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The Letters Of Publius
Writing in haste under this antique pseudonym, three young men produced a running defense of the hold new American Constitution. After 173 years, The Federalist still casts a very long shadow
June 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 4
Undeniably, the situation called for heroic action—but what action? Even more than economic chaos, both nationalists and antinationalists dreaded the specter of political tyranny, whether in the form of George III or of coercive majorities in a national government beyond their control. Rhode Island and Delaware saw themselves crushed out of existence by New York and the great commonwealths of Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. All of the states feared their own powers would be diminished if the Congress of the Confederation, the creation of the state governments, gave way to the new, strong government proposed by the Constitution and created, as the preamble declared, by “the people of the United States.”
To the voice of “Cato” were joined others in the public press. “Sydney” (the pseudonym of Robert Yates, one of New York’s three delegates to the Philadelphia convention) warned that “the new Constitution will prove finally to dissolve all the power of the several state legislatures, and destroy all the rights and liberties of the people; for the power of the first will be all in all, and of the latter a mere shadow and form without substance.”
Yates, together with John Lansing, had outvoted Alexander Hamilton, the third man on the New York delegation, for as long as they had remained at the convention. By mid-July Yates and Lansing had pulled out altogether, giving the principles of the new Constitution which was then shaping up “our decided and unreserved dissent,” as they reported to Clinton. Their departure left New York without a duly authorized voice in the final decision, a role only slightly less negative than that of Rhode Island, which had boycotted the convention altogether.
For Hamilton, this turn of events had not been of great concern. He and Madison had been the chief architects of the Philadelphia gathering, built upon the ruins of the Annapolis Convention a few months before. After all, only five states had attended that meeting, and to have persuaded twelve of the thirteen sovereignties to authorize delegations to the new convention in the face of such a conspicuous failure was in itself evidence of the recognized urgency for some kind of action.
The call to meet at Annapolis had limited discussion to problems of interstate trade, for the most part; the Philadelphia convention had been given broader instructions, to find every practical means of strengthening the Articles of Confederation. What if the document that now emerged was actually an instrument for dissolving those Articles “of perpetual union”? The Confederation had proved its own ineffectiveness; the states were on the point of permitting the national structure to collapse; what the American people needed, and needed desperately, was a central government with real power.
Hamilton’s own concept of such a central government would have replaced the states altogether with a strong authority modeled after the English constitution—an institution which, he confessed, he felt to be the nearest to perfection that man could attain. This concept, of course, was too extreme to have a chance on the floor of the convention in comparison with the Virginia plan for a federal republic, which largely prevailed over New Jersey’s proposal for a continued rigid balance of power between large and small states. The document that was reported out in final draft in September, 1787, disappointed Hamilton greatly; nevertheless, he begged permission to sign the Constitution as an individual since he could not commit his state. No man’s ideas were more remote from the plan than his were known to be, he told the other delegates; but the choice was between this government with some promise of success and no national government at all.
Realist that he was, Hamilton recognized that the convention in all probability had produced as strong an instrument as it would be possible to get the states to accept. At that, it was a nice question whether the necessary majority of nine would be secured. Even more serious was the question of the action of Virginia and New York—and without them, the acquiescence of all the others would be of little effect. Geographically, these two states split the rest of the union into thirds. Economically, New York was already assuming a dominant position. Politically, as it had most recently demonstrated at Philadelphia, Virginia was still the home of the most articulate statesmen in the land. The ultimate fate of the Constitution, and of national government in America, thus rested on the approval of these two states.
This was the prospect Hamilton considered as the Philadelphia convention wound up its work. Already Clinton—for whom he bore no personal affection—was launching into print with what was called a “campaign of education” against the proposed document. Redoubtable correspondents like “Brutus,” “Cincinnatus,” “Countryman,” and “Expositor” had promptly joined him. The first efforts at rebuttal by a writer signing himself “Caesar” (who may or may not have been Hamilton himself) fell flat. The Clintonians were obviously going to use their legislative majority to delay New York’s action on the Constitution as long as possible, and use the public press to solidify the consensus of opposition before that time.