Federalist No.2

Concerning Dangers From Foreign Force and Influence

Wednesday, October 31, 1787

John Jay


Despite the reference to the dangers of foreign force in the title, John Jay’s paper says little specifically on that subject. Instead, he furthers the argument begun by Alexander Hamilton in the introductory paper about the need for a central government and the dangers of internal opposition to the new Constitution.


One of the arguments against the Constitution was that it threatened individual liberty. This could also be read by those supporting stronger state governments, that the Constitution threatened the privileges and powers of the States. However, Jay focusses upon the apparent meaning of the argument and counters it by saying that all agree government is necessary, and for government to function, there must be a balance between government power and individual rights. Having taken this as a given, he points out that this balance can either be attempted at a federal level or a State level, but the fact remains that the people must cede to it some of their natural rights in order to vest it with requisite powers. (This reflects Rousseau's concept expressed in The Social Contract) With American prosperity dependant on the Union, it follows that a federal government should be invested with the powers to make the nation strong.


Jay, as Hamilton did, raises the spectre of unnamed politicians who favour a division of the States into distinct confederacies or sovereignties. Instead of addressing the specific arguments of these politicians, he employs a series of visions and vignettes to suggest the naturalness of the Union, thereby characterising the anti-Federalist argument as attempting to establish unsocial, jealous, and alien sovereignties.


His first appeal to unity has religious overtones. He appeals to the correctness of the union in terms of God’s providence three times. First, he imagines the American landscape as a unity, with each of its parts in natural consensus. Its rivers, in particular, form natural highways for travel and trade.


He extends the notion of God’s providence to the unity of its people, using the word same four times in the one paragraph in a cumulation of traits that define the American people as a cultural body.


This cumulative argument is extended in the following paragraph with the repetition of as a nation three times to emphasise the achievements of America in vanquishing its oppressors and being recognised by foreign powers.


In the First Federalist Paper, Alexander Hamilton asked the question whether good government could be formed through reflection and choice, or whether it was destined be the victim of accident and force. Jay addresses this question by considering the irony of the current political situation. The document produced by the Congress of 1774, The Articles of Confederation, currently being defended by anti-Federalists, also suffered the same opprobrium from some factions in pamphlets and papers when introduced. Now, it was a document produced under pressure of war and uprisings, and no longer necessarily meeting the needs of the American people.


In contrast, Jay represents the Constitutional Convention that produced the American Constitution as a lofty and intellectual body, free of the concerns of partisanship, but motivated by higher ideals and the common good: In the mild season of peace, with minds unoccupied by other subjects, they passed many months in cool, uninterrupted, and daily, consultation… It is a portrait in keeping with his representation of the American landscape which establishes the naturalness and rightness of unity. Of course, Jay fails to speak of the criticisms some made of the Convention, which fomented into the anti-Federalist position, or that the proceedings were also mired in political manoeuvring, as you would expect. Alexander Hamilton, himself, spoke for six hours, proposing a form of government very much like a monarchy; a fact that would plague him for the rest of his political career. Political rivals like James Madison (co-writer of the Federalist Papers) and Thomas Jefferson pilloried him for it.


Jay points out that the Constitution is not being imposed, but put forward for consideration. I guess anti-Federalists would argue that they had been giving it their consideration.


Jay continues in the last part of his paper to draw comparisons between the original Congress of 1774 and the Constitutional Convention. He is deferential to the members of the Congress, calling them wise and saying that they acted in the public good. Yet these were men barely known at the time: still greater reason have they now to respect the judgment and advice of the Convention, for it is well known that some of the most distinguished members of that Congress, who have since been tried and justly approved for patriotism and abilities, and who have grown old in acquiring political information, were also members of this convention… At every turn, Jay is trying to break down any perceived barriers between the original Congress, supported by the anti-Federalists, and the new Convention, their stated enemy.


Jay concludes by questioning the reasons that some men … deprecate the importance of the Union. He sides with the people against them, as those who have always thought right on this subject.


Overall, Jay’s argument is one predicated upon religion and the naturalness of the Union, as well as tradition, and the stability and patriotism represented by the wise old men of the Congress. It’s a clever ploy, given that the Constitution was new and untried.

7 February 2018