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1: “The Fate of an Empire Most Interesting in the World…”

November 5, 2012

The Federalist 1. First published October 27, 1787. Please see Introducing the American Bible for an introduction to this project.

Publius occupied a very different America than our own. It was vastly smaller—just 13 states—; vastly weaker—a marginal power on the edge of the European sphere—; and vastly more uncertain–11 years old, and already in constitutional crisis.

And yet many of the attitudes expressed in Federalist 1 are astonishingly familiar. The quality that leaps off the page for this American expatriate is its unquestioning belief in American exceptionalism. The American experiment was clearly a novel one. It had been hundreds of years since any country of substance had attempted such an experiment in popular government.

And yet was it really so exceptional that a wrong decision might “deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind”?

Perhaps it just was. The great powers of 1787 had little interest in popular government. Britain had representative government of a sort, but voting rights were patchy and the old aristocracy still held great sway. France, meanwhile, was still ruled by kings who believed God himself gave them the right to act however they pleased.

So the American experiment was exceptional. It was also in crisis. The Articles were a failure. Bold decisions would have to be made—and had been made, by the secret drafters of a replacement Constitution. Yet the bold were opposed by an uneasy mixture of entrenched interests and true-believing idealists.

Publius treats these opponents with an interesting admixture of respect and wry dismissal. In one breath he writes that their character is almost certainly “blameless at least, if not respectable”. Yet in the next he suggests that his opponents are working to protect their own interests and positions, which might be threatened by a new constitutional order. In fact, the way Publius deals with his opponents is probably the most instructive part of Federalist 1.

I am writing on the eve of the 2012 presidential election. American politics is more partisan and more divided then it has been for decades. Some have even argued we are more divided now then any time since the Civil War. In all this partisan mire, it can be hard to have much hope.

But I think Publius’s methods offer at least a bit of light. Publius does not hate his opponents. He doesn’t accuse them of hating America.

However, he also never falls into the bipartisan “trap” of assuming all opinions are made equally flawed. He is determined to argue forcefully—yet civilly—for his case. As he writes just before outlining the papers to follow:

I am clearly of the opinion it is your interest to adopt [the Constitution]… I affect not reserves which I do not feel. I will not amuse you with an appearance of deliberation when I have decided.

And yet, despite professing the forcefulness of his own convictions, the Constitution Publius advocates was born of compromise. Hamilton, who wrote Federalist 1, got almost nothing he wanted at the Convention. He had argued for a national government wholly superior to the states, led by a strong executive and legislature.

It is this spirit of backroom compromises which I hope can return to Washington. It is not long dead, after all—George H. W. Bush was famously willing to risk his political future to fix America’s budget problems.

Just after the election, President Obama and Congress will be forced to confront a budgetary crisis of almost unimaginable proportions. This crisis, the so-called fiscal cliff, will call for cleverness, courage, and, yes, compromise. Perhaps our leaders will learn from the spirit of 1787?

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From → The Papers

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