The Federalist #1

Jun 17, 2014 by

In the following series of articles, I shall endeavor to summarize and analyze The Federalist.  Each article that I write will be dedicated to the corresponding Federalist Paper.

The Federalist is not a single work, but a series of articles published by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay.  These works were produced for the purpose of convincing the State of New York to vote in favor of the Constitution.  Each article is signed “Publius”.  Publius is a reference to Publius Valerius Publicola.  Publius was one of four major revolutionaries who, in ancient Rome, originally cast out the monarchy and helped to establish the Republic.  This collection of works is significant because it gives us an insight into every part of the Constitution.  With this brief understanding of the Federalist from a historical standpoint, let us begin by examining Federalist #1.

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton

Federalist #1 is the opening paper.  In it, Alexander Hamilton is talking about the crossroad before the new country.  He opens by talking about how the Articles of Confederation, the previous document binding our country, were completely ineffective.  Now, the American people are being called upon to deliberate about this new Constitution.  However, Hamilton is arguing that the question before the people is not merely: Do we accept this Constitution or not?  But: “Whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice?”  Are men really capable of governing themselves or do they need to be led?

Hamilton then asks that this document’s fate be decided on how much it promotes the public good and not because of personal interest.  However, Hamilton acknowledges that to ask this is to ask a lot.  This document encompasses a lot of private interests, and men are not objective enough to set those interests aside.  For instance, Hamilton points out that many people of power desire things to remain as they are because it allows them to keep a lot of power.  At this time, the states were divided, not united under a central government.  The Articles of Confederation theoretically united the States, but, in reality, the central government had no authority.  This allowed many state government officials to gain a lot of power.  For instance, Governor Clinton of New York.  Not only did he have considerable sway over his state, but his state had considerable sway over his region.  The way trade flowed in the region meant that shipments to many neighboring states had to first go through New York harbor.  New York used this to tax all shipments coming in going out of state at extremely high rates, oppressing his neighbor states.  Moreover, the national government, at this time, was located in New York.  This gave Governor Clinton extreme sway over those representing the nation.  A new Constitution establishing an effective central government would severely diminish Governor Clinton’s power.  Thus, Clinton like many state officials, was opposed to change of any kind.

However, Hamilton immediately abandons discrediting his opposition.  He states that merely because his opposition is in a position to be biased, does not mean that his opinion is biased.  Hamilton is asking the people to be wary of, but not to ignore people who are in a position to be biased.  Rather, all attention should be focused on the arguments and reasons themselves.  In this coming fight, there will be a whirlwind of passion flowing from every side.  People will use this passion to try and gain popularity.  You have to be wary of this.  Hamilton is keen to point out that while some may  argue that this Constitution is making a more powerful government and more able to tyrannize the people, governments are necessary for the protection of liberties.  Also, you should be wary of these people as well.  For, while their arguments appear to be for liberty, history has shown us that these people, many times, have an ulterior motive.  Julius Caesar entered Rome as a man of the people, only to overthrow the Republic.  Hamilton then openly states that his goal is to argue for the new Constitution, not wishing to mask his motives from the reader.

Hamilton finishes with a quick summary of future articles, which I do not need to talk about here.

Federalist #1 is an opening address to the readers.  Hamilton is trying to achieve two things with this article.  First, Hamilton is trying to show the gravity of the situation before the American people.  This discussion of the new constitution is not merely a simple choice of government, but a symbol for whether or not man can govern himself.  Prior to this, governments had either been ruled by tyrannies or short lived republics and democracies.  No government ruled by the people had been able to sustain itself for very long.  Inevitably it would devour itself.  This new country, Hamilton is arguing, is a chance for the American people to prove, once and for all, whether or not people can rule themselves.

Our nation has yet to prove to be a stable one.

Our nation has yet to prove to be a stable one.

Let us think about this for a second, in modern day terms.  Our government, by comparison, is still quite young.  We have been around for a long time, but it has been bloody.  Between the Civil War and Civil Rights movements, our government has yet to prove to be a stable one for a long period of time.  Thus, this importance that Hamilton was trying to show to early Americans should not be lost on us.  We still have to prove that we are capable of governing ourselves.  We have to maintain and thrive.  Every decision about government power, whether for more or less, should be carefully weighed and analyzed whether it protects our liberty, or will lead us to tyranny, either by the masses or by government.

The second point that Hamilton is trying to make is that people are biased and you need to take their opinions with a grain of salt.  This, too, applies to today.  Today, when you turn on the news, everything people say is layered with a biased opinion.  It is our job, as readers and listeners, to find a moderation between the sides, look past the biases, and find the truth and base arguments.  Having found this, we might better see the real issues and real arguments, and be able to weigh them for ourselves.  Only then can we truly determine a correct course of action.

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