Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Federalist Papers

If men were angels there would be no need for government.  The great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed: and in the next place oblige it to control itself"     Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist                   

The Federalist Papers were a series of 85 articles supporting the ratification of the United States Constitution.   The papers were written by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison and were published for general readership.  The authors used the pseudonym "Publius," in honor of the Roman consul Publius Valerius Publicola, who helped overthrow the Roman monarchy (509 BC) and established a popular and fair justice system in ancient Rome.  (Incidentally, many publications in early America were printed under Roman pseudonyms (e.g. Cato, Caesar, &c) perhaps to establish the credibility of the authors or as innuendo. 

The Constitution was designed to promote a stronger union among the states, prevent inter-state disputes, help the government raise money and give us a strong executive (i.e. president).  However the Constitution was not greeted with uniform praise. 

Many regional leaders feared the enervation of states rights and powers. The two most powerful states, Virginia and New York, had the most to lose and were the last ones to ratify the Constitution.  The Federalist papers were written to appeal to the sensibilities of these recalcitrant people and mollify their concerns of a monolithic federal government dominating the country. 

Hamilton, Madison and John Jay

Let's see if I can briefly summarize the Federalist papers:

Most of the Federalist papers praise the merits of the Constitution, going into the details of its workings and the new government, as well as defending and attacking detractors and other governments. 

"Publius" states that the Constitution was written by men who studied many other forms of government and chose the best ideas of each, similar to what Lycurgus did for 7th century BC Greece.  However, the main reason for creating the Constitution was to promote unity. States need a unified code of laws and fiscal policy in some areas, as well as a single voice in treaties and foreign negotiations.  Solidarity would also discourage neighboring states from becoming rivals, a natural outcome of having regional powers in close proximity.  We also needed to deal with Spain and England who threatened to block our expansion to the west. 

The legislative branch of government is naturally the most powerful, but a strong executive is needed to provide balance and to give us one voice.  To help divide the power of the legislature, we have a Senate and a House of Representatives.  In addition, this division helps protect the minority by inhibiting the majority from acting in a concentrated manner. 

Other_governments, such as Great Britain, do not have truly independent legislatures, "executives", and judicial systems.  This may be one of the greatest contributions of the American Constitution to modern government.  Interesting, we are one of the few countries that does not have its executive chosen by the legislature. Compare this with the Prime Minister of the UK.  

Are term limits a bad thing? Hamilton says that if a president or other elected official is not going to be re-elected it encourages deviant behavior since the elected official will not be held accountable to the voters.  It also enervates the power of the elected official - what we call a lame duck. We also lose an experienced official.
 The Founding Fathers would probably not have approved the Twenty-second Amendment.

All Men are Not Equal.  Despite what the Declaration of Independence suggests, Jefferson meant that all men should have equal opportunities.  Hamilton praises the diversity in America, saying that one of our greatest strengths is that we are not equal in every ability.

It is ironic that Hamilton suggests the Constitution will discourage the need for standing army and the likelihood of war when later in life Hamilton played an active role in establishing a national army and trying to provoke a war with Spain.  Of course this only one of several ironies that the Founding Fathers could not have predicted. 

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