Reading 11

  1. We forget how controversial the
  2. Constitution was in the moment
  3. of its birth. The document that
  4. now governs the United States
  5. was drafted in secrecy by men
  6. who knew that they had acted
  7. beyond the mandate given to
  8. them. Sent as state delegates to
  9. Philadelphia in the summer of
  10. 1787 to discuss problems in the
  11. new union, they had been told to
  12. make any adjustments within the
  13. Articles of Confederation as the
  14. official compact of union. The
  15. Articles had been drafted in the
  16. anti-authoritarian moment and
  17. spirit of 1776. It was a companion
  18. document to the Declaration of
  19. Independence, and it left
  20. autonomy in the hands of the
  21. individual states.
  22. Nonetheless, five years would
  23. pass before the apprehensive
  24. states approved this loose
  25. coalition, and they did so in 1781,
  26. only after many revisions by
  27. Revolutionary leaders who feared
  28. centralized authority. The framers
  29. of the Constitution in Philadelphia
  30. basically ignored these fears.
  31. Instead of tinkering with the
  32. arrangement, they junked the
  33. Articles of Confederation
  34. altogether and wrote out their
  35. own document of fundamental
  36. principles. When they were done,
  37. they had substituted a much
  38. stronger idea of union that the
  39. suspicious compromisers of the
  40. original Confederation had
  41. contemplated or would
  42. have allowed.
  43. Nor was that all. When the framers
  44. in Philadelphia made their
  45. document public on September 17,
  46. 1797, after four long months of
  47. closed deliberation, they tacked on
  48. a string of non-negotiable
  49. demands. They insisted that their
  50. document, the new Constitution,
  51. be submitted unchanged by
  52. Confederation authorities to the
  53. states for ratification, that it be
  54. approved through state
  55. conventions for that purpose
  56. rather than through the existing
  57. state legislature, that ratifications
  58. require only a strong majority of
  59. the states rather than the
  60. unanimity stipulated under the
  61. original compact, and that their
  62. own deliberations remain secret
  63. and inviolable during debate over
  64. the document that they had
  65. written. Finally, the framers
  66. resisted any reconsideration by a
  67. comparable deliberative body of
  68. the kind that they had just
  69. conducted among themselves.
  70. When asked toward the end of the
  71. Convention about the possible
  72. amendments through another
  73. general conclave because “it was
  74. improper to say to the people, take
  75. this or nothing,” Charles Pinckney
  76. answered for all of the framers
  77. when he replied, “Conventions
  78. are serious things, and
  79. ought not to be repeated.”
  80. The early responses to the framers’
  81. proposals ranged from uncertainty
  82. to outrage. If the Constitution was
  83. to be accepted, clearly much would
  84. have to be explained and quickly.
  85. The essays that make up The
  86. Federalist sought to be that
  87. explanation. The Federalist,
  88. in this sense, must be read as
  89. a partisan response to the anxiety
  90. that most early republicans felt as
  91. they tried to absorb the altered
  92. plan of union offered to them.
  93. The initial articles were treated,
  94. in fact, as political bluster for
  95. the popular press. When they
  96. continued to appear and
  97. accumulate, they won another
  98. dubious distinction. The eighty-
  99. five assembled papers would be
  100. the most protracted and prolix
  101. pamphlet series Americans had
  102. seen in an age of obsessive
  103. pamphleteering. Beleaguered
  104. opponents dubbed them the
  105. most tiresome production they
  106. had ever encountered.
  107. Supporters, of course, found
  108. high qualities; a few even saw
  109. what the essays would become.
  110. When Thomas Jefferson,
  111. ambassador to France, read his
  112. own copy of The Federalist in late
  113. 1788, he called it “the best
  114. commentary on the principles of
  115. government, which ever was
  116. written,” a claim that holds up
  117. well today. There is no other book
  118. in constitutional thought in any
  119. language quite like The Federalist
  120. for its careful and thorough blend
  121. of range, penetration, principle,
  122. structure, and practical implication.

Hamilton, Alexander, Jay, John, and Madison, James. The Federalist. Intro. Robert Ferguson. New York: Barnes and Nobles, 2006. xiv-xv.