“It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”
In September 1787, delegates from throughout the thirteen States gathered for the purposes of amending the Articles of Confederation, They emerged not with an amended confederation, but with a new Constitution altogether. Each State was called to ratify the document, resulting in heated debates, and several anonymous framers of the Constitution contributed to the debate in New York by writing a series of letters explaining the whys and wherefores. The letters are generally thought of as being penned by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, with Hamilton penning a majority of them. The papers remain popular today in certain circles which contend they explain the Founders’ intent when creating the Constitution. That’s not quite accurate, of course; the framers hotly argued between themselves and were still arguing after the constitution was offered to the public; these gentlemen writers represent one voice in half the argument. Even so, from a historical point of view, I wanted to read the papers to encounter their voices for myself.
The authors begin by arguing first for some kind of American union at all, rather than a continuing existence as thirteen separate States, or a future of multiple republics competing against one another. The thirteen states have fought a war together and signed treaties together; they share a common language, a common heritage, and North America east of the Appalachians seems made for unity, with uniform good soil, many rivers linking the states, and a coastline with extensive harborages. From this more sentimental argument, they then argue that a union, particularly a stronger one, make sense for reasons of security and commerce. The states divided might war with one another, raising tariffs against their brethren; they could form small republics and bully their neighbors, or be manipulated by outside powers to the disadvantage of all Americans. Americans would squander their wealth by maintaining armies to defend themselves against one another, on fortresses. In a Union, however, they could benefit from a common market, uniform currency, and coordinated economic activity against outside threats. He often looks to the example of the United Kingdom, pointing out the many wars between England and Scotland prior to union.
All this is argued in the first fifteen articles, after which point Hamilton and company say bluntly: the Articles of Confederation aren’t up to the job. They then examine similar failure points in other confederations (the authors always refer to the government of the States as a confederacy), and reflect on the essential roles of any proposed government before – almost halfway at, at #39 in my collection — addressing the Constitution itself. What follows from there are answers to general arguments against the Constitution from those who feared it created an all-too powerful central state, and then specific arguments based on suspected future abuses of the various branches of government.
The papers are dense, especially when the authors get into the weeds of the roles and checks of the government in the final thirty. However, there is immense value, particularly for Americans, in taking on this collection. There are gems of wisdom buried in the legal reflections, and the protracted arguments reveal how much the Constitution was a child of compromise and pragmatism. One important argument for them is that the Constitution creates a stronger union, yes, but its government is not a consolidation: it is a Federal one, splitting sovereignty between the national government and the States; the states in fact are members of the government, directly appointing Senators. (This is no longer the case; senators are now elected, and are so removed from State interests that they needn’t even be residents of the state they allegedly represent!)
From hindsight, the papers are almost amusing in some of their arguments: Hamilton is baffled why people would fear overreach from the national government. Why, so few things will be left to its purview? By the main, most people will still only be effected by their local and State governments; the federal entity would be mostly focused on big thing, like foreign policy and inter-state disputes. (They are similarly puzzled as to why State governments would fear the national government, when so much of the power remains in the States’ hands.) The Legislature is also viewed as the branch of government most likely to go mad with power;, which is quite a change when most of the bloated mass of government in DC are officially operated under the Executive branch. So small was the national government prior to 1789 that it was expected to fund itself entirely on import duties!
In reading the papers, I could not help but again be impressed by the substance of the writers and their rivals. Before radio, television, and the internet reduced elections to sordid popularity contests, those who sought public office did so through considered public debate, of which the papers were a part. Would we today tolerate a politician who began reviewing the history of the Netherlands, the Greek city states, and the Holy Roman Empire to add background to the idea he was proposing to you? This work leads me with a greater respect for the problem before Americans in 1787, and a greater appreciation for the document which emerged from the convention. Although the Constitution has been much abused over the years, especially in the 20th century and beyond, both the consideration that went into it, and the product itself should be cherished.
If anyone is curious, I put the notes I was keeping into a public Google Docs file. As you can see, I lost steam in the last leg!