“The Perils of Originalism” and The Federalist 1 – 5
In this opening chapter of Jack Rakove’s Original Meanings, we confront several pitfalls of the “originalist” ambition to discover the Founders’ true intentions and the pure spirit of the Constitution they authored, not least of which springs from Madison’s own recognition that an “unbiased” history of the Convention of 1787 was well-nigh impossible (his stubborn effort to create one, however, remains indispensable reading). Rakove rehearses the main problems we face in our retrospective enterprise to understand the Constitution and the Federalist essays designed to get it ratified, all stemming from the intellectual and purposive underpinnings of the political debates that brought these remarkable men to Philadelphia in the first place: the eminently practical orientation of the delegates, the immediate experience of legislating and governing under the weak Articles of Confederation, various state, regional, and class interests that may have occluded the common purpose of the writers, and of course, the breadth and depth of the learning and literacy assumed as par for the course in 1787, which we’d be extremely hard pressed to match or even approximate today. Nonetheless, we must try to examine the Constitution under the refracted light of these original contexts combined with the fruits of modern scholarship; thus, Rakove is on our side.
The first five essays of The Federalist introduce us to some of the principal worries that advocates of the Constitution felt as they countenanced the manifest failures of eight years under the Articles. Hamilton and Jay both warn of the danger posed by “jealousies” aroused among small neighboring states, pointing to endless European wars of rivalry and conquest as illustrative examples. Jay argues for the shared heritage among the former colonies (citing language, ancestry, religion, etc.) as reason for unifying under a central authority of some scope and potency. Over all, these introductory essays reveal a concern for the vulnerabilities the authors witnessed as the United States struggled to define itself in the wake of its recent declaration and war of independence, significant war debt, and first several years of fledgling republican sovereignty in an age of empires. One line question worth pursuing here is whether and to what extent the United States of today resembles the kind of strong union envisioned by Hamilton, Jay, and Madison. Does our propensity for regional or state-level blocs of power and cultural authority argue for or against Jay’s position on shared heritage? Have we overcome the “jealousies” and vulnerabilities inherent in the confederacies of small states they believed were destined to fail? Have great size and vigorous centralization made us safer internally and externally? How does the existence – and apparent success – of the European Union complicate 18th-century assumptions about unity and confederacy among heretofore sovereign entities? What does the European experience with colonial empires suggest about the future success of the United States as the builder of a vast informal empire (what we call “globalization”)?