The Accessible Federalist: Historical Documents and Human Nature

 
 

Although The Federalist is indeed a historical document that emerged from and was directed to a particular time period with particular concerns, historical sensitivity itself should also lead one to view The Federalist as something more than this. Adapted from the introduction to The Accessible Federalist.

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This month Hackett Publishing is releasing my new book, a selection of sixteen key Federalist papers adapted for the modern reader. I was very much of two minds when considering whether to undertake this project. On the one hand, I am firmly committed to the importance of encountering original texts and have always had a deep appreciation for the original language of The Federalist. On the other hand, after attempting to teach The Federalist to hundreds of students at two public universities and three private ones during the last decade, I have come to the conclusion that the original text is simply no longer accessible to the vast majority of ordinary students and citizens. This book is an attempt to revive some of the best arguments for our constitutional order and allow them to continue to speak to students and citizens today.

There was a time when the Constitution was not yet a historical document. There was a time before it had been subjected to the interpretation and reinterpretation of the Supreme Court over the course of hundreds of cases. There was a time when it looked doubtful that the people of the thirteen independent states would agree to a plan for a new federal government that had been produced in secrecy and without legal authorization.

It was at this time that Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay wrote the newspaper articles that together would become The Federalist. They united under one name, Publius, and shared one purpose: to persuade the people of New York to support ratification of a new Constitution for the United States. This proposed Constitution was written and proposed by a convention of delegates appointed by individual states, a convention whose official purpose was to revise the existing Articles of Confederation. These delegates shared a justifiably urgent concern for the viability of the fledgling United States, and they quickly realized that their task of rescuing the United States required more than a simple revision of the Articles.

The Articles of Confederation had created a “league” or treaty among the states rather than a government for the nation like those in existence for each of the states. The states each had one vote in the Congress, and unanimity was required for many decisions. The individual citizens of the states had no direct connection with the national government; they weren’t represented in it, and they couldn’t be directly acted upon by it. The Union that was created as a military alliance during the Revolutionary War continued to act as a mere alliance after the war was over.

The United States under the Articles of Confederation was organized along the same lines as all preceding confederations in history, and it was destined to collapse in precisely the same way: through the inability of the central government to effectively coordinate national affairs. Because of this, the Articles of Confederation needed to be entirely replaced. As Hamilton put it in Federalist 15, “the evils we experience do not proceed from minute or partial imperfections, but from fundamental errors in the structure of the building, which cannot be amended otherwise than by an alteration in the first principles and main pillars of the fabric.” And Madison described the Constitutional Convention in Federalist 40 as “deeply and unanimously impressed with the crisis, which had led their country almost with one voice to make so singular and solemn an experiment for correcting the errors of a system by which this crisis had been produced.” The structure of the federal union had to be entirely remade, and an essential part of this remaking was the formation of a national government with sufficient authority and power to counterbalance that of the individual states.

The Mission (and Bias) of The Federalist Papers

Despite their unanimous agreement on the necessity of adopting an entirely new Constitution, the convention delegates knew they would face a difficult battle in securing its ratification by the specially elected state conventions. The people knew essentially nothing about the proposed Constitution until it was actually placed in front of them for their consideration. Something so novel in conception and momentous in importance would require all of the persuasive ability the convention delegates could muster for its support. It was far from certain that the Constitution would be ratified, and the efforts of Federalists such as the Publius authors would be absolutely crucial in bringing this about.

The Federalist differs, then, from most books of political philosophy not only in its multiple authorship but also in its direction to a definite practical purpose. Hamilton, Madison, and Jay each had his own distinct opinions about politics, and these opinions didn’t always fit neatly together. And because they were engaged in a debate with very practical and even personal stakes, they had powerful motivation to bend their arguments the better to serve their ultimate goals. The arguments presented in The Federalist are, in other words, delivered to us in far messier fashion than the stereotypical armchair utterances of the disinterested philosopher.

In the very first Federalist essay, Hamilton warns his readers that the arguments on both sides of the ratification debate are likely to be accompanied by a “false bias” brought about by “ambition, avarice, personal animosity, party opposition, and many other motives.” He doesn’t exempt himself from this sort of bias, even while being careful to heap more doubt on his opponents’ motivations than his own. In a sobering and brilliant commentary on the nature of public debate at this critical juncture in American—and indeed human—history, Hamilton deftly attempts to achieve some distance for himself and his coauthors from the obvious charge of bias that would naturally be leveled against them in their attempt to defend the proposed Constitution.

Despite Hamilton’s efforts at the outset, though, many both at the time and since have tended to view the Federalist essays with some suspicion. After all, the two principal Publius authors—Hamilton and Madison—were leading figures in the convention that produced the proposed Constitution. In addition to possessing an intimate knowledge of the convention’s deliberations, they would have had strong feelings of attachment to it and responsibility for its success. All three of the Publius authors would go on to hold prestigious political positions in the new political order inaugurated by the Constitution: Hamilton as secretary of the Treasury, Madison as a member of the House of Representatives, secretary of state, and president, and Jay as the first chief justice of the Supreme Court. Given all of this, it is difficult to deny the workings of some measure of “false bias” in Publius’ essays.

Understanding the Context of the Constitution

This undeniably practical and rhetorical context of The Federalist suggests its value as a historical document. As a historical document, it can shed light on the issues and debates of the time, as well as the thoughts and motivations of the participants in these debates. It can help us to understand what was important to the Americans of the time, how they viewed their political situation, and how some of the key political figures of the founding era shaped the direction of early American politics. It can help us to appreciate the rich context in which the US Constitution was written, considered, and adopted.

Madison’s Federalist 39 provides an excellent example of this. The essay clearly reveals the importance of three political concepts at the time: republicanism, federalism, and nationalism. It also illustrates how these concepts were understood, both singly and in balance with one another, by Madison and his contemporaries. Far from a philosophical treatise on these concepts, it showcases the extent of Madison’s excellent rhetorical abilities in navigating his argument for the Constitution through the minefield of political opinions at the time.

Republicanism is depicted in the essay as an essential component of “the genius of the people of America.” Almost everyone on almost all sides of political questions in America at the time viewed himself as a “republican.” The Constitution couldn’t be adopted if it failed to follow this republican predisposition of the American people. But if the commitment to republicanism itself wasn’t a matter for debate, its meaning certainly was. Madison shows the “extreme inaccuracy with which the term has been used” and provides a new definition of republicanism that, not surprisingly, fits the proposed Constitution very well. Here, then, we have a discussion that is revealing both of the state of common opinion at the time, and of Madison’s particular attempt at clarifying and sharpening that common opinion in a manner that agrees with the understanding that produced the new Constitution.

In the case of federalism and nationalism, Madison appears to be navigating a difficult tightrope between two relatively well-defined political positions at the time: those who emphasize the need for a more “energetic” national government than the one authorized by the Articles of Confederation, and those who emphasize the importance of maintaining the Articles’ arrangement regarding the sovereignty and independence of the states. The former tend to be “Federalists” in support of the proposed Constitution, and include Hamilton and Madison among their prominent leaders; the latter tend to be “Anti-Federalists” in opposition to the proposed Constitution. By carefully arguing that the proposed Constitution is “neither a national nor a federal” one, Madison is attempting to steer a middle path that will assuage the concerns of some Anti-Federalists without betraying those of his Federalist allies.

Learning from the Past: Government and Human Nature

Federalist 39 has much to teach us about the time in which it was written: about the opinions that Madison and others held, about the debates in which they were engaged, and about the political circumstances within which they lived. But this essay might also contain the potential to help us reflect on our own time and political circumstances as well. Our world today isn’t identical to Publius’s in 1787, but neither is it wholly different from it. Many of the debates that were particularly controversial at the time of the Constitution continue to be controversial today. Issues of minority rights, the responsibility of government to the people, states’ rights versus federal authority, political equality, and race relations occupied political actors at the time of the founding just as they occupy us today. The concepts, approaches, and arguments they utilized, along with the concrete circumstances within which these issues were manifested, might indeed differ in important ways from our own. These differences, though, can be sources of illumination rather than alienation.

Publius viewed the Constitution as a “reflection on human nature,” and as the embodiment both of a realistic assessment of “the infirmities and depravities of the human character” and of a moral vision deriving in large part from the “principles of the Revolution” as enunciated in the Declaration of Independence. Throughout The Federalist, Publius is frequently concerned with showing how the proposed Constitution effectively takes this twofold understanding of human nature into account.

In Federalist 10, for example, Madison is concerned with the manner in which the problem of “factions” should influence constitutional design. He defines factions as kinds of interest groups whose agendas are inimical to the rights of other citizens or to the aggregate interests of the community. The fact that factions exist at all is a direct consequence of human nature in the form of its “infirmities and depravities.” Wherever there is liberty there will be factions, and “the latent causes of faction” are inextricably “sown in the nature of man.”

This point emerges prominently again in Federalist 51, where the conflictual model of ambition counteracting ambition becomes necessary due to “the defect of better motives” such as respect for others and a disinterested concern for the good of the whole society. The fact that factions represent a serious problem to be controlled, on the other hand, follows from an understanding of human nature in the form of the moral vision it includes. Factions arise out of a condition of liberty but tend to destroy this liberty through their opposition to the rights of others and the common goods of the whole society.

These rights and common goods are those paradigmatically expressed in the Declaration’s account of the origin and purposes of government: the rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” and the common goods of “safety and happiness.” It is human nature, as it becomes attached to us through our creation by “Nature’s God,” that reveals the outlines and components of the moral vision reflected in the Constitution’s design and that guides Publius’s defense of it in The Federalist. The dynamic interplay of these two faces of human nature is reflected in the framers’ search for what Madison famously describes in Federalist 10 as “a republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government.”

The revolutionary principles of natural rights, as well as those “qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence,” point in the direction of what Madison terms a “pure democracy.” This is why the state constitutions created during the Revolution and following on the heels of the Declaration were overwhelmingly democratic in nature. The examples of democratic state politics confirmed, however, what the history of democracies suggested: that too-pure democracies tend to be “spectacles of turbulence and contention,” and “incompatible with personal security or the rights of property.” This results from the second, less auspicious face of human nature: the “degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust.”

In Federalist 10, Madison masterfully attempts to show how the design of the proposed Constitution as an “extended republic” properly reflects the complex tension between the two sides of human nature. Because this two-sided human nature doesn’t seem to have changed much between Publius’s time and our own, a dialogue between Publius and ourselves appears possible. And because such a dialogue is possible, it is, in fact, required of any search for an accurate and genuine historical understanding of The Federalist.

Not Only A Historical Document

The framers and defenders of the Constitution were engaged in activities with which we can relate and sympathize, and they had opinions and made arguments related to these activities in precisely the same way we do today. If we nevertheless treat their opinions, arguments, and actions as things alien and ossified, we fail to understand and appreciate them as they actually existed at the time. Unless we attempt to put ourselves in their shoes, or in the shoes of someone actually interacting with the authors at the time in which they wrote, we fall short of understanding the past as it really existed.

In other words, although The Federalist is indeed a historical document that emerged from and was directed to a particular time period with particular concerns, historical sensitivity itself should also lead one to view The Federalist as something more than this. Because it wasn’t a historical document at the time in which it was written, defended, and adopted, to view it only as such is to preclude authentic understanding and appreciation. And without an authentic understanding and appreciation for Publius’s opinions and arguments, we may miss the opportunity to benefit from his reflections and insights regarding issues that we continue to struggle with today.

It is often thought that to treat a historical text in this way is to use history as a means in the service of our own particular ends, and thereby to distort rather than faithfully understand the original. Because the authors existed within a certain historical context, it seems that to ignore this contextual difference is to fail to take an essential component of the historical text into account. It is equally important, though, to appreciate the fact that the authors of such a text existed within a certain historical context—that they interacted with their world in the same way, broadly speaking, that we interact with ours. Unless their world has nothing at all in common with ours, this sort of appreciation is essential to historical understanding.

Nor are these two perspectives mutually exclusive. Historical authors and their texts aren’t objects entirely alien to us; nor do they exist in some abstract ahistorical ether. Historical authors and their texts had as real an existence as we enjoy now; the circumstances surrounding their existence were, though, different in various and variable ways from our own.

The Purpose of This Edition

It is with these ideas in mind that my new edition of The Federalist proceeds. It is intended to be a supplement to, rather than a substitute for, the original version. The original version remains essential to achieving the many aspects of historical understanding already mentioned. My new version, on the other hand, is designed to supply what is now missing from the original for the vast majority of readers: the ability to connect, engage, and dialogue with Publius’s thought processes and arguments.

The original language and style of The Federalist, though frequently beautiful and striking, is so different from our own as to render understanding very difficult even for academics and professors. Sometimes the fault lies in our inferior prowess in expression and comprehension today, sometimes it lies in the simple extinction over time of particular words and idioms, and sometimes it lies in unfortunate idiosyncrasies of expression during Publius’s time. Whatever the reason or combination of reasons, the fact is that most—and perhaps nearly all—of us are no longer able to access a good portion of the original ideas, opinions, and arguments in The Federalist through the original text.

This new version is intended to make the most important ideas and arguments in The Federalist accessible to ordinary citizens today. Care has been taken to depart from the original text only for the sake of accessibility to modern readers, and not for the sake of interpretation. My aim hasn’t been to improve upon or even to clarify the original text, but only to faithfully transmit its meaning to a current-day audience for whom the original is too often impenetrable. It is intended to be a scholarly translation rather than an updating or a dumbing-down of the original. In such a task, though, some loss of nuance and connotation is inevitable.

There are, moreover, certain to be points at which I have fallen short of conveying the precise meaning of the original through my own particular failing. In an effort to make up for these shortcomings, I have included an appendix of key quotations from the original text of The Federalist. And for whatever deficiencies remain, I offer my apologies to the original authors and hope that they will be more inclined to applaud my effort than to condemn my presumption.

Adam Seagrave is a political scientist and the author of The Foundations of Natural Morality: On the Compatibility of Natural Rights and the Natural Law and editor of Liberty and Equality: The American Conversation.

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