The Letters Of Publius

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Aseries of eighty-five newspaper articles, hastily written for the immediate purpose of advocating New York’s ratification of the new Constitution of the United States, has become the all-time classic on the basic theory of American government. This status hardly could have been anticipated by its authors or contemporary readers; and yet the coming event did cast its shadow before. When their serialization was only two-thirds completed, the essays appeared in a book form which reportedly sold 25,000 copies in the decade following 1788—easily making them the best seller of their day. During the 173 years since then, under the title of The Federalist , they have gone through more than ninety printings and twenty-nine separate editions in half a dozen languages. They have been cited in dozens of Supreme Court opinions and in uncounted reams of congressional debates, and the very name has become an adjective of political science throughout the world to describe the unique character of United States government.

When the text of the proposed Constitution was printed in the New York Journal of September 27, 1787, its reception was something less than enthusiastic. In the same issue, over the pen name of Cato, a correspondent remarked how the public was discussing the document with “alternate joy, hope, and fear,” and warned the newspaper’s readers to give it their prayerful attention; for “if you are negligent or inactive, the ambitious and despotic will entrap you in their toils, and bind you with the cord of power from which you, and your posterity may never be freed.”

“Cato” was New York’s Governor George Clinton, whose hostility to the whole idea of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia had been well known from the outset. He spoke, moreover, the sentiment of the average man. What was this new document but a plan to create a superstate, a government that would assume once more the powers wrested from England only half a dozen years back? Who, indeed, had authorized these men at Philadelphia to draft a constitution —had not their plain instructions been to study ways and means whereby the Articles of Confederation could be strengthened? Was this anything more than a plot of “the good, the rich and well born” (a phrase attributed to one of New York’s most articulate nationalists) to regain positions of control they had en joyed under the Crown?

The Articles of Confederation had been fully ratified, after almost six years, by the thirteenth sovereign state only in 1781, the same year as the victory at York-town. The government thus belatedly brought into being was officially denominated a “league of friendship"—a defensive alliance which had some of the features of a parliamentary union but hardly any of a national state. Congress looked after international and interstate concerns with such limited powers as the Articles had delegated to it, but its principal authority was to recommend action by the states rather than to take action itself. It was, as Edmund Randolph later described it, “a government of supplication” which “cried aloud for its own reform.”

Hardly anyone—even of Clinton’s school—could argue that this system had worked out satisfactorily. The New Jersey merchant shipping his products across his own borders paid a tariff duty either at New York or at Philadelphia, a situation which James Madison compared to a cask tapped at both ends. The Connecticut farmer similarly found himself charged excises either at New York or Boston; while on the Chesapeake, fishermen discovered that they were caught in a net of taxes and others in retaliation from both Maryland and Virginia, since both states claimed jurisdiction over the main waters of the bay.

Abroad, Yankee merchant ships strove valiantly and successfully to build a profitable China trade; but John Jay, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson strove in vain to open the ports of great European powers to American shipping. Why should France or Spain sign a treaty with agents of a Congress which had no concessions to offer at the bargaining table, and which had only dubious authority to enforce any treaty it signed? For that matter, what of the war debts owing to these nations? Congress could not pay even the interest, let alone the principal.

As to the public debt, Americans at home were even worse off. Revolutionary War veterans, suppliers of military goods, farmers whose grain and livestock had been requisitioned for the Continental Army, held (or had sold at heavy sacrifice to speculators) certificates that Congress had never been able to redeem. With defaulted public debts, private debts mounted- and with these, a demand for cheap paper currency. Several states were already manufacturing their own money, which was heavily discounted at home and not even accepted in most places outside their borders. Even so, the small farmer and the totally disfranchised city worker glowered at the propertied groups who kept control of the statehouses in Boston and Philadelphia; in western Massachusetts, only a short while before, Daniel Shays had fanned this resentment into a full-scale outburst which for a time amounted to insurrection against both commonwealth and Congress.