The Federalist Project
For the usual readers of this blogue, who are accustomed to finding here either stories about my travels and experiences or the odd bit of silly fiction, a few words of explanation are probably in order. The following will be the first in a series of short postings about a collection of documents generally referred to as The Federalist or The Federalist Papers, a group of essays written in the late 18th century to defend, and to argue for the ratification of, the United States constitution. I shall give my reasons for embarking upon this new series of posts shortly. Suffice it to say, this subject matter may not be for everybody. If that should be you, do feel free to skip the rest of this post as well as any future posts with the word “Federalist” in the title.
Right. So why do this at all? Well, if you haven’t noticed, we Americans tend to be pretty proud of our constitution. This despite the fact that no two people seem to have the same view as to what the constitution actually means. Like the bible, people tend to find in it what they want. The constitution itself is sparsely worded and really quite short. And, generally, it must be taken together with its first ten amendments, known collectively as the Bill of Rights.
And while today, the ratification of the constitution is generally seen as a fait accompli, back in 1789, it was no sure thing. The people, or rather the several states, needed to be convinced of it. After all, at the time of its drafting, the United States were operating under a different charter, the Articles of Confederation. Indeed, there was no legal provision for ditching the Articles and starting over with a new constitution. This made the constitution itself, if not an illegal charter, an extra-legal one. That is, it was born outside of the existing body of laws.
The deal was, if any nine of the original thirteen states agreed to make the switch, then the Articles would become null and void and the new constitution would take effect. But as I said, the states needed convincing, and some more than others. None more so, apparently, than New York. Because even back then, what’s America without New York?
In any case, New York was iffy, at best, at the outset. How then to convince the Empire State? The answer came in the form of 85 essays, published between October 1787 and May 1788. The essays would serve two main purposes. The first was simply to allay fears that the new proposed federal government would be too powerful, at the expense of the states.1 The second was to explain the purpose and meaning of the constitution; something which the constitution itself noticeably does not do.
And who was behind this effort? Well, it was primarily the work of two men. One was the very “father of the constitution” himself, Virginian and fourth president, James Madison. The other, of course, was that brilliant – and lately quite popular – New Yorker, Alexander Hamilton. Of the 85 essays, Hamilton wrote fully 51 of them to Madison’s 29. John Jay, first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, also a New Yorker, wrote the remaining five.
Most American students will have at least learned of the Federalist in high school social studies class. We learn, roughly, of the role they played in getting the constitution ratified. We may also learn that they are still read today by constitutional scholars and lawyers, especially when the constitutionality of a given law comes before the Supreme Court. We may even have read, perhaps in college, selected essays; or at least parts of essays.2 But I suspect that very few of us who do not go into careers as constitutional scholars or lawyers have read them in their entirety.
And yet, they are often in the news. As I just mentioned, when a new law is argued in front of the Supreme Court, the relevant essay might be trotted out for public consumption. When it is suggested that president Trump may be doing some thing (or, let’s face it, many things) that were never intended by “the Founders,”3 some or other Federalist argument is often presented to make the case.
Which brings me to this, my so-called Federalist Project. My goal is to read each of the 85 essays in their turn and to publish a short blogue post in reaction. I shall do my best not to bring any personal ideology to this project, to not inject my own opinions into these posts; though, on some level, that is surely impossible. I simply wish to read them and to understand them.
To the extent that I am able, I wish to do this both diachronically and synchronically. In other words, I wish to understand them as best I can both in terms of how they read today but also in the context of their own times. In the case of the former, though I shall try my hardest, I suspect it will be impossible to leave my own views at the door. As for the latter, I shall surely make errors in my knowledge of history. I beg forgiveness in advance for both of these inevitable failings.
I set no specific timetable for the completion of this project. That said, I will hope to tackle at least one or two essays each month. Even at that pace, it will take me upwards of four years to finish this. But what’s the rush. These documents have been around for more than two-hundred years. And I’ve so far gone thirty-six without reading them. So it will take as much time as it takes.
As for the text, I will be working from the Bantam edition, published in 1982 with an introduction and commentary by Gary Wills.4 Direct quotations will be taken from this source. That said, The Federalist Papers are obviously in the public domain. And so, I will add a link in each post to the relevant essay in order that the interested reader (if he or she should exist) may read the document for themselves, stripped of my own opinions and necessarily cherry-picked quotations.
We Americans love our constitution. Yet often, I fear we are over-proud and under-learned of it. In the course of this endeavor, I hope to come to know our national charter more intimately, to better understand what is at the very heart of American political identity. I hope, too, that some of you will choose to join me on this journey; will argue with me when you don’t agree; will set me right where I am wrong. In these times of sound-bites and growing ignorance, we could all do with a little more learning, a little more thought. Let this be a small step towards those ends.
- Remember, we had just revolted from monarchical England. [↩]
- Madison’s discussion of ‘faction’ in No. 10, for example. [↩]
- I’ve put “the Founders” in quotes because I think it’s ridiculous that we refer to them as one block of people, as if they all shared the same views and opinions. They most certainly did not. [↩]
- On a personal note, I ordered this book from Amazon way back in 2001, while I was studying early American history in college. (I did my senior thesis – which was not at all good – on Hamilton, Adams and the Federalist party). Anyway, years later, I was looking over my purchase history and discovered that I’d ordered the book on September 11, 2001. I surely didn’t go shopping that day, so I can only assume it was sometime after midnight of the 10th. Still, that’s always struck me as an eerie coincidence of history, as a serious dose of jingoistic patriotism was on the very verge of being ginned up… [↩]