Thematic Essays

A Messy Beginning [Federalist Series #1]

Let’s talk about the Federalist Papers.

Why?

Well…

  1. I’m a big history nerd and for me, one of the most interesting periods of American history has always been the Revolutionary period and the years immediately following. The Founding Fathers had to make an entire government system through a series of then untested political theories and democratic ideals. That’s pretty admirable and I would like to give props to that
  2. I think it’s important to discuss our political roots in this time of political divide. It seems that rarely a day goes by when a serious “Constitutional Crisis” is heralded by the government and media
  3. And yes, I am a big Hamilton fangirl, in case you were wondering

So let’s begin.

Any discussion of the Constitution must begin with the Articles of Confederation. The Articles of Confederation was the first document outlining a system of government that defined the role of the national government and the state ones under it. It was adopted by the 13 states in 1781 but was scrapped in 1789–less than ten years after ratification because the structural flaws that were made painfully obvious.

The Articles of Confederation advocated for a “firm league of friendship” between the states which held equal power over their own districts as the national government did. Perhaps even more so. In theory, the Continental Congress in Philadelphia could negotiate treaties, collect taxes and produce legislation but enforcing these powers proved difficult. Nothing really stopped state governments from exercising these same powers–often in conflict with other states. They could choose not to comply with tax calls or go about paying for them at a glacial pace.

But this lack of governmental cohesion was seen as detrimental to some enlightened government officials. The government in Philadelphia’s inability to collect taxes made them unable to pay off war cost, fund their daily operations, or even pay back the soldiers who fought in the front lines of the war. Their ineffectiveness was further compounded when debt ridden farmers took up arms in Shays’ Rebellion in the economic turmoil that

Illustration of a Fight During Shays's Rebellion
Shays’ Rebellion: A Dramatic Depiction of a Massachusetts government loyalist in a brawl with a rebel

followed the war. The state and federal government’s inability to dutifully address systemic concerns and the fear of similar acts of rebellion was the death knell to the Article’s utility to many intellectuals within the top brass of government. The Constitutional Convention was held in secret to construct the Constitution in Philadelphia in 1787.

Due to the secret proceedings (publicly under the pretense of fixing the Articles, not outright replacing them) and the large amount of power vested back to the federal government, many thought the Constitution was counterintuitive to the ideas that the American public fought for and reeked of tyranny. Most were still wary of powerful states limiting the freedoms of a population which had little to no say about how freedom should be limited. They did just fight a costly war with Britain and the former colonies took quite the beating. Some were tons of dollars in debt, other areas were devastated by the fighting. Many started to suggest alternative plans of power division proposed by the document like separate confederacies.

Thus the Federalist Papers. The essays were set out to prove that though flawed, the Constitution was the best way to secure the freedom and security of the American state. It addressed the concerns and anxieties that cropped up in regards to it–either disproving them or suggesting a worse alternative.

federalist

The Federalist papers are a series of essays written to defend the new Constitution of the United States. They were penned by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison under the collective pseudonym, “Publius.”

Today, the Constitution is looked upon as one of the most important political tracts during the European/American Enlightenment–a pinnacle of democratic organization that is used as a resource for all three branches of our government. The flexibility of the document has sparked fierce debate since its inception which, for better and for worse, created the first political parties (the Federalist and Democratic-Republicans) during the first few decades after its adoption.

The Federalist Papers themselves have been regarded as quintessential political tracts in their own right and for good reason. It managed to clear up some vagueness in the language of the Constitution itself, showing how certain passages could be applied to hypothetical situations. What I find more fascinating however were the men behind Publius. The people who came together despite their political differences to defend the most controversial document of the time.

I wish to take a look at this document–the people, the ideas, and the history that came together to make this a thing. This is part one of hopefully a many part series.

Stay tuned.

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