The Federalist Papers

We introduced the Federalist Papers in the opening paragraphs of this section. A more complete historical introduction may be found in Section 6, the section devoted to the entire text of the Federalist Papers. We are interested here in what the Papers might say about our current political situation. We submit that among its durable contributions are a characterization of political man that we will surely recognize in ourselves along with a critical examination of the tensions arising from our natures that inform, or should inform, choices we can make about our political organizations, practices, and relationships between our governments and ourselves.

Hamilton opens Federalist One with perhaps the mother of all political tensions, between power and liberty:

It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.

This sentence, simple enough on the surface, is filled with misdirections that anticipate the basic confusions we suffer when trying to get a clear picture of our political natures. One is national arrogance (the first voice of American exceptionalism?)—while we did become the example of governance that has been followed by many other countries, although none following our trail exactly, we were certainly not so considered in 1787, a time when Mexico had half again as many people as the United States and the French were primed for a far more famous revolution as the world turns. Two, the question before the people then was not between choice and power, but between two forms of constitution, one existing, one proposed, both of which were “chosen” by conventional means at the time. (We admit that were Hamilton here he would reply that the choice was not between the two constitutions but between the new constitution and being overtaken by Britain, France, or Spain as colonies again given the infirmities of the Articles of Confederation.)

Three, when considered in the context of the republican form, the supposed dichotomy is false. Republican systems transfer public choice (elections) into centers of power that may be exerted through force over the people. Indeed, Hamilton will later say, in Federalist 78, that the people retain the right to alter or abolish the government, but strongly advises against that as a kind of operating rule. Of course we denied that right to the southern states by winning the Civil War, the most extreme form of force, essentially repudiating the right. We do not choose between liberty and power, we suffer the constant tension between liberty and power, a circumstance openly admitted by Madison at the beginning of Federalist 37. What Madison seems to also admit is that we cannot compute at any one point in time what the exact proportion between the two should be. The proportions were clearly very different between the early days of the Depression, when the federal government began programs to protect the people from huge economic hardships, and World War II, when the federal government conscripted citizens into the military, froze wages, rationed food, incarcerated Quakers who were conscientious objectors, put Japanese citizens into concentration camps, and censored the press, all with Supreme Court approval.

Patrick Henry opposing the new constitution

This is not to criticize this opening paragraph as misleading. It is to suggest that the Papers are rhetorical, attempting to persuade as much as explain. Persuasion often compels simplifications and figures of speech. The efforts here by our three writers to persuade faced the obstacle that Hamilton and Madison in particular were very unhappy with how the constitution turned out through four months of compromises at the Convention. Both wanted much more power at the center of things, much less power for the states. Hamilton wanted state governors to be appointed by the federal establishment, with each such governor equipped with absolute veto power over state laws. (Had this been the outcome slavery would have been outlawed throughout the country within twenty-five years and we would not have had a civil war or its continuing aftermath. However, we were not going to get a united country without these compromises.) Yet the writers wrote in defense of virtually every word as if penned in heaven. They infrequently note the compromises at the Convention; but the feel of the Papers is uncompromising commitment to the last detail. The benefit to us, 245 years later, is that the Constitution as written has not changed in substance, giving life to the arguments today in ways the authors probably would not have expected. Indeed, Hamilton and Madison were both embarrassed by some things they wrote which conflicted with later positions they took. Had they been more honest in the Papers, we would have had a much poorer work.

Limitations, Tensions, and Factions

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If we leave you with anything from this section, we hope it includes these words. We claim that the Papers ground their defense of the new constitution in their understanding of human limitations combined with inherent and intended limitations on the new government itself, that these limitations flow logically from our limited capacities and dispositions as human beings, that they produce persistent tensions at the deepest parts of our souls and political structures, and these combine to induce the people to form factions designed to exert political influence and power outside the official ambit of our constitutional governments. We will take a more positive and expansive view of factions than do Madison and Hamilton, a view in alignment with our history and present condition, but what motivates them is the same. What motivates them arises first from our favorite sentence in the Papers: “As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed” (Federalist 10). Madison clearly means that such differences cannot be resolved or fully mediated by rational or deliberative means—why we have courts, elections, and committee rules among many other forms of reaching decisions without the approval of all. Polarization is all but guaranteed. However, people of common opinion will gather into groups to improve their chances of influence or change. They will often inspire factions with opposing views, the reason we have two political parties and a myriad of interest groups, large and small, competing in a kind of political marketplace. These various forces and organizations are absolutely natural among a free people; suppressing them is only possible at the expense of liberty.

We contend that these features of the Papers preclude the Papers as a defense of either party’s ideology, or any ideology. Groups like the Federalist Society take tweezers to select out the lines that support more limited federal government than we have today, ignoring all the lines that insist on things like unlimited federal taxing power and the need to make means commensurate with ends. The left still labors under the Progressive Era charge that the Constitution was formed by the elite to serve the elite and the Constitution’s protection of slavery, making them more nervous about appropriating the Papers to their current causes. But any ideology insists upon as much internal coherence as can be managed and requires simplification to be intelligible to large numbers of people. The Papers are neither sufficiently coherent nor sufficiently simple to serve as a basis without so much selectivity that the core value of the Papers is lost.

Our founders managed to form of government that for the first time reconciles a system of force and power necessary to human organization with choice and liberty as realistic outcomes for those same human beings. They did so with an understanding of the inherent tensions between force and freedom, and the underlying human paradoxes—our tendencies to good behavior and bad, to greed and charity, to ambition and cooperation, to vice and virtue, to love and hate, to inherent limits on understanding and enormous creativity that advances understanding. They did so with a comparable understanding that the government proposed in 1787 was itself laced with conflicts and paradoxes, ones born naturally from the contradictions in the society itself. That document, our Constitution, admitted due process on the one hand, slavery on the other. It centralized powers then handed voter qualification to the states. Its preamble promised liberty, justice, and the general welfare, and then in enumerating powers handed most of the obligations for these ends to the states. Its most ambitious paradox was separating powers, to have “ambition counteract ambition” as Madison puts it in Federalist 51, with the obvious conflicts among the three branches—legislative, executive, judicial—as a means of achieving government stability rather than perpetual disorder or sinking into autocracy.

This is not to say that everything the Federalist Papers say is relevant today. For example, the often-praised argument made by Madison in Federalist 10—that a majority faction could not function in a country as large as America—would be laughable in a world with 14 billion smartphones, global videoconferencing, and global travel in hours; at one time ISIS operated over several entire countries at once with smartphones. The notion of “filtration” by which the best and brightest find their way to Washington (true then) would not describe most in Congress today. And of course they could not anticipate the enormous changes to our country that have been reflected in enormous changes to many fundamentals of our government. But they have their minds and words on the tap root. Nothing else in American political writing comes close.

The Core Tenets of the Federalist Papers Applicable Today

The peeling and recombination process for us produced the following five general ideas, which we will call principles.

  1. The essential nature of political man suffers critical contradictions and limitations, yet contains within that same nature enormous capacities to create and to grow, and to act as members of the body politic in a system devoted to popular sovereignty—government ultimately created by and responsible to the people.
  2. These contradictions and limitations produce permanent political tensions, including the mother of all political tensions, between liberty and power, between the people’s desire for freedom and the force necessary to accomplish any form of government. But these tensions work in opposite ways—some towards coherence, some towards chaos. The list of tensions developed in the Papers is impressive and largely relevant today.
  3. The shape of our government, unique at the time, combines republicanism (the people transfer political power to representative with all either elected for limited terms or appointed by those so elected), federalism (republican governments at state and federal levels with discrete ranges of responsibilities), separation and balance of powers (legislative, executive, judicial), and popular sovereignty, power to the people with an understanding that the people have the right to take that which they give to their representatives back. The inner tensions within this architecture for the most part serve stability and a control on ambition and uncontrolled expansion of power by any one part. The Papers assume two features of general government working that makes this possible—the rule of law and majority rule, the two forces necessary to reach decisions and maintain legitimacy (the papers never use this word, but it is the ground on which we all walk, accepting being ruled by having a say in the laws that rule us, and it is the essential message of Federalist 40, about why the Convention had the implicit authority to draft a new constitution rather than amend the Articles of Confederation, the Convention’s formal charter.) That the distribution of powers has changed radically over the last century does not gainsay the general structure or its stability.
  4. To realize this structure governments must have powers commensurate with their responsibilities within limits imposed by popular sovereignty. The Papers focus on the demand for taxation as a key source of power, recognizing at the same time the strident American opposition to taxation as part of our political DNA (a core tension). As the nature and distribution of power change, so must the allocation of suitable powers. Many government powers today were not visible or even imagined by our founders—say health care, a massive standing army, public education, social safety nets, expensive roads, bridges, dams, airports, social services.
  5. As times change, so must the government. Our federal government began officially in 1781 around the Articles of Confederation as an experiment; it failed. Its replacement in 1789 around our current constitution, announced by the Papers as an experiment, did not. But it remains a perpetual experiment. As things change, so must the government. Even if ends do not change, means must be adapted to fit the times, opportunities, and lessens from mistakes and the past. The Constitution was an experiment when written, admits Madison and Hamilton. It still is.  We will argue elsewhere on this site that our “Constitution” must incorporate many terms that are not in the written Constitution addressed by the Papers.  Our written Constitution has not changed in any fundamental way since its first ratification.  But the unwritten parts (non-textual parts, even if written somewhere else) have been added and changed with time; they have been the form our constitutional adaptations have taken.

The Federalist Papers do not organize themselves around this sequence of principles. Indeed, they must be teased out from passages here and passages there. However, every principle above is stated explicitly somewhere in the Papers. Our duty here is to compile and curate the representative texts. So we offer in the following sections a sequence of explications in increasing levels of detail. The first offers a few paragraphs for each principle, a sort of summary. The second expands each segment with many quotations from the Papers themselves; they may be accessed through a “read more” button following each summary. The third, in a separate section of this web site, provides the Papers themselves.