There has long been an interest among Americans in the rationale and intentions of those who helped write our Constitution. This fascination suggests a consensus that certain qualities of the Constitution played a role in setting the United States on its path to prosperity and international influence. This also suggests that there are many who still believe that the men who helped write it had a rich understanding of politics that is still relevant to this day.
This idea has come up in our contemporary conversation yet again as we witness recent events in the GOP presidential primaries. Is there something to this fascination with the political acumen of the founders? Do they have anything to say that is still relevant to politics today? To be sure, there are many who do not regard the Constitution or those who wrote it with any reverence. I decided to find out for myself what brilliant insights for today, if any, might be found in The Federalist Papers.
Written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay in defense of the newly drafted Constitution, the Papers are a collection of newspaper op-eds that discuss reasons why the Constitution should be adopted. There were numerous alternative ideas being kicked around at the time, the most prominent of which seems to have been an idea that the U.S. should have been divided into three “confederacies,” joined by a treaty of mutual support and defense. The authors tear into this scheme and many other schools of thought that sought to undermine the Constitution in its infancy. (Side note: I purposefully chose an edition of The Federalist Papers that did not include an introduction, commentary, or footnotes of any kind to get an undiluted feel for what the authors had to say).
From the get-go, it was obvious to me why the exercise of reading through this book would be so valuable. Having been required to read a selection of papers from the book in college, I was surprised to find it so. It seems that a free-ranging search for pearls of insight can be just as valuable as being led to a concentrated discussion on the principles that were central to the Constitution in all its novelty and brilliance.
I was immediately treated, in Federalist No. 1, to an introduction to what can has henceforth been known as “the American experiment.” There is little doubt that we are still today living that experiment out, testing whether free people are capable of choosing what is best for the nation. Hamilton admits that the lion’s share of Americans will vote based on narrow self-interest rather than the interests of the whole. But those on the right side of any question are likely to be motivated by incentives just as cynical as those who are on the wrong side. He predicts that “A torrent of angry and malignant passions will be let loose” on the issues related to adoption of the new Constitution. He then reminds the reader that history shows that those who demolish liberties start as demagogues and end as tyrants.
In a word other words, politics has always been and always will be an ugly, complex business. The tendency of all interested parties to vote based on narrow self interest and to be jealous of liberty (“jealousy…the concomitant of love…”) makes this so. Thus Americans have a tendency to support demagogues and demonize political opponents. When we throw in the different definitions of “liberty” that liberals and conservatives hold dear, we’re left with a pretty rancorous discussion. Federalists vs. Anti-federalists; Jacksonians vs. Whigs; Republicans vs. Democrats; at this exact second it’s Trump and his supporters vs. just about everyone else. Hamilton was telling us over 200 years ago that this aspect of democratic politics is normal. In fact, the periods of relative consensus that we’ve experienced in our history are exceptions to the rule.
A torrent of angry and malignant passions will be let loose…”
But, this doesn’t change the fact that voting based purely on personality is a damaging state of affairs. The problem we are facing with the rise of Trump is that he is nearly devoid of any policy stances, and his campaign has seen success almost solely due to his showmanship and mastery of the flawed nature of the news media. One only has to visit the “positions” section of his website, to see that there are only short vignettes on six different issues, whereas Marco Rubio has over 30. Demagoguery, populism based on a set of facts separate from reality, even bigotry have all had their time in the story of American politics. It is the lack of substance that Hamilton didn’t predict that is most alarming. Those who vote for Trump may be voting for him specifically for his lack of substance and bounty of overwrought personality.
This leads us to Federalist No. 10, the next paper that I found particularly salient to our moment. This paper, written by James Madison, expounds upon the “violence of faction” and the dangers that result from combinations of interests. Madison complains that “the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.”
Here is another valuable insight, one that, were it embraced by any consequential share of Americans, would move us toward strengthening our democracy and its institutions. Rival parties, in their most fundamental and concentrated form, have an interest in doing whatever it takes to maintain their hold on power. They often disregard facts that sow doubts about the certainties of their ideology, scorn compromise, and revel in the scandals and failures of the other party. An embrace of the spirit of the above quote would require all political actors to value more highly than any particular policy the strength of our union. Not just in fact of law, but in the hearts and minds of the great majority of Americans. The things that make us Americans, more than anything else are our principles and end goals. The means to making those goals a reality is where we can disagree. But we must acknowledge and foster these fundamental bonds.
Lincoln also understood this ideal, as a reading of his famous reply to Horace Greely shows. Above any one policy or ideology, Lincoln understood that the union was of overriding importance: “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”
At the time he wrote this letter, Lincoln had written the Emancipation Proclamation. He knew that slavery was unjust, that it must go. But he saw that saving the union was more important than any one policy. He was willing to allow slavery to gradually decline and die out, rather than eradicate it immediately, in order to preserve unity. Our nation does not face legal disunion, as it did in Lincoln’s day. Nor do we face any issue nearly so morally important as the basic liberty of an entire race of Americans. But we are facing a disintegration of interests, of values, of community. It is important today that we heed this example and foster an atmosphere of discussion over argument and compromise over righteous indignation.
Let me be abundantly clear: not for one second do I advocate the abandonment of our principles. I have consistently argued for the efficacy of conservative principles and policies in remedying the problems we face as a nation. I am also not arguing that anyone should abandon their party. I believe that our history has shown the founders to have been mistaken about parties: although they do have damaging side effects like those pointed out above, they do serve some important purposes. In fact, I am an advocate for strengthening the national parties so that the more ideological factions within them are not able to dominate so much of the conversation within.
What I am here arguing, and what I think Hamilton (and more dramatically, Lincoln) understood was that compromise in policy nourishes the baseline of trust and shared principles that are absolutely essential for a democracy like ours, in which there is so much responsibility for each actor to bear — from the individual citizen to the President himself.
Later in No. 10, Madison actually explains the remedy for these “mischiefs of faction,” viz., that the larger the group, the more likely it is that the representative body of that group will filter and moderate the views of the disparate members and settle upon a course of action most suitable to all. This idea is practically shown by the more moderate policy stances of senators, when compared to representatives from the same state.
The founders were not counting on both parties to be composed of men and women so unwilling to compromise. To be sure, there does not need to be hand shaking and back slapping in Congress by any means. But there does need to be consent from the minority. Such was the case with the Republicans during the New Deal, and the Democrats during the Reagan Revolution. It is a fact of political life that revolutions happen, ideologies come and go, but our union must remain. The institutions must be continually strengthened through high-minded statesmanship from our leaders in Congress, and we as citizens must demand this from our leaders.
I have read up through the first 22 papers of The Federalist. Obviously, there is much that still applies to our political situation today. Therefore, this article will be the first in a three part series. Check back for part two soon!