The Federalist Papers is a towering work of political philosophy that provides nothing less than a comprehensive rationalization and justification for the American experiment, specifically the U.S. Constitution. It’s a tour de force, as utterly thorough and convincing on its subject as Darwin was on his. Over the course of 85 essays, the three authors make a case for every aspect of the Constitution and the government it describes, and they tear down every argument that can be made against them. The essays were published over the course of the year or two when the states were deciding whether to ratify the Constitution and create the United States, and it speaks to the strength of this work that in the end every state ratified the Constitution.
The backstory to the Constitution and The Federalist Papers themselves is pretty impressive. After America won its independence from Great Britain, the thirteen colonies created a loose affiliation with the Articles of Confederation. Each state wanted to maintain its own independence from the others, even while each saw the value of banding together. The Articles were poorly conceived, and after a decade or so their deficiencies were clear to everybody. Each state sent representatives to a constitutional convention to provide the small tweaks that might get the thing shipshape.
Well, to their everlasting credit, the convention ultimately decided to scrap the whole thing and create a new constitution from scratch. And then—this being the most ballsy of all—they emerged and said this document needed to be approved or rejected as is, with no further edits allowed. In their wisdom, they knew that they’d created a sturdy government blueprint, and various cuts and rearrangements would undermine it. So they said take it or leave it.
Over the ensuing year, The Federalist Papers were published in newspapers across the country to review all potential objections and put them to rest. The result is a subject-by-subject, article-by-article explanation of the correctness of the country’s founding document. It is overwhelmingly convincing, and partly because of this the thing was approved across the board. The only edits came in the form of the Bill of Rights, amended some years later to make a few things explicit, just in case.
Most of The Federalist Papers were composed by Alexander Hamilton, with James Madison and John Jay running support, and it’s all very well written in a formal eighteenth-century way. But one reads the whole thing with a sense of wonder and longing, considering what passes for a political leader these days. It isn’t just that they were eloquent and thought in complete sentences. It’s that they had formulated a complete political philosophy and the resulting novel form of government, and then they devoted eighty-five essays to convince their countrymen that they were right. Can you imagine a single leader in the world in your lifetime, much less a group of leaders, accomplishing so much, or even a tenth as much? Nope, me neither.
The key feature of this Constitution was a strong central government, and that was the controversial point. That’s why the book is called The Federalist Papers, because it argues in favor of a federal system. The states wanted their autonomy, and with good reason; they didn’t need some bureaucrat off in the Capitol telling them what they could and couldn’t do. When you consider the range of discrete cultures at play across the thirteen states, and the war they had all just fought against far-off bureaucrats telling them what they could and couldn’t do, having a weak central authority just seems smart. But it’s not. As the authors make clear in topic after topic, a weak federal government will harm their defenses, their ability to trade, and various other things. This was not about the need to be a great power, so much as a desire not to be at the mercy of great powers; however, the difference between those two positions was bound to fall on deaf ears in the states.
This is what makes the solution so brilliant. Rather than rest power one place or the other, they literally split the difference. The Constitution was merely a federal constitution, and it left the states’ own constitutions and laws to them. The document takes the concept of sovereign power and splits it down the middle, so that the federal government claims the parts it needs to act collectively, and the states keep the rest. It’s a delicate balance to create these parallel centers of power, which is, I believe, why they call this the American experiment—and also why it took eighty-five essays to convince people that a bunch of bureaucrats weren’t going to tell them what to do. Dagnabbit.
The one place in the papers where things get really flimsy is on the subject of proportional representation, where the obvious compromise between the slave-holding and non-slave-holding states comes through. The contorted logic that resulted in counting slaves as three-fifths of a person is unpleasant to read, and one gets the impression that Alexander Hamilton had to hold his nose to agree to the whole thing, as his dissatisfaction wasn’t exactly hidden from view in that section. But he basically said that this is the best bad solution they could come up with, and it’s the one place where I found myself wondering what might have been. The South wasn’t going to give up slavery in the constitution, so an alternative scenario has us splitting into two countries immediately, side-stepping a civil war. But in that scenario, I have to believe that slavery would have persisted in the South long past when it did, since the North would have been less insistent upon armed conflict. However, it would have set up a land grab in the western territories which would have likely come to bloodshed sooner than later, suggesting that a conflict between north and south would have happened eventually, with the freedom of the slaves hanging in the balance. Sadly, Hamilton never comments on this counterfactual in the papers.
From the position of now, as our Constitution seems to be finally, after all these years, coming apart at the seams, I found myself both awed and saddened. I was impressed that the fundamental values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were in fact strong enough to keep the whole thing together as long as it has, and it gives me hope that they may come through for us yet. But I was saddened to see what a mockery we have become to the founders’ original vision.
They were no strangers to the dark heart of mankind. Indeed, they built the Constitution with a firm belief that a critical aspect of government is to keep that dark heart from infecting civic institutions and corrupting the body politic. They knew, as Aristotle did, that justice was what saved man from his base nature, and they sought to create a justice for everyone—not an unheard-of concept, but a largely untried one in the modern world. And each amendment stands as a tribute to that ideal, the belief in justice, that a people can together build a just society.
The fact that we still fall so short of that ideal is depressing, but not too dispiriting. Because one can’t help but look at the arguments laid out in The Federalist Papers, and see ourselves in each of them, our problems anticipated and provided for, our woes perfectly anticipated. The critical features of the document are spelled out perfectly for us: the regularity of elections, the space at the end for more amendments, the power of impeachment. Reading The Federalist Papers as an American and as a patriot, one can’t help but feel the optimism inherent in the fact that the American experiment is ongoing, even in the face of so much rot.
Excerpt from Federalist 54, by Alexander Hamilton or James Madison
The next view which I shall take of the House of Representatives relates to the appointment of its members to the several States which is to be determined by the same rule with that of direct taxes.
It is not contended that the number of people in each State ought not to be the standard for regulating the proportion of those who are to represent the people of each State. The establishment of the same rule for the appointment of taxes, will probably be as little contested; though the rule itself in this case, is by no means founded on the same principle. In the former case, the rule is understood to refer to the personal rights of the people, with which it has a natural and universal connection. In the latter, it has reference to the proportion of wealth, of which it is in no case a precise measure, and in ordinary cases a very unfit one. But notwithstanding the imperfection of the rule as applied to the relative wealth and contributions of the States, it is evidently the least objectionable among the practicable rules, and had too recently obtained the general sanction of America, not to have found a ready preference with the convention.
All this is admitted, it will perhaps be said; but does it follow, from an admission of numbers for the measure of representation, or of slaves combined with free citizens as a ratio of taxation, that slaves ought to be included in the numerical rule of representation? Slaves are considered as property, not as persons. They ought therefore to be comprehended in estimates of taxation which are founded on property, and to be excluded from representation which is regulated by a census of persons. This is the objection, as I understand it, stated in its full force. I shall be equally candid in stating the reasoning which may be offered on the opposite side. “We subscribe to the doctrine,” might one of our Southern brethren observe, “that representation relates more immediately to persons, and taxation more immediately to property, and we join in the application of this distinction to the case of our slaves. But we must deny the fact, that slaves are considered merely as property, and in no respect whatever as persons. The true state of the case is, that they partake of both these qualities: being considered by our laws, in some respects, as persons, and in other respects as property.
In being compelled to labor, not for himself, but for a master; in being vendible by one master to another master; and in being subject at all times to be restrained in his liberty and chastised in his body, by the capricious will of another, the slave may appear to be degraded from the human rank, and classed with those irrational animals which fall under the legal denomination of property. In being protected, on the other hand, in his life and in his limbs, against the violence of all others, even the master of his labor and his liberty; and in being punishable himself for all violence committed against others, the slave is no less evidently regarded by the law as a member of the society, not as a part of the irrational creation; as a moral person, not as a mere article of property.
The federal Constitution, therefore, decides with great propriety on the case of our slaves, when it views them in the mixed character of persons and of property. This is in fact their true character. It is the character bestowed on them by the laws under which they live; and it will not be denied, that these are the proper criterion; because it is only under the pretext that the laws have transformed the negroes into subjects of property, that a place is disputed them in the computation of numbers; and it is admitted, that if the laws were to restore the rights which have been taken away, the negroes could no longer be refused an equal share of representation with the other inhabitants. “This question may be placed in another light. It is agreed on all sides, that numbers are the best scale of wealth and taxation, as they are the only proper scale of representation. Would the convention have been impartial or consistent, if they had rejected the slaves from the list of inhabitants, when the shares of representation were to be calculated, and inserted them on the lists when the tariff of contributions was to be adjusted? Could it be reasonably expected, that the Southern States would concur in a system, which considered their slaves in some degree as men, when burdens were to be imposed, but refused to consider them in the same light, when advantages were to be conferred? Might not some surprise also be expressed, that those who reproach the Southern States with the barbarous policy of considering as property a part of their human brethren, should themselves contend, that the government to which all the States are to be parties, ought to consider this unfortunate race more completely in the unnatural light of property, than the very laws of which they complain? “It may be replied, perhaps, that slaves are not included in the estimate of representatives in any of the States possessing them. They neither vote themselves nor increase the votes of their masters. Upon what principle, then, ought they to be taken into the federal estimate of representation?