As I noted earlier on this site, I recently finished a book titled, “Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution: 1787-1788″ by Pauline Maier, which is an invaluable resource for people interested in learning about the founding principles of the U.S. In the book, Maier takes us to each state ratifying convention, highlights the key speakers and most influential spokesmen at each and informs readers of the key issues on Americans’ minds in the late 1700s as our “experiment” in Democracy was taking shape.
After reading “Ratification,” by all counts as tedious a task as it is engrossing, I figured why not continue in the same era? Thus, I picked up the paperback edition of the “The Federalist Papers” that had been languishing on one of my bookcases for at least a couple years. Admittedly, this particular copy isn’t mine. It belongs to a co-worker, with whom I’m currently holding a friendly “office read-off.” As such, I have not been able to mark up the pages as I would if the book were mine. As it happens, he keeps track of certain key passages in books by making separate hand-written notes to himself, which I think he then just inserts into the pages of the book or near the front somewhere. I’ve had to resist marking his book all up, but I did make a couple small marks to highlight a couple sentences that I thought were too important to gloss over. I will note some of them here.
First, a word about the authors and what they were trying to accomplish. “The Federalist Papers,” as a bound volume, were only published later and were written by noted Federalists, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. The individual essays (85 total) were printed as a series of anonymous (pseudonym, Publius) essays in three New York newspapers. The essays were penned to address arguments against the Constitution just at the time the document was being considered by that state’s ratifying convention. Contrary to what many lay people think about the papers, few outside of New York had actually read the essays, so on a national level, they had little influence on the fight for ratification nationally. Only later did “The Federalist Papers” become a classic in political philosophy. John Jay became sick after writing the fourth essay and only wrote one more. The remaining articles were penned by Madison and Hamilton, the former of which is the more readable and digestible of the two, at least in my opinion.
The Federalists generally supported a strong national government and interpreted the proposed Constitution as such. Meanwhile, the anti-Federalists, a term dubbed by their opposition, thought the Constitution as it was written could subvert state power and endanger some personal liberties. Thus, some anti-Federalist refused to support the Constitution until it included some kind of bill of rights, securing those liberties.
One of the most important points made in the papers, and one that is still as relevant today as it was then is that federal law supersedes state laws (known as the Supremacy Clause), and further, attempts by the states to write bills around federal law created a dangerous precedent, one that is, indeed, dangerous to the survival of the union itself. We can see such a precedent being set today by a handful of immigration laws that have been passed by Arizona, Georgia and, most recently, Alabama. These are almost certainly unconstitutional since Amendment 14 of the Constitution grants immigration policing powers to the federal government:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; …
Madison and Hamilton understood very well the problems inherent with such laws when states begin taking cavalier approaches to lawmaking.
In No. 44, Madison called a system that included a patchwork of state laws a “monster:”
… as the constitutions of the States differ much from each other, it might happen that a treaty or national law of great and equal importance to the States would interfere with some and not with other constitutions, and would consequently be valid in some of the States at the same time that it would have no effect in others.
In fine, the world would have seen, for the first time, a system of government founded on an inversion of the fundamental principles of all government; it would have seen the authority of the whole society everywhere subordinate to the authority of the parts; it would have seen a monster, in which the head was under the direction of the members [emphasis mine].
Here are a couple others passages that I thought were noteworthy and relevant to current controversial political issues.
On the powers of Congress to pass laws, the Constitution states in Article I, Section 8 that Congress shall have the power to:
make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.
Madison writes in No. 44:
Few parts of the Constitution have been assailed with more intemperance than this; yet on a fair investigation of it, no part can appear more completely invulnerable. Without the SUBSTANCE of this power, the whole Constitution would be a dead letter. Those who object to the article, therefore, as a part of the Constitution, can only mean that the FORM of the provision is improper. But have they considered whether a better form could have been substituted?
On the power of the national government to levy taxes, which also seems to imply that the amount each person pays should be correlated to their own resources:
There is no method of steering clear of this inconvenience, but by authorizing the national government to raise its own revenues in its own way. Imposts, excises, and, in general, all duties upon articles of consumption, may be compared to a fluid, which will, in time, find its level with the means of paying them. The amount to be contributed by each citizen will in a degree be at his own option, and can be regulated by an attention to his resources [emphasis mine]. The rich may be extravagant, the poor can be frugal; and private oppression may always be avoided by a judicious selection of objects proper for such impositions.
I realize that in making these observations, the writers had a clear agenda. The Federalist Papers supported a strong centralized government, and Hamilton supported creating a national bank, an idea that was vehemently derided by critics. But the Federalists and anti-Federalists aren’t necessarily synonymous with any modern political party. It can’t be said that the Federalists of the late 1700s represented the “liberal” or progressive wing of early American politics; neither can it be said that the anti-Federalists would have fit well into the modern day Republican Party. At the time, progressive strands of thought ran through both groups. While Hamilton may have been more progressive in his views on the federal government, he was more conservative in other areas, supporting the interests of the business and elite classes, as modern members of the GOP. Meanwhile, the anti-Federalists supported politics that would help farmers and others of the “middling sort.” They would later form the Democratic-Republican party, which subsequently split into the Jacksononian Democratics and the Whigs.