America’s first constitution, The Articles of Confederation, produced a weak federal government that could not even tax the States. As America’s economic prosperity declined, it became obvious to some that the federal government would need to be given greater powers to help stop some states falling into ruin, and thereby threatening the stability of the Union, possibly through civil war.
A Constitutional Convention was arranged by key nationalists like Washington, Madison and Hamilton to modify The Articles of Confederation to create a constitution that could solve these problems. However, there was a lot of opposition to the new constitution, especially from those who wished to protect State powers and those who distrusted centralised government, after having fought a war with the British to throw off centralised control.
The Federalist Papers were written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay and published in newspapers to try to combat the influence of anti-Federalist sentiments.
Each article was published anonymously under the pseudonym Publius, after Publius Valerius Publicola, a Roman aristocrat who played a key role in overthrowing the Tarquin king in 509 BC. The name was meant to allay fears already raised against the Federalist, that what they proposed was similar to the rule of the English king, and put a positive spin upon the Federalist project.
Alexander Hamilton addressed the first paper
To the People of the State of New York, as they would all be, henceforth.
Hamilton does not address any aspects of the Constitution, specifically, in this first paper. He is most concerned to frame the problem facing America and to characterise the different parties invested in the question of the new Constitution. In addition to this, Hamilton puts the question now facing Americans into the context of the wider world, the broader sweep of history, and characterises the choice facing Americans as part of the Enlightenment movement, although he does not use that term.
Hamilton suggests that the political problems facing America provide the opportunity to lead the world, for good or bad. America can either show that societies can establish good government through
reflection and choice, or are destined be the victim of
accident and force.
Hamilton uses binary opposites like this throughout the first paper, although he softens the severity of his judgement by allowing that good men may disagree with him for good reasons, thereby allowing a chance for moderate opinion to be swayed. He states
Candor will oblige us to admit that even such men may be actuated by upright intentions, who make
the honest errors of minds led astray.
Hamilton also allows that political interests may also be the reason for legitimate questioning of the Federalist project, given the reasonable suspicion with which political rivals are treated. Yet Hamilton subtly suggests, through his repetition of
the truth (used several times throughout this paper), that the Federalist question should be beyond partisan politics.
In order to appeal to those more moderately and reasonably opposed to his position, Hamilton characterises the more extreme anti-Federalists as those who oppose the new Constitution for two reasons: there are those who benefit from strong State power and seek to preserve it; and there are those who hope to gain from the divisions a dissolution of the Union would provide. Their strategy is not to encourage
reflection and choice but
to increase the number of their converts by the loudness of their declamations and the bitterness of their invectives. They wish to characterise Federalists as opposed to liberty and appeal to the worst in populist feeling:
the stale bait for popularity at the expense of the public good.
Hamilton addresses these concerns by arguing that populist appeals to liberty are the
specious mask worn by those who court the population to serve themselves, usually
commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants. A strong central government, he argues, is essential to stability, which is the means to secure liberty.
Hamilton states plainly that the essays that will appear will not pretend to weigh the merits of one side of the debate against the other. He admits that
having given it an attentive consideration … I have decided. His first essay has merely been a means by which to put his fellow citizens on guard so that they may not be influenced by anything but
the evidence of truth.
Hamilton rounds out this first paper by previewing what the papers will cover:
He concludes by raising the spectre of rumours of those not merely against the new Constitution, but who are intent upon the dissolution of the Union, itself. He says he will begin by considering the dangers of dissolution and the advantages of a strong central government in the essays to come.
6 February 2018