6/26/13 UPDATE: One of my readers has brought to my attention that I have been unfair to the Federalists and their proposed Constitution. Since realizing that I have been in error, I have endeavored to incorporate most of his corrections into this article. It was certainly not my intention to find fault with the Framers for not knowing to what extent those seeking political power would go to in order to increase that power. I understand that the ratification of the Constitution was an unique experiment, and my initial attempt to evaluate the results of that experiment was in error. Below is what I hope to be is a more accurate evaluation of The Federalist Papers.
Designing a form of government that is equitable is very hard, to say the least. There have been relatively few periods of history whereby the inhabitants of a given land had the unique opportunity to establish a government that was to their own liking; too often, the most common form in a change of government comes about through conquest. If securing Liberty is our goal, shouldn’t it behoove us to learn more about how this was done successfully last time?
America is described in several of the Federalist letters as a “confederate republic.” They thought that confederacies are prone to the destructiveness that accompanies the establishment of factions; that is, special interests:
“By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” [Federalist Paper #10]
As the causes of faction cannot be removed, then its effects must be controlled; this could not be accomplished by a pure democracy, since such a society composed of a small number of citizens does not automatically control for potential balkanization. Republics, on the other hand, by its primary virtue of representation, does attempt to at least mitigate the incessant bickering common to democracies; also, since larger republics deal with power-hungry factions better than smaller republics do, it is for primarily this very reason the Federalists thought that a federal union, rather than a confederacy, of the American states would be preferable for keeping the special interests from seizing too much political power.
It is clearly explained in Federalist Paper #2 that the federal Constitution, produced by the Philadelphia Convention, was a proposal to be considered by the various state conventions, and thus not a forcible imposition. One of the Federalist rebuttals against the request by some of the state conventions for conditional acceptance of the Constitution, provided that any number of amendments be first attached to it before ratification, was that:
“The moment an alteration is made in the present plan, it becomes to the purpose of adoption, a new one, and must undergo a new decision of each state…[i]f, on the contrary, the constitution should once be ratified by all the states as it stands, alterations in it may at any time be effected by nine states. In this view alone the chances are as thirteen to nine in favour of subsequent amendments, rather than of the original adoption of an entire system.” [Federalist Paper #85]
In other words, the impetus behind what some historians labeled the “take this or nothing” attitude is primarily due to their rationale that it would be easier to set up a constitutional federated republic if subsequent (post-ratification) amendments were made, instead of previous (pre-ratification) amendments. During the Philadelphia Convention, nobody offered any viable revision to the the Articles of Confederation that would have provided remedy for its weaknesses. The biggest stickler was the requirement for the unanimous approval of anything.
With regards to slavery, the Federalists were by no means abolitionists. Why should they be, when their view of the Africans in bondage was that they were “half-free” already, by virtue of their dual qualities as both person and property? Although this viewpoint was expounded upon in Federalist Paper #54, at least some of the Federalists, to their credit, were keen on their 20 year plan to halt the importation of slaves into America:
“It ought to be considered as a great point gained in favour of humanity, that a period of twenty years may terminate forever within these states, a traffic which has so long and so loudly upbraided the barbarism of modern policy; that within that period, it will receive a considerable discouragement from the federal government, and may be totally abolished…” [Federalist Paper #42]
Needless to say, this is little more than a concession by the Federalists, for it does not address whether the offspring of those currently in bondage would be born free or enslaved (as their parents were). If such was the latter case, then simply halting the slave trade into America is nothing other than stemming the heavy bleeding on the body politic while completely ignoring arterial bleeding elsewhere, since I would be willing to bet that those in bondage were able to reproduce their children at a rate faster than the importation of captured adult Africans. Either way, if this “peculiar institution” was going to be phased out permanently, then both these angles should have been stopped cold in their tracks; had this been done, the “peculiar institution” would have been phased out in about one or two generations as those already in bondage would either die off, or be freed by their children who eventually bought them back out of slavery. Unfortunately, this was not possible to implement because it would have negated the willingness for some of the states to ratify the Constitution.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the Federalists were also in favor of standing armies! It is asserted in Federalist Paper #8 that although standing armies are not prohibited by the Constitution, it is inevitable that they would emerge under a confederacy, just as the Continental Army did. The Federalists thought standing armies were okay provided that they are controlled by the legislature (instead of by the executive, lest they become the president’s personal shock troops) and that any apportionment of funds be allocated for no period longer than two years, provided the Congress debated about it first. They were reluctant to abolish standing armies because of their fears regarding the southern and western borders of the United States, especially considering Spain and the various Indian nations (respectively), realizing also that it is easier to train them before you need them, rather than afterwards (which is explained at length in Federalist Papers #24 and #26).
My favorite aspect of the whole Federalist sales pitch was their claim that direct taxes were indispensably necessary to the functioning of a federal republic, especially in light of the need to assure future lenders that they would be paid back in a timely manner (considering the national debt incurred from waging the Revolution). What makes this intriguing is that I think it (perhaps unintentionally) obfuscates the more significant ability of the federal government to borrow money on the credit of the United States:
“Money is with propriety considered as the vital principle of the body politic; as that which sustains its life and motion, and enables it to perform its most essential functions. A complete power, therefore, to procure a regular and adequate supply of revenue, as far as the resources of the community will permit, may be regarded as an indispensable ingredient in every constitution.” [Federalist Paper #30]
Does this presume the existence of a fiat currency as being part of the overall constitutional proposal? Worse, does it even go so far as to advocate for a central bank to mint the coin of the realm? As we can no doubt see since then, the reason there have been three previous central banks in these United States is because they all failed to maintain stable value in the currency that they were supposed to manage. Every time one of them failed, the privately issued free market currencies were able to stabilize everyone’s wealth since it was widely recognized that counterfeiting is a crime that steals from everyone through devaluing the currency. Demonopolizing the issuance of currency and credit is the last thing the Federalists wanted, considering that they seem to think that a violent monopolistic institution can safeguard the primary medium of trade better than the free market can, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
The Federalists also freely admitted that the militia would be used to suppress insurrections and quell violent factions, even outside of their native states. Although the Federalists, to their credit, recognized that the militia is the only viable substitute for (and best possible security against) a standing army (and by extension, the right of revolution), it would appear unfortunate that they would desire to centralize the militia in any way, so that the Congress could send the militia wither and thither wherever they damn well pleased (as explained in Federalist Paper #29). Armed revolt against the federal government is justified:
“If the representatives of the people betray their constituents, there is then no resource left but in the exertion of that original right of self-defence, which is paramount to all positive forms of government; and which, against the usurpation of the national rulers, may be exerted with an infinitely better prospect of success, than against those of the rulers of an individual state….[t]he citizens must rush tumultuously to arms, without concert, without system, without resource, except in their courage and despair.” [Federalist Paper #28].
Unfortunately, even the very act of revolution itself is used by the Federalists as a pseudo-justification for a federal republic, in that, for some arcane reason, increased state power will actually greatly turn the tables in favor of any populist resistance effort:
“The natural strength of the people in a large community, in proportion to the artificial strength of the government, is greater than in a small; and of course more competent to a struggle with the attempts of the government to establish a tyranny.”
Here, I would strongly disagree with them to the degree that I think any community of people (proportionately speaking) is naturally stronger than the government; whether they be more competent should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, however (especially in light of the pernicious effects of social conditioning).
Probably the issue that really got under the craw of those Federalists the most was the insistence by many state conventions on a bill of rights. In reasonable fear of unwittingly sacrificing their liberty following the conclusion of a successful revolution, many of these anti-Federalists made it a point that further declaratory and restrictive clauses upon government power be added to the Constitution. The Federalist rebuttal to this was threefold: first, that it need not be enumerated what liberties the people already enjoyed; second:
“It has been several times truly remarked, that bills of rights are, in their origin, stipulations between kings and their subjects, abridgments of prerogative in favour of privilege, reservations of rights not surrendered to the prince.” [Federalist Paper #84]
And third, “that the constitutional is itself, in every rational sense, and to every purpose, A BILL OF RIGHTS.” They further elaborate that by establishing codified rules limiting government power, and passing on the heritage of Liberty culturally, then any further codified bill of rights is rather quite, well, limiting. Sadly, despite the affection that the Federalists have for jury trials and habeas corpus, judicial case precedent has shown just how important the Bill of Rights actually ended up being; my belief is that without the adoption of those first ten Articles in Amendment to the Constitution, our lives would be that much worse than they are now, since they have been marginally successful in limiting government power (albeit only so long as the judiciary thinks so).
Hamilton, Madison, and Jay’s The Federalist Papers are a historically significant work of political literature. It provides the best explanations for why government should be bestowed with more than enough power to limit itself, which is also (ironically) more than enough power to break those very limits. The Federalists themselves were really nothing more than spineless hypocrites who sought to impose their vision of republicanism upon an entire sovereign nation using heavy handed tactics and intellectual dishonesty so as to discourage any further discussion and negotiation with their opponents, especially considering there were no immediate dangers at that time necessitating any sort of hasty action. They made phantoms of imagined threats, and for that, they became the devil’s plaything.