A review of The Federalist by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, James Madison

The Federalist is a seminal work of political philosophy that provides the rationalization and justification for the American experiment in general and the U.S. Constitution specifically. It’s a tour de force, as utterly thorough and  convincing on its subject as Darwin was on his. Reading through this book, it is sometimes hard to imagine what the counter argument might have been.

After America won its independence from Great Britain, the 13 colonies created a loose affiliation with the Articles of Federation. Each state wanted to maintain its own independence from the others, even while each saw that value of banding together. The Articles were poorly conceived, and after a decade or so their deficiencies were clear to everybody, so each state sent representatives to a constitutional convention to provide the small tweaks that might get the thing ship shape.

Well, to their everlasting credit, the convention ultimately decided to scrap the whole thing and create a new constitution from scratch. And then—this being the most ballsy of all—they emerged and said this document needed to be approved or rejected as is, and no further edits would be allowed. In their wisdom, they knew that they’d create a sturdy government, and the various cuts and rearrangements it would be subjected to would undermine it. So they said, nope, take it or leave it.

Over the ensuing year, The Federalist papers were published in newspapers across the country to review all potential objections and put them to rest. The result is a subject by subject, article by article, explanation of the rightness of this document. And it is overwhelmingly convincing, and partly because of this the thing was approved across the board. The only edits came in the form of the bill of rights, amended some years later to make a few things explicit, just in case.

Most of it was written by Alexander Hamilton, with James Madison and John Jay running support, and it’s all very well written in a formal 18th century way. But One reads the whole thing with a sense of wonder and longing, considering what passes for a political leader these days. It isn’t just they they were eloquent, or thought in complete sentences, it’s that they had formulated a complete political philosophy and devoted 85 essays to convincing their countrymen they were write.

One thing that struck me as incredibly inventive is the split between national power and state power. The need for a national government was obvious to the founders, who had suffered for long with decentralized power. The key faults of that are poor and inconsistent trade policies between the states, the ability of foreign powers to play one off the other, and the inability to mount a coherent national defense. For these reasons, a federal government was clearly needed. However, the states were very jealous of their own sovereignty, and were wisely unlikely to give it up. Considering the very different cultural regions making up the 13 states, this makes all the sense in the world. But having read Rousseau and Aristotle on the nature of the sovereign, I can see what a delicate balance they needed to strike to create centers of power at two levels simultaneously, which is I believe why they call this the American experiment. But they very carefully and logically divided the powers between the states and the federal government in a way that left the states to their own devices on local and cultural matters, but committing to a single organization of key aspects of country.

The one place where things get flimsy is on the subject of proportional representation, where the obvious compromise between the slave-holding and non-slave-holding states comes through. The contorted logic that resulted in counting slaves as 3/5th of a person is unpleasant to read, and one gets the impression that Alexander Hamilton had to hold his nose to agree to the whole thing, and his dissatisfaction with it wasn’t exactly screened from view in that section. Be basically said, this the best bad solution they could come up with. I found myself wondering what would have happened if they had written slavery out of the whole out of it, and told the South to take it or leave it. Would have created two countries instead of one, but would have saved us the trouble of the civil war, and 250 years of racial hatred.

So overall a very inspiring read. A bit of a long slog, but pretty enjoyable in small bites throughout. I’m glad I read it, because it gave me a far better understanding of the country than I had going in.

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