the major threat to popular self-government came from the potential development of a tyranny, the antidote to this was a plethora of social interests in competition with each other. In such a situation no single interest could come to dominate the new United States; instead, there would be many different groups constantly jockeying for position and influence. And it followed that the larger the republic and the more diverse the population, the greater the range of interests and the smaller the threat from any single one of them.

In this way Madison famously defended the proposed United States from the attacks of so-called Antifederalists: their fear that the new government might become an authoritarian one could be countered by pointing to the benefits of pluralism. Thus the Federalist Papers point us beyond the age of the Revolution towards the modern liberalism of the United States in a society encompassing a plethora of groups and interests which compete freely for resources, influence, and prominence.

In conclusion, while we must treat the Federalist Papers as an expression of the values, ideas and psychology of the men who made the American Revolution, they give us clues towards an understanding of some of the pervasive attitudes and features of contemporary American life. In a society still governed by the Constitution of 1787 the assumptions of that age must inevitably shape the nature of the American present, and some of those enduring assumptions may be found in the Federalist Papers.

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One Response to “The Federalist Papers: America Then and Now”
  1. [...] as paradigmatic statements of the general theory of the Constitution. Some time ago on OUPblog, Lawrence Goldman explained how reading The Federalist Papers can further an understanding of present-day [...]

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