Monday, February 14, 2011

Let's take a break for the US Constitution--Federalist No 1

I thought it might be interesting, in light of recent discussions on the foundations and meaning of our Constitution to take a look at the views of key ideological authors of that Constitution. As a former high school social studies teacher, a sometime student of constitutional law, I wondered what our tea party friends would make of the federalist papers.

We live in a time, when everyone claims to know what the Constitution means, and generally, it seems, the Constitution is read to support their own vision of what ought to be, and ought not to be, good laws. And, more and more, constitutional activists--people who seek to change the current reading of the Constitution--marshal the central argument that we must look to the original intention of the founders.

And so periodically, I thought it would be stimulating to bring forward some of the key essays of Madison, Jay, and Hamilton, the great Federalists. You can find the Federalist Papers on line, and interpret them for yourself. Today, an introduction to the Federalist Papers Number 1.

Federalist 1, signed Publius, but authored by Alexander Hamilton, whose face graces the ten dollar bill, was the nations first Secretary of the Treasury after adoption of the Constitution. Hamilton represented the views of those in the nation who believed that a fractured confederation of quasi-independent states lacked the ability to manage the nation's economy. They saw the nation's commerce failing in comparison to greater national powers, such as France and England, and contended that depriving the national government of the ability to manage and foster economic growth would ultimately lead to decline and failure of the American nation. For Federalists, the economic unity was critical to the nation's survival and growth.

Federalist Number 1, then, is an introduction to the remaining federalist papers, the essays which more than any other secondary documents, assist us in understanding the ideology of the Constitutional founders. In Federalist Number 1, Hamilton recognizes that opponents of the new constitution would argue that a strong national government would be a threat to liberty and freedom. But he challenged that view: in fact, he argued that a weak national government, one that lacked the power to unify the nation and assure its economic and political strength, was actually a greater threat to liberty:

Some may challenge our efforts to create "the energy and efficiency of government" and stigmitize those efforts "as the offspring of a temper fond of despotic power and hostile to the principles of liberty," he wrote. But, argued Hamilton, crippling the national government's ability to solve national problems was actually a greater threat to liberty.

An over-scrupulous jealousy of danger to the rights of the people, which is more commonly the fault of the head than of the heart, will be represented as mere pretense and artifice, the stale bait for popularity at the expense of the public good. ....the vigor of government is essential to the security of liberty....
Moreover, Hamilton urged, it is often the people who claim to be champions of individual liberty, and through those efforts, seek to cripple a strong national government and nation state, who turn out to lead their country to despotism.
History will teach us that the former [that is, "the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people" ] has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism than the latter [that is, forbidding appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government], and that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.
That brings us to the end of Federalist Number 1, in which Publius (Hamilton) proposed "a series of papers to discuss the following interesting particulars:-The utility of the UNION to your political prosperity-The insufficiency of the present Confederation to preserve that Union-The necessity of a government at least equally energetic with the one proposed to the attainment of this object-The conformity of the proposed Constitution to the true principles of republican government-Its analogy to your own State constitution-and lastly, The additional security which its adoption will afford to the preservation of that species of government, to liberty and to property.

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