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The US Constitution and The Federalist Papers as "the Great Experiment" The US Constitution and The Federalist Papers as "the Great Experiment"
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2015-04-20 10:37:42
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Signing of the US Constitution in Philadelphia in 1787

“The Constitution of the United States is the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.”

                                                                  --William Gladstone, Prime Minister of England

As the above quote suggests, most knowledgeable Europeans are aware of the importance of the US Constitution for the birth and development of modern democracy. Many consider it among the great contributions to political philosophy. What some are not aware of, however, is that before the Constitution, Madison, Hamilton and John Jay had put together The Federalist Papers in order to win over the state of New York to the ratification of the proposed Constitution. It can be argued, and it will be so argued here, that a full understanding of the Constitution requires an attentive reading of those papers, for those papers are nothing less than a work of original practical philosophy in the ancient tradition of Plato and Aristotle. Those essays constitute a veritable education in the founding of a nation: political philosophy on a grand scale written by men who were young but wise and confident that things that have never been done cannot be done save by methods never tried; acutely aware that historically republics have always failed. In brief, they are an education on the grounds, political and ethical, for any republic or federal union to survive.

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The Federalist papers are important because they offer the philosophical background to the Constitution. The dominating political treatises of the time were those of Locke (which most founding fathers had read), Montesquieu and Rousseau, but none of those essays were the template for a national government, for the “American experiment” so called, which would be imitated and repeated by newer sovereign states in the past two centuries. As one surveys those essays one becomes increasingly aware that their writers (Hamilton, Madison and Jay) had in mind an audience that was large and pluralistic. That kind of audience could only be won over by specific arguments that confronted specific criticisms. This is a first, indeed, in political philosophy: a conversation with the people on how to self-govern.

In total, the three authors of The Federalist Papers published 85 essays in New York newspapers between October 1787 and April 1788 under the pseudonym Publius. Hamilton planned the whole project and contributed the greatest share, followed by Madison. Jay’s contribution was slight but neverthless addressed some important points. In any case, it is Madison, more than any other of the delegates, who deserves the praise for giving Americans their Constitution.

Madison says in those essays that a political regime is a republic only when the government’s power is derived entirely from the people and administered by persons holding their offices for a limited period and during good behavior. There is nothing new here, but Madison then observes that history shows that the closer something comes to that sense of a republic, the sooner it dies. The only republics that seem to succeed for a long time are the ones which he refers to as a kind of puritanical republic. John Adams was behind that view. He had written that only “pure religion or austere morals” will be capable of holding a republican form of government together.

Keeping those observations in mind, Madison distinguishes between pure democracies, subject to the functionalism that leads to anarchy, and the right sort of republic, in which power is delegated by the people. There is a tension here, almost a paradox, between the need of a central government able to secure the finances and defense of the nation and the jealously guarded freedoms of the individual states.

We must also observe that a remarkable feature of the Convention of 1787, which drafted the Constitution, is that it specifically refused to incorporate a Bill of Rights. This was written separately with the expressed purpose of defending the rights of the minority from the tyranny of the majority. It was a deliberate omission, for a self-governing people should decide what its own rights are. To list them is ipso facto to limit them. That is to say, the federal government should not trump the communities, or the states, that compose the federation; the people of a particular state have formed self-governing communities based on their own views of their rights. You have no need of federal guarantees of your rights against your local community.

The lesson taught by Montesquieu was that there are only three types of government: 1) despotism which rules by will with the people cultivating reverential fear and submission, 2) monarchy, with rule by law in the hands of a single person which calls for the cultivation of honor, 3) republic dependent on the cultivation of virtue. Here power needs to be separated or the republic will convert into a tyranny. This is last is what we find in the Stoic outlook of the founding fathers: the republic will succeed in as much as we create and preserve lives of virtue and self-sacrifice. Power in this kind of republic would flow toward a natural kind of aristocracy which would arise spontaneously when the free exercise of virtue is permitted and even encouraged.

There is no doubt that The Federalist Papers and “the great experiment” in self-governance mark a special chapter in human history; a chapter where there would be convergence of political, scientific, and moral energies capable of overturning the old order. But the signal feature of the whole enterprise was the direct, open, respectful address to the people, an attempt to gain support by appealing to the common sense and mature political understanding of those who, in virtue of being fit for the rule of law, are fit to rule themselves. That address to the people is the essence of The Federalist Papers.

Perhaps at this point we begin to comprehend the open admiration of William Gladstone for the American Constitution. One can only hope that more people, on both sides of the Atlantic, would take the time to read The Federalist Papers, constituting a theoretical but also pragmatic approach to political philosophy. This is essential for an enduring friendship and alliance among democracies; they cannot long last if they are based on a misunderstanding of each other’s political patrimony.    

 


     
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