“The Politics of Constitution-Making” and The Federalist 15 – 20
In the first half of “The Politics of Constitution-Making,” Rakove undertakes a broad survey of the theme of “compromise” at the Constitutional Convention, focusing, naturally, on the two historic moments of negotiated concession, concerning: 1) the issue of the Senate as the “upper” house of Congress, assuring equal representation among the states; and 2) the calculation within the southern states of slaves as 3/5 of a person for representation purposes. These two compromises, it goes almost without saying, cannot be separated. Small-state worries about domination at the hands of large, northern population centers in the House of Representatives were part-and-parcel of the debate over how to count slaves. Big-state resistance to the notion of equal representation among states in the Senate – ignoring the demographic imbalances it implied – fed into the politics of slave calculation in a very direct way. For his part, Madison continued to articulate his distrust of the state legislatures as sadly lacking the “wisdom and stability” requisite for political vision, what Rakove aptly calls “parochial concerns” inhibiting a necessarily “broad view of the national interest.” How to deal with the “peculiar institution” of slavery in the context of the Convention was a prime example of Madison’s fear of factional interest hijacking policy, most sharply annunciated in Federalist 10. Here, the dominant view among northern states, as noted by Rakove, “accepted the accommodation with slavery as the price union,” a stiff price indeed, given the bloodbath that was its all but inevitable legacy in the 1860s, not too mention its aftershocks felt in the 1960s.
The debate over slavery had many dimensions, of course, but a few require special mention. At the core of the discussion was the two-pronged problem of population as the basis for representation (not necessarily a given, according to Rakove) and the protection of property as a rationale for confederacy (widely assumed, but not unanimously agreed upon). Slaves had the dubious distinction of being both property and population, and also, strictly speaking, neither. Given the high-minded rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence, slavery in the American tradition was always an intuitive paradox of the highest magnitude. The famous 3/5 compromise only added further paradox, befitting the starting point of original hypocrisy.
The discussions that sprung up around this hot-button issue highlighted the wisdom and accuracy of all Madison’s fears, in particular the “need to safeguard the conspicuous interest of North and South,” which inspired in this case, a “defensive orientation” within both camps, not at all conducive to principled negotiation. Was the convention serving “a society embracing a multiplicity of interests or a nation divisible into two great and potentially antagonistic factions”? The fact that slaves would be counted as subhuman bits of property had the unintended effect of “overvaluing the suffrage of the free male population of the slave states” while simultaneously undercounting the physical residents of an entire region. The moral dimension of the compromise, and the Founders’ abject failure to acknowledge it as such, goes beyond the scope of the present discussion, but nevertheless underscores the limited, practical nature of the Convention’s core objectives.
In Federalist 15–20, Hamilton and Madison begin a serious of lectures, replete with historical examples, on the inefficacy of weak confederacies in surmounting the general chaos and anarchy attending loosely-defined federal systems. Hamilton surveys the dismal results of ancient Greek city-state leagues, the German empire, and the United Netherlands in an effort to place the American experiment in a historical context and offer salutary reminders of just how much was at stake in the revised union. The overall picture is one of eventual dissolution of the confederacy, eternal jealousy among member states, and the nearly constant threat of warfare. A single jaw-dropping passage from Federalist 20 perfectly captures the mood of this series:
Let us pause, my fellow-citizens, for one moment over this melancholy and monitory lesson of history; and with the tear that drops for the calamities brought on mankind by their adverse opinions and selfish passions, let our gratitude mingle an ejaculation to Heaven for the propitious concord which has distinguished the consultations for our political happiness (137).
In this remarkable prose, we can detect an early kernel of what later manifests as the doctrine of American exceptionalism, by which Americans somehow convince themselves that they are more blessed, more deserving, and less encumbered than other peoples and other times. In Hamilton’s case, the feeling was historical, informed by broad reading, active participation on the shaping of his society, and of course, his membership in one of the most talented generations in political history. The contemporary affliction, on the contrary, is notably ahistorical, based on mythical optimism and cultural ignorance, a sense of entitlement without rational basis or existential certainty, and hence, much more dangerous.