In writing about Federalist No. 85 – the final paper in a lengthy series of defenses of the proposed Constitution for the United States of America – it is entirely appropriate that I have just returned from a several day visit to Colonial Williamsburg. For that historic site epitomizes better perhaps than any other location in America – even perhaps than Philadelphia – the Spirit of Revolution and Reform that swept through the 13 colonies immediately prior to July 4, 1776, and that governed the constitutional discourse, both immediately following victory over the British Empire, and in the wake of the evident failure of those Articles of Confederation that had led the former colonies on their first nervous lap on the road to a full Union.
To hear once again those now-treasured words of Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington, in the very location where they were heard for the very first time, within the context of torn loyalties and divided families, is to recognize that a rare constitutional moment occurred during those immediate pre-revolution years between the passage of the Stamp Act and the military engagements to the North at Lexington and Concord. To watch as dedicated 21st century young American visitors reenact key events, eagerly volunteering to serve in General Washington’s miniscule, rag-tag army, in the face of almost certain death and, as bravely defiant Williamsburg citizens, jeering at the Traitor, Benedict Arnold, following his military investment of the capital city of independent Virginia, is to feel pride, even as an Englishman, in the Spirit that will take George Washington’s army to its key victory over the British army of General Cornwallis at Yorktown, on October 19, 1781, and that eventually will make the United States exceptional in the eyes of the world.
So now it is May 28, 1788, almost 12 years since the Declaration of Independence, and 7 years since Yorktown. Alexander Hamilton, on this, day accepts the honor, and the enormous responsibility, of firing up that Constitutional Spirit in one concluding paper, in what has proved to be a lengthy, and occasionally rancorous, debate between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists that he had formally initiated in Federalist No. 1, almost one full-year earlier, on October 27, 1787. Evidently, this is a moment that demands statesmanship of the highest order.
Will Alexander Hamilton fulfill that awesome destiny that he has shouldered so willingly? His task is delicately balanced between firing up the spirit of his readers by soaring rhetoric, while yet holding their feet to the glowing embers of political reality that evidently confront the emerging nation. For, this is not a fairy-tale, where everyone may expect to live happily ever after. On the other side of the fateful constitutional decision, there will be losers as well as winners, though not every one will yet know on which side of that divide he will eventually fall, or for how long he will so remain.
Hamilton rises brilliantly to his task, blending persuasive rhetoric with common-sense realism in a masterly contribution full of insights for those who would lead their state governments to a final judgment, yet written with a clarity that would be greatly appreciated by the People. His opening words focus succinctly on the two remaining issues under serious contention:
“According to the formal division of the subject of these papers, announced in my first number, there would appear still to remain for discussion, two points, ‘the analogy of the proposed government to your own state constitution,’ and ‘the additional security, which its adoption will afford to republican government, to liberty and to property.”
Even these issues, Hamilton recognizes, have been fully anticipated and discussed in the progress of the debate. He dispenses with these remaining concerns in two paragraphs that you can quickly embrace and which I shall here bypass.
The remainder of Federalist No. 85 focuses attention on what I shall call the ‘constitutional spirit’ that ought to govern the People and their state representatives in deciding whether or not to endorse the draft constitution. At a time well before the emergence of public choice, and extrapolating from a history of failed constitutions, Hamilton asks each individual to appeal to his better angels in approaching the constitutional decision, to raise himself above the level of politics as it is, to a meta-level of rules that will delineate the very nature of the politics that must play out within its limitations:
“Let us now pause and ask ourselves whether, in the course of these papers, the proposed constitution has not been satisfactorily vindicated from the aspersions thrown upon it, and whether or not it has been shown to be worthy of the public approbation, and necessary to the public safety and prosperity. Every man is bound to answer these questions to himself, according to the best of his conscience and understanding, and to act agreeably to the genuine and sober dictates of his judgment. This is a duty, from which nothing can give him a dispensation. ‘Tis one that he is called upon, nay constrained by all the obligations that form the bands of society, to discharge sincerely and honestly. No partial motive, no particular interest, no pride of opinion, no temporary passion or prejudice, will justify to himself, to his country or to his posterity, an improper election of the part he is to act.”
These are powerful words of persuasion. But Hamilton does not rely on rhetoric alone. He knows instinctively, well before a relevant public choice literature has emerged, that individuals require little prodding so to behave. If the constitution is adopted, together with the amendment process that it prescribes, it will be of long duration, it will survive, indeed, well beyond the life-span of any individual. Even though each individual may be well aware of where he stands at this time, what he expects to lose and to gain by his actions, he cannot foresee the future. He cannot know what will transpire for his offspring, and for their offspring, into an indefinite future. As such, the edge of narrow self-interest is naturally blunted, and a nudge rather than a shove is all that is required for man to rely upon his better angels in the constitutional moment that he immediately confronts.
So what now is left? The proposed constitution, as Hamilton well understands, is a compromise carefully constructed by a dedicated convention at Philadelphia. It will not be perceived as perfect, perhaps, by any man, surely not by many. The urge to make perfect in a naturally imperfect world must be contained, because unattainable perfection must always prove to be the deadly enemy of the feasible best. Hamilton addresses this issue transparently and to powerful effect, distinguishing between the writing of an entirely new proposed constitution and the amending of a constitution that has been agreed-upon. Writing again well in advance of public choice insights, Hamilton seizes on the essence of this difference:
“We may of course expect to see, in any body of men charged with its original formation, very different combinations of the parts upon different points. Many of those who form the majority on one question may become the minority on a second, and an association dissimilar to either may constitute the majority on a third. Hence the necessity of moulding and arranging all the particulars which are to compose the whole in such a manner as to satisfy all the parties to the compact; and hence also an immense multiplication of difficulties and casualties in obtaining the collective assent to a final act.”Hamilton does not have to remind his readers of the great fortune of the convention in Philadelphia in meeting in a building carefully protected from all external interference – the streets themselves were covered with straw to deaden the sound of passers-by – in meeting under the magisterial leadership of George Washington, in meeting under the brilliant intellectual guidance of James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, with the energetic presence of the First American, Benjamin Franklin. Such favorable circumstances surely would not be replicated in any second attempt. In their absence, chaos might well be expected to ensue.
So, Hamilton reminds his readers of how much simpler the Article V amendment process is designed to be, focusing as he anticipates, on one issue at a time, with qualified majority, rather than unanimity, its prescribed mechanism, and with the convention route available to bypass any danger of Congressional resistance to state initiatives. Hamilton is aware that 7 out of the 13 states are already committed to the great enterprise. His final paper is a brilliant and ultimately successful exercise to bag the remaining 6. The threat of anarchy, should the venture fail, proves to be sufficient to mollify dissent and to complete the Union.
Because this is the final Federalist Paper, and I have the advantage over Alexander Hamilton of being able to look back on the constitutional achievement of the Founders, let me close with some brief thoughts on what has transpired over the two centuries and more of its existence.
The Constitution itself is a triumph, a remarkable document forged by brilliant political philosophers. Foremost among the Founders was James Madison, who, prior to the Philadelphia convention, studied what was wrong with republics, old ones and new ones, how they failed and why they were failing. He studied what was wrong, and why they failed, so that he could create a republic that would not fail. For the most part, he was successful. The parchment of the constitution is as good as it could be.
It is now badly tattered, not because the Founders failed, but because their successors too often have twisted its meaning. The Founders for the most part were devout Christians who understood that man’s creation operated under Divine guidance. The United States prospered and grew in freedom under Divine Providence. It has fallen on darker days as secular notions of Manifest Destiny have replaced those of the Divine.
The United States prospered and grew in freedom when the checks and balances of the Constitution each played their designated role in preserving a strictly limited government of enumerated powers, and when states rights were honored according to the Constitution. It has fallen on darker days as Congress has relinquished many of its powers to create an Imperial Presidency; and has stretched across the constitutional divide to seize powers that do not exist; and as the Congress and the Presidency, acting in concert, have crushed states’ independence.
The United States prospered and grew in freedom when the Judiciary honored the words of the Constitution and construed the words of the parchment in accordance with original intent. It has fallen on darker days since the Judiciary has rendered the words of the parchment meaningless in an attempt to pursue social and economic agendas never contemplated for the federal government by the Founders.
That is why this project on Constituting America is so important at this time of grave uncertainty for the future of this nation. It is for the youth of America to reaffirm the Spirit of America that has been so sadly disregarded by its elders, and to return the United States to the Divine Providence that is the life-spring of its People’s greatest achievements.
Charles K. Rowley, Ph.D. is Duncan Black Professor of Economics at George Mason University and General Director of The Locke Institute in Fairfax, Virginia. He is co-author (with Nathanael Smith) of Economic Contractions in the United States: A Failure of Government. The Locke Institute (www.thelockeinstitute.org). He blogs at www.charlesrowley.wordpress.com.