“Debating the Constitution” and The Federalist 41 – 44
By the time the authors working under the penname Publius undertook their herculean labor of selling the Constitution to the American reading public, their worries concerning its fate amid general opinion were decidedly acute. Hamilton, Rakove notes, believed Americans were “prone to such ‘preconceived jealousies and fears,’ because they were steeped in a political culture in which innovation portended danger more often than it promised reform” (132). The Revolution itself had been a hard sell for many, and that involved onerous taxes, which seems to be the single oldest rallying theme in American political culture. These “jealousies and fears” threatened the success of the finely tuned Constitution in the 1780s as surely as they threaten the prospects of genuine health care reform in 2010. The Founders had long recognized that the chief political virtue in a republican system was “moderation,” which meant to post-Enlightenment thinkers a proper suppression of “passions” in favor of “reason.” In the 2008 Presidential campaign, one of the most liberal contenders for the Democratic nomination, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, defended himself from his own party’s attacks by arguing that his platform was not “radical” or “leftist” in any way, but in fact “moderate.” He was, after all, arguing on classic Hamiltonian lines, positioning solutions to problems of governance, foreign policy, and domestic economy as a pragmatic (even “conservative”) restructuring of priorities, in line with majority opinion about what was right and needed. His audience took it as a joke.
So clearly, Hamilton’s anxiety was not parochial. Rakove takes up this very theme in narrating the Constitutional debates that divided period politicians into two starkly oppositional camps, Federalists and Anti-Federalists, whose respective programs seemed all but irreconcilable. “The irony of ratification,” Rakove writes, “was that both sides had to appeal to a public opinion in which they placed little confidence—not because they regarded the American people as an unwashed mass of the ignorant and selfish but because they feared that cunning leaders would manipulate even well-meaning citizens” (134). Madison’s concerns on this score were no duller than Hamilton’s. He fretted about the “impulsive and dangerous influence that public opinion could exert” on the Constitution debate, and his strategy was either to neutralize that influence or channel it properly through a “mechanism of safe expression.” His offerings to that end come down to us as the Federalist essays, that magisterial compendium of republican thought, but in his own day, they were essentially op-ed columns.
Imagine if today’s partisan warriors only had newspaper columns in which to stump their various talking points and persuade readers to take their side. No pundit blogs, no television commercial spots, no cable talk shows, no Twitter, no YouTube-circulated videos, just tightly worded prose in print. A very different kind of rhetoric obtains in these circumstances, and in Federalist 41–44, Madison pursues nothing less than a point-by-point explication of the more controversial elements in the Constitution. It would be tedious to recapitulate the specifics of his defense in this section, but a few choice nuggets do command our attention. The first concerns his astute recognition that “military precautions” in one country, by their very nature, necessitate concomitant precautions elsewhere, what we now blithely call “the arms race.” Madison understood that the costs of military preparation (standing army, arms stockpiles, and resource mobilization) can feasibly outweigh the benefits, and though we can suppose his purpose here is to make a case for careful centralization rather than provincial competition in matters martial, a more general insight cannot escape us in the post-Cold War era, when the notion as bizarre as Mutually Assured Destruction is credited with having provided a convincing deterrent to warring parties for decades of Soviet-American nuclear tension.
The second involves Madison’s sustained worries about the “peculiar institution” of chattel slavery, “a traffic which has so long and so loudly upbraided the barbarism of modern policy” (266). Here his reference is to the slave trade (not slavery itself), but a broader sadness about the persistence of its associative evils in the republic he was trying to build can be detected in his tone. In Federalist 43, in a discussion of the apportioning of electoral representation, Madison can’t help himself from bringing it up again: “I take no notice of an unhappy species of population abounding in some of the States, who, during the calm of regular government, are sunk below the level of men; but who, in the tempestuous scenes of civil violence, may emerge into the human character and give a superiority of strength to any party with which they may associate themselves” (277). Madison here almost seems to presage the role played by freed slaves in Civil War regiments or lower-class black infantry in both World Wars. The Founders were forced to punt the issue of slavery for the sake of political expedience – managing in the meantime to forge a prohibition of the “traffic” of slaves set to take effect in 20 years – but they were certainly aware of the grave consequences of their procrastination.