Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Federalist Papers (and Election)

I just managed to finish reading The Federalist Papers before the U.S. election.  I wouldn't say I was inspired by this dispiriting election, but it is something that I had been meaning to read for a long time and finally decided the time was right.*  One of the more interesting misconceptions is that Thomas Jefferson had a hand in The Federalist Papers (or indeed in writing the Constitution itself).  Some of Jefferson's ideas made their way into the Constitution by way of the Virginia state constitution, which he had a large hand in drafting (and discusses at some length in Notes on the State of Virginia**).  However, he was Ambassador to France at the time of the Constitutional Convention, and, without telephones or fax machines, he was out of the loop.  Many consider the actual authors of the Constitution to be James Madison and Gouverneur Morris.

The Federalist Papers themselves were written after the fact by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton (with a few written by John Jay).  They were actually a somewhat exhaustive (and exhausting) P.R. campaign to try to convince New York citizens to clamour for their state legislature to sign onto the new Constitution.  The Federalist Papers were appearing in 3 of 4 New York newspapers (creating some irritated readers to be sure) and they were produced at a really incredible clip during the period when states were signing onto the Constitution.  One of the bigger historical ironies is that The Federalist Papers really didn't convince New York to join (and was apparently less influential than other pamphlets of the day) but the fact that a 9th state had signed on (and Virginia then signed the Constitution the 10th signatory).  Thus, the Constitution was considered ratified (and I'll come back to this 9 of 13 issue later).  If New York didn't join, it would have been left out in the cold, and thus raw political considerations took over, and it joined very shortly after Virginia.  North Carolina and Rhode Island came somewhat later.  Presumably without the rules about the Senate giving so much weight to small states, Rhode Island would have held out for a very long time.  It would have been something for Rhode Island to be its own fiefdom, sort of like Monaco or Andorra, but it was not to be.  At any rate, The Federalist Papers did end up having an outsized influence in terms of interpreting the Constitution, and I'll end up commenting a bit about that.

While there are definitely things I would change about the Constitution, and certainly the emphasis they placed on certain things (like the role of state militias vs. a national army or the idea that the House would be impeaching government officials for treason all the time) reflect the character of their times, the drafters of the Constitution were very serious and learned men.  They had done their homework in terms of looking into the forms of government, not only contemporary cases such as the United Kingdom and Germany, but ancient history, particularly Greece and Rome.  They were influenced by Montesquieu and his Spirit of the Laws and David Hume's Essays.  Presumably they were also influenced by Locke (certainly Jefferson was), but I don't believe they name-checked him in The Federalist Papers.  This short essay discusses some of the political thought that went into their work.  They also believed in political compromises, and that spirit of compromise is definitely in short supply on both sides of the aisle, though it is also true that Democrats are more generally interested in a functioning government, and thus have been more willing to compromise than the Republicans, certainly since roughly 1994.

I'll either circle back to this post or create a second post tonight while waiting for the election returns. Then I can go into a few of the really notable things I learned from reading The Federalist Papers.  For those who want to give it a go, Project Guttenberg has them on-line here.

* On a different note entirely, somewhat incredibly, I've never watched the movie Election, though many people have commented how much Hillary seems to be reflected in the character Tracy Flick.  I'll plan on watching this soon, though I just don't think I'll have the stomach to do so if somehow Trump exceeds expectations and wins.

** I think I'll wait a few months before reading Notes on the State of Virginia.  It's about half the length of The Federalist Papers and considerably less dense.  I'll hold off a couple of years before attempting Democracy in America.

The first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable was successfully laid in 1858.

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