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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
What appeared in the journals of one state was frequently reprinted from the exchanges in others; or stalwarts from a neighboring commonwealth might be drafted to aid the cause elsewhere—as Pelatiah Webster was invited to write, from Philadelphia, a series of letters refuting the Clintonians under the title, “The Weakness of Brutus Exposed.” Even within New York, essays were readily copied from one publication by another, and this was particularly true of The Federalist . First appearing in Childs’ Independent Journal ; or, The General Advertiser , they promptly began appearing also in the New York Packet and the Daily Advertiser .
Indeed, while the disposition of most of the New York papers was antinationalist, the clamor for the Publius letters on the part of the reading public was so insistent that even the virulent Clinton organ, the Journal , ultimately acceded to the demand with Number 23 and became the fourth periodical to print the essays. (It dropped them later, announcing that it was doing so upon the signed petition of thirty subscribers.)
It is safe to say that no state document of such significance, before or since, has ever been so thoroughly debated in such a large arena as the new Constitution in the critical months from October, 1787, to July, 1788. The voracious appetite for political discussion which had been cultivated by the revolutionary generation was further whetted by the manifest urgency of the issue before the country and the striking intellectual powers of the advocates on both sides. The Clinton faction was still confident that it could vote down the new Constitution at the state convention, or at the last ditch demand a vast number of concessions—at most, a second constitutional convention; at least, a series of amendments—as the price of ratification. Events seemed to justify their optimism; among the delegates to the ratifying convention to be held in June at Poughkeepsie antinationalists formed a substantial majority. Eloquent and incisive as it was, The Federalist thus fell short of its immediate objective of changing the climate of local opinion. It may well be, as a contemporary observer concluded, that the treatment of the subject by Publius was “not well suited for the common people.”
As Publius warmed to his subject—the second group of essays (Numbers 15-29) appeared during December, 1787—the first three states ratified the new Constitution. They were Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. The impact of such momentous actions in nearby commonwealths could not have been inconsiderable in New York, but the Clinton party countered with broad hints that in Pennsylvania, at least, and most likely in New Jersey as well, there would be an early attempt to reconsider the action. As for Publius, he kept his attention glued upon his editorial plan.
What more persuasive argument for reconstruction of the national system, asked Hamilton in Number 15, than the record of futility of the Congress of the Confederation? “The great and radical vice in the construction of the existing Confederation is in the principle Of LEGISLATION for STATES or GOVERNMENTS , in their CORPORATE or COLLECTIVE CAPACITIES , and as contradistinguished from the INDIVIDUALS of which they consist,” he pointed out. The aim of the Philadelphia convention had been to make a government of the people rather than a council of states—to create a federal citizenry coexistent with state citizenship.
This duality, which has been a unique feature of American political organization and one of the most perplexing for foreign observers to comprehend, was the key to prospective success for the new system: the Constitution proposed to bypass the state governments as the foundation for the national structure, drawing its strength directly from the people. The electorate was thus to be drawn out of the parochial confines of exclusively state interests and to develop the broader interests of a national public. This new federalism was to make a reality of Christopher Gadsden’s aphorism of the Revolutionary era, that there should henceforth be “no New England men, no New Yorkers … , but all of us Americans.”
At best, of course, Publius could only conjecture as to the effects of the federal system upon the general welfare; with no record of native experience, except the negative accomplishments of the Confederation which the Constitution sought to overcome, it was necessary to draw comparisons from older republics. This was Madison’s forte; and his profound study of ancient and contemporary governments is reflected in the next series of letters drawing from the experiences of the classic Greek democracies, the German and Swiss confederations of the Middle Ages, and the state of the United Netherlands in his own era. From each of these, The Federalist shrewdly drew the recurring moral that such loose and limited organization had accounted for the very problems with which the United States had been confronted since independence.