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Introducing the American Bible

As every amateur trivia buff knows, the US has had not one but two Constitutions. Before adopting the present Constitution, the United States was saddled with the now-much-maligned Articles of Confederation. And between the end of the Articles, and the adoption of the Constitution, the “people of the several states” had a great big argument.

Nowadays, the triumph of the Federalists (proponents of the new Constitution) is taken for granted. Adoration for the Constitution is practically a qualification for citizenship, expected of every schoolchild, politician, and immigrant. But when it was first proposed, it was deeply controversial.

The Much-Maligned Articles

The Articles had set up a weak central government, almost like that of the European Union. The national government lacked the power to tax, for example—it could only request money from the states, with predictably unenthusiastic responses. It had little power to raise an army, instead requesting troops from state militias (which might prove reluctant to march until their own territory was under threat). It couldn’t even create a single market within the states: States often taxed other states’ products, so that New York could treat Delaware like a foreign country!

The Constitution—a document drafted in secret by elites sent to Philadelphia simply to amend the Articles—radically altered the shape of American government. The power of the national (or federal) government greatly expanded. For the first time, the US had a strong president leading it, a nationally-run army and navy, national courts and crimes, and a national debt shared by all the states. The new system of shared power between the states and the nation became known as federalism.

Today the importance and power of the national government is broadly assumed. To be sure, we argue constantly over the scope of the national government. But few would seriously argue that America should not have a national army, or a national debt shared equally by all the states, or federal punishments for terrorism. Perhaps noone at all would allow each state to set up its own trade policy, or forbid the national government from collecting taxes. But when the new Constitution was presented to the nation these were deeply controversial ideas.

Federalists and Antis

The Framers of the Constitution intended that the two layers of government should be equal partners. States would continue to do what they excelled at, such as running school systems or determining religious policy. The federal government would do only that which only it could do: Fight wars, write immigration policy, or handle legal disputes between states.

Their opponents, the Anti-Federalists, suspected that the two would struggle constantly for supremacy—and that the national government would win. Anti-Federalists valued states’ rights, believing that national government was too clumsy to handle local problems, and would be prone to violating basic human rights.

Though the Anti-Federalists get a bum rap in most modern accounts, their arguments had merit: Would the famous Bridge to Nowhere have been authorized if Alaskan taxpayers had footed the bill? Was No Child Left Behind really more effective then letting each school district find its own solution? All this not even to mention federally-led invasions of basic rights such as the Patriot Act.

This debate is complex even now. But when the Constitution was unveiled it was just as complex, and a great deal more immediate and controversial. The Constitution was adopted by popular conventions in each state. In some cases it passed easily, in others it barely passed, and in North Carolina the first convention refused to ratify it (a second one eventually agreed to it). In the end, the Federalists won by putting up a more united front. They shared their pamphlets and ideas across state lines, while the locally-minded Anti-Federalists often remained isolated.


One particular articulation of the Federalist cause was to prove most influential. The Federalist Papers, a series of articles published in New York Newspapers beginning in late 1787. Signed Publius, the Papers provided a powerful argument to ratify the Constitution and thereby “preserve the UNION”. Indeed, Publius claimed that not adopting the Constitution would “deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.”

Across 85 Papers, Publius ranged over a huge variety of objections to the new Constitution, demolishing them all. He also offered compelling arguments for Ratification, as well as occasional dips into truly innovative political philosophy.

If this seems to much for one man to accomplish in less then a year, it was. Publius was in fact three: James Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton. All were delegates to the convention that wrote the new Constitution, as well as accomplished politicians in their own right.

The Three Worthies

James Madison is often called the Father of the Constitution, and the title is well-deserved. He was instrumental in its composition, offering critical compromises that pushed the writing along, as well as contributing a great deal of its text. More importantly, he helped articulate the theory underlying the new nation: “Father of Federalism” would be an equally fair title for him. While others—notably Roger Sherman—were earlier converts, it is Madison who has gotten the credit. He was later to serve as a US Representative, Secretary of State, and President, before dying at 85 in his beloved Virginia.

Jay is perhaps the least-known of the three today, and also the smallest contributor to the essays (just five of the 85 are his work). But in his day he was a titan: Delegate to the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention; President of the US under the Articles; Ambassador to Spain; first Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court; and Governor of New York. Besides his advocacy of a strong federal government, his most lasting contribution to the Union was his opposition to slavery. Under his leadership, New York passed an emancipation act that made New York a free state.

Alexander Hamilton was the most prolific of the authors—51 are solely his work, and he collaborated on a further three with Madison. From unpromising origins—he was born out of wedlock in the West Indies, and orphaned at 13—he built a great legacy. After serving during the Revolutionary War, he went on to the Constitutional Convention, and to be the first Secretary of the Treasury under the new constitution. As Secretary, he pushed through a controversial measure to share individual states’ debts under the national government and founded the United States’ first central bank.

A Good Book

In the 225 years since Publius’ first essay was published, the importance of the Federalist Papers has only grown. While in their era their influence was largely confined to New York, they have since become one of the most widely-read documents in American politics. Several of their number—most notably Number 10—have become classics of political philosophy. They are routinely cited by the United States Supreme Court, and have an authority in American political discourse that is almost unrivaled.

It is to commemorate that 225th Anniversary that I begin this series. Borrowing an idea from David Plotz’s Good Book, I will read each of the 85 Papers in order, and reflect on their meaning (I’ll be reading the free Dawson edition, for the curious). It is my hope that Publius can speak to the great confusion and division that fills American politics today. The issues the Papers address—the role of federal authority, the place of moderation and statesmanship, the unpleasant necessity of political parties—are as live as they were at our nation’s founding. Perhaps by reaching back to our past, we can illuminate a path for our future.

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