Friday, April 24, 2009

Selling the new constitution

Before many years had passed it became obvious that the Articles of Confederation needed to be replaced by a more effective government.

Oddly, there was no actual provision for the calling of a Constitutional Convention (just as there is no such provision in our present constitution), but representatives of the soon-to-be 13 states agreed to convene a convention anyway, with the intent of producing a governing document that would serve the intent of the people more responsively than the Articles had.

Whether or not our federal government in its present form was what those framers had in mind, and whether or not what our federal government has become is what WE want, will be the subject of our next few polite exchanges.

Soon after our present constitution was drafted, but before ratification, an attempt was made to "sell" it to the American people through a series of  articles which appeared in selected newspapers. These essays were intended to argue the merits of the new constitution, explain the intent of the new document and sway public opinion in its favor. The letters were all signed by the Latin name Publius, but were in actuality written by three men: Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison.

Alexander Hamilton became our country's first Secretary of the Treasury, in the administration of George Washington; John Jay was to be the first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court; James Madison (who is called the father of the constitution, and was the principal author of it) was a member of the Virginia legislature and later served in the U.S. Congress as a representative of that state. He then became Thomas Jefferson's Secretary of State, and finally he became the 4th President of the United States.

If you have a desire to learn the reasons our constitution was framed the way it is, the thinking that went on in the minds of the men who wrote it and what they were trying to accomplish, read the Federalist Papers. There are 85 essays altogether, most published between October, 1787, and August of 1788. A complete collection of all the essays (including 8 additional essays) was also published in book form in 1788.

One thing that Americans don't often think about, but should realize, is that these men and the rest of the men on your personal list of founding fathers, absolutely were mindful that they were being watched, were making history, and, that future generations of Americans - you - would be looking back and judging them. Their writings and the writings of their contemporaries make that clear.

The Federalist Papers were, of course, advocating the ratification of the new constitution. But, even more importantly, they serve as a first-person primary resource for our interpretation of the constitution. They outlined both the philosophy and motivation of the system of government they were proposing. There is little doubt, simply by the way they are written and the points they repeatedly and painstakingly address, that their intent was to shape future interpretations of their baby. To that end, it is generally agreed that no analysis by later historians matches the incredible depth and breadth of the political science masterpiece contained in the essays of the Federalist Papers. Read the Federalist Papers directly; they are available to you. You do not have to rely on someone else's interpretation of them.

Students of American Government cannot fully grasp, I don't think, the reasoning that went into our constitution unless they read and study the Federalist Papers of Hamilton, Jay and Madison. Especially read Madison's essays and you will come away with a new appreciation of the then-groundbreaking concepts that have been mimicked by dozens of governments over the years.

(Then click on the red "Federalist 29" to enlarge it.)

[Next: The problems with the Articles of Confederation, how the new constitution would remedy those problems, and an explanation of the concept of Federalism. Please don't shy away; this will be fun!]


  1. Seems like good advice. Go to the source. I've read them long ago, but it doesn't hurt to refresh my memory so I downloaded them to my Sony eReader. I'll be out of town this weekend and on travel all next week, so I'll have plenty of time to look at them. My responses here, though, might be pretty spotty.

    My recollection of the papers was that the were mostly defenses of different aspects of the Constitution, often the provisions on defense. But, as I said, it's been a while.

    One caveat. It's easy to lose sight of the fact that these opinions represented the views of a limited number of men and we have really no way of knowing for sure how many contemporaries wholeheartedly agreed, how many were skeptical but followed in the interest of the greater good and how many really hated these ideas. These men were not omniscient. I believe that they were doing what they saw as the best for the greater good of the country and for posterity, but they were looking out for themselves as well. And, however perfect their intentions might have been, it doesn't mean they were always right.

    On the federalist papers, as well, one should take what you read with a grain of salt as one should with reading anything where something is being sold, where there is clearly an agenda. That obviously means that the papers are biased and never pretended to be anything else. They were written by men who were a product of their times, times, I might add, markedly different from ours, and written for an audience that is also different from ours.

    That doesn't mean they were wrong or immoral, ruthless or conniving. But the federalist papers represent the lobbying of the day. It's worthwhile to remember that.

  2. Well, Stephanie, we are getting a bit off track here I think. The eventual purpose of this long build up - yes there is a purpose! - is to be able to discuss whether or not we think the federal government has gotten too big and become too intrusive, much beyond the original intent and much beyond what a free country needs to be doing in the daily lives of its citizens. I believe it has, and this has always been my point for this series.

    As for whether the authors of the constitution were in a majority, or whether they were simply shilling for their point of view, or whether the majority of Americans even wanted it in the first place, I submit is totally beside the point here: this is the constitution we have today. If we are going to debate, this is the one we are gong to have to debate.

    I say the constitution (and thus its authors) never contemplated in a million years what the feds are doing today. For the most part, I think you agree with that. But me more so than you - we may as well not even have individual states anymore, in my opinion. You disagree. You like a strong federal government. It gets things done, you think. Things the majority may not WANT done. So we differ. I hope there will not be too many more posts that need to be made for the sake of foundation before we can debate the real questions, while still agreeing what we are debating.

    One thing that DOES still need to be covered, as background, is a clear definition of what federalism, the governmental concept, is in the first place: What is it supposed to accomplish, and what did they HOPE it would solve with regard to the Articles of Confederation? I would be pleased beyond measure if you could try to write a post for this blog simply defining the concept of federalism. Or as simply as it CAN be defined.

    I know you are busy this week, and it is not likely to happen, but I wanted to ask anyway.

  3. Because if I have to ask Soubriquet to do it, all is lost.

  4. I am not here everyday, but I am following this topic with you. I just want to say hello and how are you?

  5. Do let us know when the American History Society (Technical Details Section) finishes the closed meetings, and the rest of us mere mortals can return.

  6. By a strange coincidence (food poisoning), it looks like I will not be out of town so I might be able to pull it off. I need to know (a) if you're looking to have it on this blog (and, if yes, how to get it to you)or if you want it on my blog (and, if the latter, if Thursday's OK since I've written all my posts until Thursday) and (2)whether you want my take on federalism or an independent view.

    I find your response to my last comment interesting, that what the populace (largely uneducated) thought of their government was unimportant - it was what it was. Can't you say the same for ours. People may not like it, but it's the one we have.

    Just askin'.

    Let me know at stephanieebarr(at) about the blog or comment on one of my blogs.

  7. @Stephanie - of course it was important what the people thought of it back then. I didn't mean to sound so uncaring. I'm sure they cared. But we must debate what we have. It is therefore more important what Americans think of it today, isn't it?

  8. @Ettarose - So good to see you again! I hope we accomplish something. It's hard to debate what we like or don't like about our government today if we don't understand what they were trying to do. I hope you keep reading. Only a few more days. :)

  9. @Sheila - I am trying to mix up my posts a little. I hope those who are not quite as interested in U.S. History as I am will still find those other posts entertaining. I will try harder. :) :)

  10. Still here, still reading and learning about your history!



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