The Federalist Project
Federalist No. 2
31 October, 1787
The second Federalist essay is composed by John Jay, who picks up the pen of Publius from Hamilton. The main thrust of the essay is twofold. First, to remind the reader that the Union (almost always capitalized) is of vital, even existential, importance. And second, that it is the proposed constitution on which the fate of the Union hinges; that the constitution is the only thing that will guarantee its survival. As in my previous essay, we will proceed through his arguments paragraph by paragraph, beginning with the first:
- “…a question, which, in its consequences, must prove one of the most important, that ever engaged their [i.e. ‘the people of America’] attention…”
- “one of”: J goes on to compare it to the importance of the question of ’76 and of adopting The Articles of Confederation. Already, this seems to differ from H, who presents the question as not just of being THE question for Americans, but indeed as of being of global importance (cf. Fed.1, par.1).
- “…the propriety of their taking a very comprehensive, as well as a very serious view of it, will be evident.”
- Again, his language is not nearly as strong as H’s.
- “Nothing is more certain than the indispensable necessity of Government…”
- J begins with premises that everyone can agree on, striking a moderate and rational tone. He continues…
- “…and it is equally undeniable, that whenever and however it is instituted, the people must cede to it some of their natural rights, in order to vest it with requisite powers.”
- This is straight out of Rousseau (du Contrat Social).
- It is also a rhetorical choice. He is forcing people to concede at an early state – of the essay and of the series – that the government must have some powers; that we do not live in a ‘state of nature.’
- “…whether it would conduce more to the interests of the people of America, that they should, to all general purposes, be one nation, under one fœderal Government, than that they should divide themselves into separate confederacies…”
- It is only at this point that J introduces the main theme of the essay.
In Paragraph Three, Jay deals for the first time with the opposition:
- “It has until lately been a received and uncontradicted opinion, that the prosperity of the people of America depended on their continuing firmly united…”
- Appealing to ‘received and uncontradicted opinion’ strikes me as a weak argument. Perhaps it is no weaker than ‘nothing is more certain’ or ‘equally undeniable’ (cf. 2.1). But in the former cases, he speaks to questions which have already been decided.
- “…and the wishes, prayers, and efforts of our best and wisest Citizens have been constantly directed to that object.”
- And now, the appeal to authority (the first of several) – ‘the best and wisest.’ In other words, people better and smarter than you think this – who are you to argue? This also strikes me as not the best argument.
- “But Politicians now appear, who insist that this opinion is erroneous…”
- The contrast between ‘Citizens’ and ‘Politicians’ cannot be missed nor overstated. The former put country ahead of personal interest; the latter do not.
- “…and certain characters who were much opposed to it [i.e. ‘division’] formerly, are at present of the number [of advocates of division].”
- To my eye, in 2017, this essentially reads as “beware of flip-floppers.”
- “…it certainly would not be wise of the people at large to adopt these new political tenets without being fully convinced that they are founded in truth and sound Policy.”
- In contrast to H’s use of ‘truth’ (cf. Fed.1), J pairs it with ‘good Policy.’ I’m not yet sure what this contrast means, but I feel sure it is not insignificant.
- In any case, H argues that ‘motive’ is not nearly as important as ‘truth’ and ‘sound Policy.’ J seems more ready to equate them.
Paragraph Four is a description of America and the subsequent advantages bestowed by ‘Providence’ when the country is considered as one whole. These include:
- “…a variety of soils and productions…”
- “…watered […] with innumerable streams…”
- All of which exist “for the delight and accommodation of its inhabitants.”
- “…a succession of navigable rivers…[which form] a kind of chain around the borders…”
- “…the most noble rivers in the world, running at convenient distances…”
- which “present them [i.e. ‘the inhabitants’] with highways for the easy communication of friendly aids, and the mutual transportation and exchange of their various commodities.”
For J, this is no accident. He notes:
- “Independent America [is] composed…of one connected, fertile, wide spreading country…the portion of our western sons of liberty.”
- The term ‘sons of liberty’ seems an intentional effort to harken back to the pre-revolutionary period and the banding together of the colonies in opposition to perceived British tyranny. However, I’m not sure what to make of limiting the term with ‘western.’ Unless he sees the Brits – with Magna Carta, etc. – as the original ‘sons of liberty’ and seeks to draw a line there. But whether the notion of the Brits as ‘sons of liberty’ as a phrase/idea with any currency at the time, I have no idea.
- Of note also, is his use of ‘portion.’ Certainly, it can simply mean one’s share of the division of a whole. But in classical mythology, one’s portion is very often a function of Fate. Indeed, the Greek word for fate – μοῖρα – derives from the verb μείρεσθαι – “take/receive one’s share/due; divide” (LSJ). In any case, he is more explicit in the next sentence:
- “Providence has in a particular manner blessed it (with a variety of soils, etc.)…”
- So the nature and composition of the land are down to Providence. Does this tie in to ‘portion’? Is it by divine workings that it is the ‘western sons of liberty’ who have received these lands? I think that’s how we have to understand it. Certainly this was a notion that had currency among more than a few of the Founders.
Ultimately, although he paints a pretty picture amd makes mention of ‘delight,’ his argument is, at heart, an economic one, and to a lesser extent, one of national security, insofar as the rivers provide “a kind of chain round its borders.” (Though, perhaps strangely, he makes no mention of the vast ocean that separates America from meddling Europe).
In Paragraph Five, J praises the makeup of the American body-politic, in ways that, in 2017, you’re either going to love or hate.
- “…Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to…”
- No longer splitting hairs. We’re still a ways away yet from Manifest Destiny, further still form American Exceptionalism. But the idea, in some form, was always present, it seems.
- “…to one united people, a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attracted to the same philosophy of government, very similar in their manners and customs…”
- This is a mixed bag, to say the least. On the one hand, we can see the roots of some of the very ugly ‘white nationalism’ currently afflicting us today. But I wonder if that is reading it out of context. Though certainly not to so homogeneous as J paints it, America had yet to experience the myriad waves of immigration from a multitude of nations that would follow in the succeeding centuries. On the other hand, there were of course already Catholics and Jews in the country; to say nothing of (non-voting) Blacks and women.
- That said, “attached to the same principles of government” is surely the key point here (though maybe that’s also a modern reading?). But this – and to a lesser extent, assimilation of language and culture – is what would bind those future heterogeneous peoples together.
- “…and who, by their joint counsels, arms and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established their general Liberty and Independence.”
- An appeal to the strength – and previous success – of unity.
Paragraph Six continues the appeal to unity:
- “This country and this people seem to have been made for each other, and it appears as if it was the design of Providence, that an inheritance so proper and convenient…”
- ‘Providence’ again. And now the word ‘inheritance.’ Which strikes me as a bit odd. In the preceding paragraph, it was hard won through “bloody war.” Now it is an “inheritance.” I suppose thre are biblical grounds for being ‘given’ something by God/Providence and still having to fight for it. (I’m thinking of the Israelites returning to the ‘promised land’ and having to take it by force). And then again of sons of kings warring with each other for the crown of England; their ‘inheritance.’ But there is definitely a ‘chosen people’ vibe here, to my eye.
- “…should never be split into a number of unsocial, jealous and alien sovereignties.”
- J does not leave open the possibility that separate sovereignties could be successful. If they split, he argues, this is how it will be.
Paragraph Seven continues the “e uno unum” theme:
- “Similar sentiments have hitherto prevailed among all orders and denominations of men among us.”
- Compared with ¶5: same ancestors, language, religion, etc. To what “orders and denominations” does he refer then? Surely not class, with suffrage being at this time so limited. I can only imagine he means political “orders and denominations.” But even then, in ¶5, he also says, “attached to the same principles of government.” Indeed, in the very next sentence of ¶7, he says:
- “To all general purposes we have uniformly been one people…” and
- “…each individual citizen every where enjoying the same national rights, privileges, and protections.”
- Is it even worth pointing out the obvious, that this excludes, Blacks, women, non-landowners, Indians, etc.?
- “As a nation we have:
- “vanquished our enemies…
- “formed alliances and made treaties…
- “and entered into various compacts and conventions with foreign States.”
- “As a nation” – I take this to mean as 13 united States; or else as a collection of only those making decisions as a Continental Congress, etc. For clearly, huge parts of this “nation” are excluded from the process. But again, if the argument here is for unity (and adoption), I take “nation” in the broadest possible sense of ‘the States.’ That is to say, not as New Yorkers or Virginians, but as Americans.
In Paragraph Eight, J proceeds from the more general concepts of ‘unity’ and “nation” to the narrower concept of “Union.”
- “A strong sense of the value and blessings of Union induced the people, at a very early period, to institute a Fœderal Government to preserve and perpetuate it.”
- It’s not hard to feel like J is sort of writing his own history here. Jamestown, 1607; Plymouth, 1620. It was a rather long time before anybody was thinking about “Union.” Unless he’s strictly counting from the 1770’s; which he may be…
- “They formed it almost as soon as they had a political existence…”
- e. a “political existence” separate from England. For of course, the colonists had political existence of a sort – with their own legislatures – well before the Revolution. But he proceeds to narrow his argument further:
- “…at a time, when their habitations were in flames, when many of their Citizens were bleeding…:”
- Very well then. This “very early period,” this point of “political existence,” is no earlier than the war. He then proceeds to an apology of sorts for the Articles and the present government:
- “It is not to be wondered at that a Government instituted in times so auspicious, should on experiment be found greatly deficient and inadequate to the purpose it was intended to answer.”
- So basically, despite the “strong sense of the value and blessings of Union,” present from the point of “political existence” or a “very early period,” they essentially knocked together a not-very-good system on the fly and under pressure; and it really wasn’t very good at all; and this was to be expected!
Paragraph Nine serves to introduce the Constitutional Convention:
- “This intelligent people perceived and regretted these defects. …they, as with one voice, convened the late Convention at Philadelphia, to take that important subject under consideration.”
- Again, playing fast and loose with the facts (as I read it). The convention was extra-legal and held behind closed doors. It could hardly be – I think – said to be called for “with one voice.” Perhaps I myself am not so well versed in the history as I ought to be, but this seems an over-happy and over-simplified version of events. If it was as J paints it, I think, ratification would be a fait accompli and there would hardly be any need for the Federalist papers.
- “…and being persuaded that ample security for both [union and liberty], could only be found in a national Government more wisely framed…”
- No doubt; but attributing this an “intelligent people” speaking “as if with one voice” seems rather a stretch.
Paragraph Ten brings more whitewashing and edge-smoothing:
OF those involved:
- “…men who possessed the confidence of the people…”
- …and many of whom had become highly distinguished by their patriotism, virtue and wisdom…”
- “…without having been awed by power, or influenced by any passions except love for their Country…”
OF the circumstances:
- “In the mild season of peace, with minds unoccupied by other subjects…”
OF the manner:
- “…they passed many months in cool uninterrupted and daily consultation…”
- “…the plan produced by their joint and very unanimous counsels.”
- “Cool” is an interesting choice of word. The meaning is clear, but we know it was hot as hell, all the more so with the doors and windows shut to preserve secrecy. In any case, the idea that the debates were cool and dispassionate rather than (at least at times) heated and contentious is hard to swallow.
- “Very unanimous” – the lady doth protest too much, methinks. Anyway, we know, e.g., that of the New York delegation, only H was in favor of it. And as for the “one voice,” we know, e.g. that governor Clinton (NY) was opposed. So J is really painting a rather rosy – and not all that accurate – picture here. But then, the proceedings were closed and M’s journals not yet published, so he can – at least to a certain degree – get away with it. Synchronically, anyway. Diachronically, this argument doesn’t really stand the test of time, in my opinion.
Paragraph Eleven seeks again to undermine the opposition by attacking their motives:
- “…this plan is only recommended, not imposed…[recommended] to that sedate and candid consideration, which the magnitude and importance of the subject demand…”
- Like H, a call for calm and rational discussion.
- “Experience on a former occasion teaches us not to be too sanguine in such hopes. …yet it is fresh in our memories how soon the Press began to teem with Pamphlets and weekly Papers against those very measures [i.e. the measures ‘recommended’ by the “Memorable Congress of 1774”].
- A perhaps not unironic argument given that this is the very method Publius utilizing to remonstrate for adoption. In other words, ‘Don’t trust the Press…but these “Pamphlets and weekly Papers” are alright.’
- “Not only many of the Officers of Government who obeyed the dictates of personal interest, but others from mistaken estimates of consequences, or under the influence of former attachments, on whose ambition aimed at objects which did not correspond to the public good, were indefatigable in their endeavours to persuade the people to reject the advice of that Patriotic Congress.”
- This seems in direct contradiction to H’s call not to impugn the motives of the opposition, who admitted of “sources, blameless at least, if not respectable,” and “good and wise men of the wrong as well as of the right side of questions” (1.4).
- Furthermore, by casting the Congress as “Patriotic,” he implies that any opposition is necessarily unpatriotic. This, to me, is an ugly strain of political discourse, which continues to this very day.
Paragraph Twelve reads like a veritable hosanna to the “Memorable Congress of 1774”:
- “…wise and experienced…”
- “…bringing a variety of useful information…” from “…different parts of the country…”
- “…enquiring into and discussing the true interests of their country…” having “…acquired very accurate knowledge on that head.”
- “…individually interested in the public liberty and prosperity…”
- “…not less their inclination, than their duty, to recommend only such measures, as after the most mature deliberation they really thought prudent and advisable.”
- To borrow from the film Amadeus, he makes them sound as if they “shit marble.”
Paragraph Thirteen is an appeal to the authority of the Framers:
- “…it is well known that some of the most distinguished members of that Congress, who have been since tried and justly approved for patriotism and abilities, and who have grown old in acquiring political information, were also members of this convention and carried into it their accumulated knowledge and experience.”
- In other words, ‘If you can’t approve the constitution on its own merits, take it on faith in those who drafted it.’ Or, more cynically, ‘Who are you to take up a position against men of such intellect and character?’ Or, at the very least, ‘You can’t possibly prefer the judgment of the opposition to that of the Framers.’
The Fourteenth and final Paragraph returns again to the praise of Union:
- “…the prosperity of America depends[s] on its Union.”
- Union above all else. This is the thrust of the closing argument.
- No attempt is made, as yet, to address the particular merits of the proposed constitution, or even to show how it would guarantee Union; it is simply implied that those opposed would “[suggest] that three or four confederacies would be better than one.”
- “I am persuaded in my own mind, that the people have always thought right on this subject, and that their universal and uniform attachment to the cause of the Union, rests on great and weighty reasons…”
- J seems always comfortable in asserting the will and wishes of “the people,” and always in terms of unanimity and without dissent. This is what “the people” want, he seems to say, and those opposed are not of the people.
- “…I sincerely wish that it may be as clearly foreseen by every good Citizen, that whenever the dissolution of the Union arrives, America will have reason to exclaim in the words of the Poet, “FAREWELL, A LONG FAREWELL, TO ALL MY GREATNESS.”
- The quote is from Henry VIII, 3.2.351.
To my eye, J isn’t half the writer that H is. His arguments are starker, less nuanced, and he more readily ascribes malignant intent to the opposition. He sees “Patriots” and enemies. He too easily ascribes unanimity both to the Framers and “the people,” the latter of which he too easily claims to speak for in their entirety. He also points to the homogeneity of race and religion as virtues, in a way that is uncomfortable to the (or, at least, this) modern eye. Nevertheless, he is devoted to the cause of Union, which, at the time, was of prime importance, and in whose name, at least one odious compromise would be made.
The full text of Federalist No.2 may be found here.