Thursday, April 29th, 2010
Federalist Paper #2 was written by future Federalist party chieftain John Jay to address what many founders felt was a critical deficiency regarding the then existing government authorized by the Articles of Confederation. The deficiency was the major vulnerability the young nation faced because it lacked sufficient national authority to defend itself or to enforce its laws.
Reflecting his view that the public “choose” the new central government contemplated in the Constitution rather than simply acquiesce in it, Jay presents his arguments in terms of the “self interest” of the readers. “It is well worthy of consideration therefore, whether it would conduce more to the interest of the people of America that they should, to all general purposes, be one nation, under one federal government, or that they should divide themselves into separate confederacies, and give to the head of each the same kind of powers which they are advised to place in one national government.”
John Jay was the oldest contributor to the Federalist Papers at age 41. Jay, a staunch abolitionist who would go on to become governor of New York and successfully ban slavery statewide, also had served as President of the Continental Congress and was a principal negotiator of the Treaty of Paris. After the U.S. Constitution was ratified, he would become the first Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court.
At the time of the writing of Federalist #2, it had only been a few years since the Revolutionary War had ended. Although the Americans had just successfully defeated one of the most powerful military forces on the planet when it successfully won its independence against England, barely five years later the capacity to carry off a similar feat was dramatically undermined by the operation of the Articles of Confederation. In addition, compounding matters there was increasing sentiment among the political class that instead of presenting a “united” front as part of a United States of America, the states should actively consider whether even the loose association authorized by the Articles was either useful or worthwhile.
John Jay vigorously argues that not only should the states remain united; they should adopt the proposed Constitution’s federal style of government. It was Jay’s view that the crisis of the Revolutionary War had led to the hasty creation of the Articles of Confederation and even as its defects became apparent, those deficiencies were not great enough to prevent America from prevailing in the war.
Now that the war was over, the problems of the Articles had been so severe that the Philadelphia Convention had been convened to attempt to ameliorate its difficulties. Of course the result of the convention was an entirely new compact being drafted. The central theme of this compact is that it contains a Federal Government with specific authority and power to carry out its limited but important duties in a way that the Federal Government authorized under the Articles of Confederation could not.
John Jay presents two basic premises that are basis for his argument: it is a fundamental responsibility of government that it has the necessary power to regulate conflict and administer the laws it has lawfully enacted. Secondly, in order for any grant of authority to be legitimate it must be consensual — that is the people must grant the government the powers.
While Jay recognized that any of the government powers exercised ultimately came from the people, the issue was which of these powers should be reserved for citizens and which were usefully granted to the government. The test for Jay was whether a particular grant of authority best protected the safety and interests of the American populace. However, this problem was made more difficult when the question of whether the Americans should unite under one national government or instead become separate states.
To Jay the answer was a strong union. He believed that for all intents and purposes, the confederation of states were already a union. He argued that the geographical make up of the nation including its topography and “navigable waters” created natural boundaries that encouraged commonality. Additionally the faith, language, principles and customs of the people who dwelled in this land which were overwhelmingly similar also argued for a strong union.
“This country and this people seem to have been made for each other, and it appears as if it was the design of Providence, that an inheritance so proper and convenient for a band of brethren, united to each other by the strongest ties, should never be split into a number of unsocial, jealous, and alien sovereignties.”
Since the land, people and language made it naturally more efficient to remain together then Jay believed that it was essential that the government they were subject to had the authority and power to carry out its duties in a way that the Articles of Confederation had never allowed. “It has until lately been a received and uncontradicted opinion that the prosperity of the people of America depended on their continuing firmly united, and the wishes, prayers, and efforts of our best and wisest citizens have been constantly directed to that object.” It was John Jay’s considered view that the adoption of the Constitution in the long term would prove beneficial to all Americans both in a time of military conflict and in times of peace.
Marc S. Lampkin, partner at Quinn Gillespie and Associates LLC is a graduate of Boston College Law School