The Federalist Papers
It was an interesting exercise! While they aren’t the easiest reading, they’re still plenty comprehensible. Even if you don’t want to read the entire set (perhaps just a few at a time over several months as I did), the first fourteen are some of the best and give the flavor of the whole.
In this election cycle it’s oddly comforting to know that name-calling and intention-questioning isn’t new in our politics; Hamilton especially spills impressively much ink attacking the character of his opponents. From No. 67 (“The Executive Department”) we have
Here the writers against the Constitution seem to have taken pains to signalize their talent of misrepresentation. Calculating upon the aversion of the people to monarchy, they have endeavored to enlist all their jealousies and apprehensions in opposition to the intended President of the United States.
Hamilton would have us believe that the opponents of the constitution were reasonable people being corrupted and confused by a few malicious actors bent on destroying America. If only Trump were so grandiloquent.
The low blows aren’t the only parts of the Federalist Papers still apropos today. The discussion of the interactions between the federal and state governments in No. 46 (“The Influence of the State and Federal Governments Compared”) at times seems very dated, but sections like
On the other hand, should an unwarrantable measure of the federal government be unpopular in particular States, […] the means of opposition to it are powerful and at hand. The disquietude of the people; their repugnance and, perhaps, refusal to co-operate with the officers of the Union; […] would form, in a large State, very serious impediments
sound familiar as the federal government spars with the states over the legalization of marijuana. Some things, on the other hand, have gone in a totally different direction over the last hundred years: No. 68 (“The Mode of Electing the President”) defends the electoral college as if it were the most obvious and normal thing in the world, and No. 76 (“The Appointing Power of the Executive”) contains the choice quote
It is also not very probable that [the President’s] nomination would often be overruled [by the Senate].
The most interesting thing I got out of this project was the idealism the authors had for their new nation. In between spending pages discussing the meaning of a clause and the problems in the Articles of Confederation, Hamilton, Jay, and most eloquently Madison can’t help but wax poetic on their optimism for this American experiment. Hamilton opens No. 1 (“General Introduction”) by laying the stakes, as he sees them, on the table:
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.
A bit Amerocentric, sure, but it makes us step back a moment. The authors really believe that their experiment is a new one, with no equal in history to date, and that what they are doing will affect the course of history. The example from which they draw the most is, of all things, the British government and constitution, the exact structure against which they rebelled; they also mention many other examples, none quite the same as what they seek to build. Sometimes one gets the impression they thought their document would be lucky to last few decades – not unreasonable given that its predecessor lasted just 8 years. It’s not clear every clause was considered quite as carefully as we might like to believe; certainly the founders didn’t know as much as we do about political science. Yet here we are today, with barely an amendment each decade, let alone a full rewrite.
And so some of these monologues are just a joy to read. The last paragraph of No. 14 (“Objections to the Proposed Constitution From Extent of Territory Answered”) is as much a paean to the United States as it is an answer to an objection to the Constitution:
Is it not the glory of the people of America, that, whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience? […] Had no important step been taken by the leaders of the Revolution for which a precedent could not be discovered, […] the people of the United States […] must at best have been laboring under the weight of some of those forms which have crushed the liberties of the rest of mankind. Happily for America, happily, we trust, for the whole human race, they pursued a new and more noble course. They accomplished a revolution which has no parallel in the annals of human society. They reared the fabrics of governments which have no model on the face of the globe. They formed the design of a great Confederacy, which it is incumbent on their successors to improve and perpetuate.
Here’s to improving and perpetuating it.
This all started from some iteration of listening to the Hamilton soundtrack. ↩