This is the third post of my favorite excerpts from the Federalist Papers, including nos. 37-70. The post on nos. 1-20 is here; on nos. 21-36, here. In brief, the excerpts made the cut for one of four reasons:
- Eternal relevance.
- Immediate relevance.
- Related to Hamilton’s ongoing battle with Governor of New York George Clinton. (He’s going to go to battle with Clinton & Co. at New York’s ratifying convention.)
- Sheer beauty of language.
Hamilton sketched his plan for the Federalist Papers in the General Introduction (No. 1):
I propose, in a series of papers, to discuss the following interesting particulars:
The utility of the Union to your political prosperity – The insufficiency of the present confederation to preserve that Union – The necessity of a government at least equally energetic with the one proposed to the attainment of this object – The conformity of the proposed constitution to the true principles of republican government – Its analogy to your own state constitution [i.e., New York’s] – And lastly, the additional security which its adoption will afford to the preservation of that species of government, to liberty, and to property.
In the progress of this discussion I shall endeavor to give a satisfactory answer to all the objections which shall have made their appearance, that may seem to have any claim to your attention. (No. 1, more here)
Federalist Papers 1-36 are, as promised, a critique of the weaknesses of the government established by the Articles of Confederation.The remaining essays (Nos. 37-85) describe how the government would work under the Constitution, incorporating answers to objections to its provisions.
Madison wrote Nos. 37-58. His topics were:
- Nos. 37-40. The nature of the Constitution: a republican document, created as a compromise by delegates competent to do so.
- Nos 41-46. Powers of the federal government, and federal vs. states’ powers.
- Nos. 47-51. Separation of powers, and checks and balances.
- Nos. 52-58. The House of Representatives.
Federalist Nos. 59-61: Concerning the Power of Congress to Regulate the Election of Members
Published 2/22/1788, 2/23/1788, and 2/26/1788. Hamilton’s context is always the need to counter the arguments of those within New York State who oppose ratification of the Constitution. That opposition was spearheaded by Governor George Clinton and his cronies. In this explanation of why members of the United States House of Representatives should not be appointed by state legislatures, Hamilton suggests that Clinton & Co. have base motives for their attacks.
The people of America may be warmly attached to the government of the Union, at times when the particular rulers of particular States, stimulated by the natural rivalship of power, and by the hopes of personal aggrandizement, and supported by a strong faction in each of those States, may be in a very opposite temper. This diversity of sentiment between a majority of the people, and the individuals who have the greatest credit in their councils, is exemplified in some of the States at the present moment, on the present question. The scheme of separate confederacies, which will always multiply the chances of ambition, will be a never failing bait to all such influential characters in the State administrations as are capable of preferring their own emolument and advancement to the public weal. With so effectual a weapon in their hands as the exclusive power of regulating elections for the national government, a combination of a few such men, in a few of the most considerable States, where the temptation will always be the strongest, might accomplish the destruction of the Union, by seizing the opportunity of some casual dissatisfaction among the people (and which perhaps they may themselves have excited), to discontinue the choice of members for the federal House of Representatives. (No. 59, more here)
No. 62-64: The Senate
Nos. 62-63, by Madison, were published 2/27/1788 and 3/1/1788. No. 64, by John Jay, was published 3/7/1788.
No. 65: The Powers of the Senate Continued
Published 3/7/1788. In a discussion of why the Senate hears trials for impeachment, there’s a glimpse of Hamilton’s concern with honor: a jury can do much worse than put a man in prison.
The necessity of a numerous court for the trial of impeachments, is equally dictated by the nature of the proceeding. This can never be tied down by such strict rules, either in the delineation of the offense by the prosecutors, or in the construction of it by the judges, as in common cases serve to limit the discretion of courts in favor of personal security. There will be no jury to stand between the judges who are to pronounce the sentence of the law, and the party who is to receive or suffer it. The awful discretion which a court of impeachments must necessarily have, to doom to honor or to infamy the most confidential and the most distinguished characters of the community, forbids the commitment of the trust to a small number of persons. (No. 65, more here)
A recurring theme throughout the Federalist Papers is that we ought not to reject the Constitution as a whole because parts of it may need amending. If we do not get a sound plan of government, we risk anarchy (another of Hamilton’s obsessions: search for “anarchy” here, here, here, here).
But though one or the other of the substitutes which have been examined, or some other that might be devised, should be thought preferable to the plan in this respect, reported by the convention, it will not follow that the Constitution ought for this reason to be rejected. If mankind were to resolve to agree in no institution of government, until every part of it had been adjusted to the most exact standard of perfection, society would soon become a general scene of anarchy, and the world a desert. Where is the standard of perfection to be found? Who will undertake to unite the discordant opinions of a whole commuity, in the same judgment of it; and to prevail upon one conceited projector to renounce his INFALLIBLE criterion for the FALLIBLE criterion of his more CONCEITED NEIGHBOR? To answer the purpose of the adversaries of the Constitution, they ought to prove, not merely that particular provisions in it are not the best which might have been imagined, but that the plan upon the whole is bad and pernicious. (No. 65, more here)
No. 66: Objections to the Power of the Senate To Set as a Court for Impeachments Further Considered
Published 3/11/1788. Hamilton reiterates that if a government is to protect its own citizens, the most urgent requirement is that the citizens elect only worthy people.
The truth is, that in all such cases it is essential to the freedom and to the necessary independence of the deliberations of the body, that the members of it should be exempt from punishment for acts done in a collective capacity; and the security to the society must depend on the care which is taken to confide the trust to proper hands, to make it their interest to execute it with fidelity, and to make it as difficult as possible for them to combine in any interest opposite to that of the public good. (No. 66, more here)
No. 67: The Executive Department
Published 3/11/1788. One of the bugaboos hauled out by Clinton & Co. was the idea that the executive under the new Constitution would be a monarch: and what did we just fight a war to escape? In describing the power and duties of the executive (the president), Hamilton takes a swipe at Governor Clinton that’s almost poetic.
There is hardly any part of the system which could have been attended with greater difficulty in the arrangement of it than this [the executive branch]; and there is, perhaps, none which has been inveighed against with less candor or criticised with less judgment.
Here the writers against the Constitution seem to have taken pains to signalize their talent of misrepresentation. Calculating upon the aversion of the people to monarchy, they have endeavored to enlist all their jealousies and apprehensions in opposition to the intended President of the United States; not merely as the embryo, but as the full-grown progeny, of that detested parent. To establish the pretended affinity, they have not scrupled to draw resources even from the regions of fiction. The authorities of a magistrate, in few instances greater, in some instances less, than those of a governor of New York, have been magnified into more than royal prerogatives. He has been decorated with attributes superior in dignity and splendor to those of a king of Great Britain. He has been shown to us with the diadem sparkling on his brow and the imperial purple flowing in his train. He has been seated on a throne surrounded with minions and mistresses, giving audience to the envoys of foreign potentates, in all the supercilious pomp of majesty. The images of Asiatic despotism and voluptuousness have scarcely been wanting to crown the exaggerated scene. We have been taught to tremble at the terrific visages of murdering janizaries, and to blush at the unveiled mysteries of a future seraglio. …
I have taken the pains to select this instance of misrepresentation, and to place it in a clear and strong light, as an unequivocal proof of the unwarrantable arts which are practiced to prevent a fair and impartial judgment of the real merits of the Constitution submitted to the consideration of the people. Nor have I scrupled, in so flagrant a case, to allow myself a severity of animadversion little congenial with the general spirit of these papers. I hesitate not to submit it to the decision of any candid and honest adversary of the proposed government, whether language can furnish epithets of too much asperity, for so shameless and so prostitute an attempt to impose on the citizens of America. (No. 67, more here)
No. 68: The Mode of Electing the President
Published 3/12/1788. Why do we need an electoral college, rather than allowing presidents to be elected by popular vote?
It’s a good argument. You should read it.
[The electoral college] was also peculiarly desirable to afford as little opportunity as possible to tumult and disorder. This evil was not least to be dreaded in the election of a magistrate, who was to have so important an agency in the administration of the government as the President of the United States. But the precautions which have been so happily concerted in the system under consideration, promise an effectual security against this mischief. The choice of SEVERAL, to form an intermediate body of electors, will be much less apt to convulse the community with any extraordinary or violent movements, than the choice of ONE who was himself to be the final object of the public wishes. And as the electors, chosen in each State, are to assemble and vote in the State in which they are chosen, this detached and divided situation will expose them much less to heats and ferments, which might be communicated from them to the people, than if they were all to be convened at one time, in one place.
Nothing was more to be desired than that every practicable obstacle should be opposed to cabal, intrigue, and corruption. These most deadly adversaries of republican government might naturally have been expected to make their approaches from more than one quarter, but chiefly from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils. How could they better gratify this, than by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union? But the convention have guarded against all danger of this sort, with the most provident and judicious attention. They have not made the appointment of the President to depend on any preexisting bodies of men, who might be tampered with beforehand to prostitute their votes; but they have referred it in the first instance to an immediate act of the people of America, to be exerted in the choice of persons for the temporary and sole purpose of making the appointment. And they have excluded from eligibility to this trust, all those who from situation might be suspected of too great devotion to the President in office. No senator, representative, or other person holding a place of trust or profit under the United States, can be of the numbers of the electors. Thus without corrupting the body of the people, the immediate agents in the election will at least enter upon the task free from any sinister bias. Their transient existence, and their detached situation, already taken notice of, afford a satisfactory prospect of their continuing so, to the conclusion of it. The business of corruption, when it is to embrace so considerable a number of men, requires time as well as means. Nor would it be found easy suddenly to embark them, dispersed as they would be over thirteen States, in any combinations founded upon motives, which though they could not properly be denominated corrupt, might yet be of a nature to mislead them from their duty. …
All these advantages will happily combine in the plan devised by the convention; which is, that the people of each State shall choose a number of persons as electors, equal to the number of senators and representatives of such State in the national government, who shall assemble within the State, and vote for some fit person as President. Their votes, thus given, are to be transmitted to the seat of the national government, and the person who may happen to have a majority of the whole number of votes will be the President. But as a majority of the votes might not always happen to centre in one man, and as it might be unsafe to permit less than a majority to be conclusive, it is provided that, in such a contingency, the House of Representatives shall select out of the candidates who shall have the five highest number of votes, the man who in their opinion may be best qualified for the office.
The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications. Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States. It will not be too strong to say, that there will be a constant probability of seeing the station filled by characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue. (No. 68, more here)
No. 69: The Real Character of the Executive
Published 3/14/1788. Hamilton again attacks those who claim the executive under the Constitution would have royal powers.
Hence it appears that, except as to the concurrent authority of the President in the article of treaties, it would be difficult to determine whether that magistrate would, in the aggregate, possess more or less power than the Governor of New York. And it appears yet more unequivocally, that there is no pretense for the parallel which has been attempted between him and the king of Great Britain. …
The President of the United States would be an officer elected by the people for FOUR years; the king of Great Britain is a perpetual and HEREDITARY prince. The one would be amenable to personal punishment and disgrace; the person of the other is sacred and inviolable. The one would have a QUALIFIED negative upon the acts of the legislative body; the other has an ABSOLUTE negative. The one would have a right to command the military and naval forces of the nation; the other, in addition to this right, possesses that of DECLARING war, and of RAISING and REGULATING fleets and armies by his own authority. The one would have a concurrent power with a branch of the legislature in the formation of treaties; the other is the SOLE POSSESSOR of the power of making treaties. The one would have a like concurrent authority in appointing to offices; the other is the sole author of all appointments. The one can confer no privileges whatever; the other can make denizens of aliens, noblemen of commoners; can erect corporations with all the rights incident to corporate bodies. The one can prescribe no rules concerning the commerce or currency of the nation; the other is in several respects the arbiter of commerce, and in this capacity can establish markets and fairs, can regulate weights and measures, can lay embargoes for a limited time, can coin money, can authorize or prohibit the circulation of foreign coin. The one has no particle of spiritual jurisdiction; the other is the supreme head and governor of the national church! What answer shall we give to those who would persuade us that things so unlike resemble each other? The same that ought to be given to those who tell us that a government, the whole power of which would be in the hands of the elective and periodical servants of the people, is an aristocracy, a monarchy, and a despotism. (No. 69, more here)
No. 70: The Executive Department Further Considered
Published 3/15/1788. An eternal truth … for some people, at least.
Men often oppose a thing, merely because they have had no agency in planning it, or because it may have been planned by those whom they dislike. But if they have been consulted, and have happened to disapprove, opposition then becomes, in their estimation, an indispensable duty of self-love. They seem to think themselves bound in honor, and by all the motives of personal infallibility, to defeat the success of what has been resolved upon contrary to their sentiments. Men of upright, benevolent tempers have too many opportunities of remarking, with horror, to what desperate lengths this disposition is sometimes carried, and how often the great interests of society are sacrificed to the vanity, to the conceit, and to the obstinacy of individuals, who have credit enough to make their passions and their caprices interesting to mankind. Perhaps the question now before the public may, in its consequences, afford melancholy proofs of the effects of this despicable frailty, or rather detestable vice, in the human character. … (No. 70, more here)
Next week, excerpts from the Federalist Papers with more on the executive, and on the judiciary.
- A table of contents of the Federalist Papers is here. Links to each of the essays are here. The dates of the original newspaper publication given above are taken from the Library of America edition of Hamilton’s writings, edited by Joanne Freeman.
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