Can we teach “Federalist Papers” today?

Reprinted from The Constitutionalist

I have taught over the years Federalist Papers More times than I could count and it was always a challenge. This is not because of the underlying difficulty of the text, although its language and arguments are often demanding, but because students believe that they already know what the book is about before they open it. They know, presumably, that it contains eighty-five articles written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John J. – collectively known as Publius – designed to persuade the New York State Convention to ratify the new constitution. But what they don’t know and it seems increasingly difficult to explain is the true revolutionary nature of the book. Far from being an occasional document written for the limited purpose of securing ratification of the new constitution, Federalist Papers He did not initiate anything less than a revolution in political thought.

The Federalist Papers Three decisive ways have changed our understanding of government. First, it offers a defense of what was truly the first in political history; Namely, a written constitution. Our closest model, the British Constitution, consists of ancient pieces of common law extending to the Norman conquest but not something coded in a single document or text. Today, of course, the written constitution is the norm but in the eighteenth century it was unheard of.

It is the omnipresence of the written constitution that impresses the uniqueness of the federalist achievement. As the constitution expands, so do their demands. The Soviet constitution of 1936 enumerated a basket of economic rights not found in Western democracies. The 1945 UN Charter guarantees some previously unknown social and cultural rights in history. And all 235 pages of the EU constitution – a conflicting bundle of demands for social justice, universal healthcare and full employment – far beyond the power of any country. There is a growing gap between the promises of this constitution and the political realities they claim to describe.

Second, Publius has redefined what it basically means to have (or have) a Republican government. In the past, republics were considered possible only at small rural outposts, such as Switzerland or the city-states of northern Italy. Opponents of the constitution have repeatedly called for Montesquieu’s authority The spirit of the law Arguing that a vast territory imagined by the Framers would inevitably lead to monarchy or even dictatorship. In a large state, the center of government must be remote and away from the people it is supposed to represent.

Moreover, the idea was that any people who had to govern themselves had to be relatively homogeneous in terms of manners, habits, and customs. A republic represents not only a set of institutions but also a policy, a shared way of life, which is possible only among people with common moral habits and dispositions. Large state production Luxury, A term that was synonymous with inequality and corruption for most of the eighteenth century. Only small states can create a society where there is no wealth, influence, or education, which creates a kind of moderation – some call it moderation – necessary for an ordinary, strong and virtuous person. The small republic was regarded as a school of citizenship as much as a plan for government.

Federalist writers have completely reversed these earlier assumptions. They first proposed a large-scale republic with a combination of different parties and interests, with a representative body designed to create the necessary checks and balances in power. It was nothing less than a new definition of a republic that had no previous model that could refer to it. This idea of ​​a republic was the first in the history of political theory without the difficulty of concentrating power in the hands of a far-flung ruler to ensure the multiplicity of competitive interests in the larger states. It is aptly called the “Madison Moment”.

From its inception, the Madison Republic has to be a shameless bourgeois republic based on the protection of property rights and individual freedoms. The work of government will not impose an impossibly high standard of justice and morality – the last, for example, Plato. Republic – However, control the risk of factionalism and conflict arising from the diversity of different types of property. In a modern commercial republic, the function of statehood is not to eliminate or eliminate factions but to manage the differences between them. “This is the control of diverse and intervening interests,” Madison wrote Federalist # 10, “Modern law-making forms the main task.”

This led to the proposed third great innovation Federalist Papers; Namely, the principle of representation. According to Hamilton, the principle of representation – including checks and balances and the judicial term for good conduct – marks a great discovery in modern political science. It leads to a distinction between democracy based on direct rule of the people and indirectly governed republics through representatives. Democracies have been “sometimes spectacles of unrest and conflict, sometimes incompatible with personal security or property rights,” Madison writes. In contrast, the purpose of the representation was to “refine and expand the views of the public through an elected body of citizens.” The representation will act as a smelting process where gold is extracted from the draw.

The question of who could represent whom was a clear theme Federalist # 35. Based on Madison’s sociology of different types of property, Hamilton divides society into two broad economic classes, which he describes as the interests of builders and mechanics on the one hand, and the interests of landowners on the other. He said mechanics and builders would find their natural patron among the rich merchants just as different landowners would find their patron among the rich zamindars. Standing between the two would be the group that Hamilton considers their “natural arbiter”, the “educated profession” who can make a broader and more neutral understanding of the whole through education and learning. By educated profession, Hamilton meant mainly lawyers. It will be through their talents and demonstrated abilities that this class will attract the “sympathy” of its elements. This passage expresses Hamilton’s hope – at best only partially realized – to reconcile popular government with something like liberal education.

The Federalist Papers The modern republican government has been remarkably successful in defining the terms. They have established nothing less than a conceptual revolution in political thought. A republic – or what we call democracy today – is basically what Publius said. And yet many today are extremely dissatisfied with the representative republic. Complaints that our representing organizations are remote and unresponsive have been around for a long time. Some also believe that we are facing a crisis of representation that requires new forms of direct political participation. Experiments with mini-public, crowdsourcing techniques and sorting are some of the more extreme solutions being offered.

Criticism of it Federalist Papers Today comes mainly from two sources. People on the left complain that the commercial republic does not do enough for the interests of the rich and redistribution of wealth at the bottom. They have a point. The goal of federalist writers was not to eliminate class and redistribute resources. Publius’ goal was not to cancel classes but to represent them. The American establishment was both more modest and more successful than the later revolutions – the French, the Russians – who demanded that society be rebuilt from the ground up. The American founders not only rejected the ancient egalitarianism presented by Sparta but also indirectly rejected the later socialist experiments. The Marxist critique of the American establishment was correct. It was only the goal of a political revolution, not a social one. In today’s environment it is difficult to show how Publius ’goal was actually a work of heroic self-restraint that they hoped would be a guide for future statesmen.

Critics on the right complain that the Republic of Madison does not pay enough attention to the demands of civic quality – forms of “social capital” – which create a healthy moral climate. No regime, especially a republic, can be indifferent to the character of its citizens. The problem facing the Madison Republic is whether there is room for traditional republican themes such as equality, virtue and common good. There is almost complete silence about religion and religious education Federalist Papers Which then (and probably still remains) is the primary source of moral guidance for most people. Was it a supervision? It seems that the Federalist writers simply accepted that religious education would be the primary form of education, but that is certainly not the case today. This raises the question of whether a republican government can survive on the principles of individualism and self-interest at the core of the modern capitalist economic system.

The question is whether teaching Federalist Papers Can be rescued today. Students are more likely to meet the failures of American founders than their successes. The fact that many of the signatories to the constitution were slave owners and the document itself is silent on slavery, would be taken as evidence of a bad intention. Recent efforts by scholars to place the American establishment in a “global” context have had the effect of reducing the mere novelty and iconoclasticism of the founding moment. Perhaps most clearly, the qualities of a bourgeois republic – honesty, compromise, tolerance and fairness – seem to fade in comparison to the demands for social justice here and now. As one of my students once said, “I need something to help me wake up in the morning.”

There is no easy answer to these objections except to return to writing again and again. However, if the defense of the bourgeois democratic system against the rising tide of dictatorship is not enough to get out of bed, I do not know what.

Steven B. Smith

Steven B. Smith is a professor of political science at Alfred Cowles Yale University. He received his Ph.D. From the University of Chicago.

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