The Federalist Project 9

“Debating the Constitution” and Federalist 45 – 47

In his concluding discussion of the great Federalist/Anti-Federalist debate, Rakove solidifies a few procedural points developed first in the introduction regarding “the perils of originalism.” The active argumentation that cast intense public scrutiny on nearly every aspect of the draft Constitution provides us, Rakove notes, with the best single record of original intent, on two specific levels: as “initial forays in interpretation” (what the Constitution meant and why it was adopted) and as “originating source of its supreme authority” (the Constitution as legally binding precedent). Of particular interest in the discussion is the different methodology of each partisan camp. Reference to the works of French political thinker Baron de Montesquieu – whom both sides admired and quoted liberally – is a case in point. When it came to issues such as the optimal size of republics and separation of powers, the Anti-Federalists revered De l’esprit des lois with a piety that bordered on idolatry, viewing it “as a source of incontrovertible rules that needed only to be quoted, not examined or assessed or interpreted.” Such an attitude was not suitable to the likes of James Madison, however, who took upon himself the welcome intellectual challenge of countering Anti-Federalists readings of Montesquieu with his own penetratingly close explications. Few in his generation were better read or more prepared to have that debate.

    In a second example of methodological difference, Rakove portrays each camp as a different sort of Newtonian, the framers “seeking to set different political forces in equilibrial opposition” and the Anti-Federalists “thinking that the science of politics was grounded in universal laws.” Both camps were thoroughly grounded in Enlightenment political thought as well as the daunting record of historical precedents for what we now call “nation building.” Madison himself takes up the limits of historical comparisons in Federalist 45, in which he determines that differences in time and place were often too vast for useful extrapolation to the American experiment. Within the Federalist movement itself, Rakove indentifies the perceivable “split personality,” evident in the “right brain” of the restless and brilliant Hamilton and the “left brain” of the shrewd and punctilious Madison. Combined, these brains brought considerable intellectual resources to bear on the ratification debate, in the end, burnishing the position that it was better “to trust future experiences to identify remediable defects in an adopted Constitution than to risk the uncertain event of a second convention” (159) That trust would eventually win the day, the Anti-Federalists suspending approval until the lived experience of a successful Constitution would prove Madison and Hamilton right.

    On the specific concern lodged by Anti-Federalist advocates that the State governments were being asked to cede too much authority to Federal oversight, Madison offers in Federalist 46 to remind “these gentlemen . . . of their error”: “They must be told that the ultimate authority, wherever the derivatives may be found, resides in the people alone, and that it will not depend merely on the comparative ambition or address of the different governments whether either, or which of them, will be able to enlarge its sphere of jurisdiction at the expense of the other. Truth, no less than decency, requires that the event in every case should be supposed to depend on the sentiments and sanction of their common constituents” (294) Madison’s point was that since both State and national governments derive their legitimacy from the sovereign people, they perforce cannot be in conflict with one another in the main. Madison here is closer to Rousseau than he is to Montesquieu in his stubborn loyalty to the “general will,” but as we have seen, he did not place great trust in the ability of regional and local legislatures to carry out that will without prejudice. Hence the Convention.

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