Why the Federalist Papers Today?

If the objective is more intense and active political street fighting today, or elevating today’s political dialogue (not hard), why read the Federalist Papers, essays written by members of the elite for the benefit of the elite (some have said) two hundred and fifty years ago for a country we would neither recognize nor understand?

A group of men in robes

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Alexander Hamilton                                 James Madison                                        John Jay

First, let us admit that the three writers—Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay—were members of the elite. Madison, from a mid-level aristocratic Virginia plantation family that owned slaves, received his education at what is now Princeton, earned his label as “father of the Constitution,” would get the Bill of Rights into the Constitution, and become our fourth President. John Jay was born into a wealthy New York merchant family, became like Hamilton a well-known lawyer, served as president of the country in effect as head of the Continental Congress during the Revolutionary War, and became first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Hamilton was born to a broken family on the edge of doom in Nevis, a British island in the Caribbean, lived a life worthy of Dickens for fifteen years until blessedly transported to the mainland colonies, where he studied at what is now Columbia, became a well-known New York lawyer, married into a wealthy New York family, was Washington’s principal assistant for most of the Revolutionary War, was his first Secretary of Treasury, and just saved the American economy before being killed by Vice President Aaron Burr in a duel in 1804. He was pulled from the grave by Lin-Manuel Miranda on Broadway to become the most famous of the three today. They were elite, in the very best sense. No work of political philosophy was ever written by anyone so closely acquainted, so immersed in the heart of real politics, as the Federalist Papers.

The three wrote 85 essays published in New York newspapers between October of 1787 and May of 1788 defending the new constitution that emerged on 17 September 1787 from the Constitutional Convention, one intended to replace the Articles of Confederation that organized our country during and just after the Revolutionary War. They were called The Federalist then, more commonly The Federalist Papers today, but we will often shorten that to just The Papers herein. Hamilton wrote 51, Madison 29, and Jay but 5 (he fell ill during the effort). The quantity gave them space to not only answer charges against the new constitution that were coming from many angles and voices, also in newspaper essays, but to also characterize, explain, and justify the reasons for a more centralized government, the infirmities of the Articles, the republican and federal forms along with separation and balance of powers to shape a durable democratic government, and each item of the new constitution itself. It is considered by many to be the best work of political philosophy written on American soil.

While much has changed between then and now, as we illustrate next, the general constitutional structure of our governments with two important exceptions have not. Our federal and state governments each have two legislative chambers (except Nebraska, with just one), an independent executive branch and an independent judicial branch, with elected legislative and executive leaders holding office for limited terms. As the Papers argue, this arrangement with powers distributed among them appropriately limits the power of any one branch or any one person from making critical decisions alone and checks each branch’s natural tendency to encroach upon the others. The system is designed to prevent autocracy, with its implied threat to individual liberty and democratic government, meant in the sense of government ultimately responsive to the people.

The two central differences between then and now are the distribution of powers between state and federal governments and the massive administrative state created since the Depression at all levels of government. They are related. At the beginning (and as the Federalist Papers assume and repeat) the federal government only addressed war, foreign policy, interstate commerce, and quelling domestic rebellions if necessary; the states did everything else. The Depression (and the Progressive Movement before it) created felt demands for protections against future economic difficulties and inequities inherent in unfettered free market economies and government directed or funded things like social security and health care. The Civil Rights Movement then added equity across racial, class, and gender lines that fostered the Great Society Program created by some 230 laws passed between 1964 and 1968. World War II and the Cold War ensuing forced the federal government to maintain a massive standing army with continuous funding for new military technologies included. The combined efforts raised federal spending to 20% of the GDP (from around 1% in 1900) and hundreds of agencies to manage the programs, most of which remain unchanged from one administration to the next.

Before 1935 the sudden increases arose from the War of 1812, the Civil War, and World War I, with trailing revenues required to retire debt (although the last President to actually eliminate debt was Andrew Johnson—1829 to 1837). The big spike around 1940 of course is World War II and its debt management, but most of what we see after 1960 derives from domestic programs and a now permanent, massive military. Let it be said that this condition (less the military) obtains in every developed nation, most with greater percentages of GDP flowing through the government and back out to the people in one form or another. It is wrong to call this “socialism” in its strictest sense (of government ownership of the means of production), but not incorrect to call it constructive redistribution, the movement of money from the wealthy to those with lower incomes, or none, for many reasons, among which is economic growth stimulated by spreading the power to consume to many more people than occurs naturally in an unfettered free market economy.

The Papers do not account for these changes in any explicit form. But they help explain the requisite conditions. All three writers insist the government must have suitable means for accepted ends. Madison and Hamilton insist the new government is experimental, with both suggesting that changing times will likely produce different ends or goals. The federal government has taken on responsibilities unimagined in 1787, as have all state governments. The right rails against federal growth when we have Democratic Presidents, but the last four Republican Presidents have increased discretionary spending and federal debt by significant degrees, that last adding 30% to discretionary non-military spending and over $1 trillion in debt during his last year in office before Covid, suggesting that the goals have broad support, or seem absolutely necessary.

The Papers do account for our political nature as human beings, particularly our limitations, but not ignoring our enormous capacities for innovation and growth; they account for the many tensions in our political life that have predictable if not always pleasant effects; they account for the value of the republican form, our particular form of federalism, and the necessity of separate branches with some power over the others; they argue in many ways for means commensurate with ends, and they say and imply that the future will bring changes that cannot be predicted. These are things worth knowing. Among the gratifications will be an appreciation of why our governments feel shackled at times, why they cannot do things we would want them the do (but the other side will not want them to do), why we have two parties, why agreement is so difficult, and why the people have the ultimate power, and the ultimate responsibility. Of course, some things said in the Papers make no sense today. But we can scissor out the relevant parts without much difficulty. That process will be one of our duties here.