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The Enlarged Republic—Then and Now

1.

To many modern readers, the Federalist Papers seem formal, musty, old, and a bit tired—a little like a national holiday that celebrates events long past but lacks any sense of struggle and excitement, or even a clear message. But under stringent time pressure, starting in October 1787, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, writing under the name of “Publius,” produced the best historical record, by far, of the uniquely American contribution to political thought and practice.

It is important to see that their arguments were a product of a concrete historical drama, involving the fate of an emerging nation that was having an exceedingly difficult time governing itself. But Publius’s claims bear not only on American debates of the eighteenth century, but also on those of the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first. They offer lessons for making war and making peace, and for domestic crises of many different kinds. Indeed, they provide guidance for constitutional democracies elsewhere, not least when peace and prosperity are endangered.

Publius’s project was to reconceive republicanism—a body of thought with ancient origins in Aristotle and Cicero whose modern forms had been elaborated in different ways by Machiavelli, Rousseau, and Montesquieu. Emphasizing self-rule by the people, republicans insisted on the importance of civic virtue and generally believed that self-government works best in small, homogeneous republics. According to the argument of the Federalist Papers, however, such small republics tend to destroy themselves. The reason lay in the power of factions—well-organized private groups with passions or interests inconsistent with the good of the public as a whole.1 Publius believed that in a large republic, a heterogeneous public could counteract factional power and serve as a creative force, promoting circumspection and introducing safeguards against bias, error, confusion, and even oppression.

In Publius’s boldest words, the unprecedented constitutional design of the United States, offering checks and balances in a large republic, provides

a republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government. And according to the degree of pleasure and pride we feel in being republicans, ought to be our zeal in cherishing the spirit, and supporting the character of federalists.

In unifying the cause of republicanism with that of the federalists, who supported the ratification of the Constitution, Publius argues on behalf of a distinctive kind of democracy—a deliberative one. He insists that in a well-functioning deliberative democracy, a wide range of perspectives is a virtue rather than a vice, at least if the constitution has the proper structure. Publius thus explicitly repudiates most of the great republican thinkers, above all Montesquieu, who contended that in a large, diverse republic, self-governance would be impossible. Publius’s novel conception of republicanism provides a clue to the longevity and genius of the United States Constitution. It also helps to explain why it has served, for so many, as a model of self-government under law.

To appreciate Publius’s achievement, it is indispensable to have some understanding of the Articles of Confederation, which the Constitution replaced. Adopted shortly after the Revolution, the Articles were meant to ensure a degree of unification of the states for the management of shared domestic and foreign problems. But under the Articles, it was understood that the states would remain sovereign. The first substantive provision of the Articles announced that

each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States in Congress assembled.

By contemporary standards, the Articles of Confederation had conspicuous gaps. There was no executive authority. There was no general national judicial authority. Two of the most important powers of modern national governments were missing altogether—the power to tax and the power to regulate commerce. By the middle years of the 1780s, many prominent leaders agreed that amendments to the Articles were required.

In 1786, state representatives met in Annapolis to discuss the problems that had arisen under the Articles; they adopted a resolution to hold a convention in Philadelphia to remedy them. But the charge to the framers meeting at the convention was much narrower and more modest than the ultimate product would suggest. Chosen by state legislatures, they were instructed

to meet at Philadelphia…to take into consideration the situation of the United States; to devise such further provisions as shall appear to them necessary to render the Constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union.

Notwithstanding this cautious language, the Constitution put forward an altogether novel system of government. Among the most important changes were the creation of a powerful executive branch; the grant to Congress of many enumerated powers, including the power to tax and to regulate commerce; and the creation of an independent federal judiciary, including the Supreme Court and (if Congress chose) lower federal courts. The Tenth Amendment, added two years later, was a pale echo of the first provision of the Articles of Confederation, deleting the word “expressly,” and it was countered by the crucial constitutional clause granting Congress the authority to make “all laws necessary and proper” to carry out its enumerated powers. To its defenders and to its critics, the most noteworthy feature of the new constitution was its dramatic expansion in the authority of the national government, giving it a range of fresh legislative powers and authorizing both the executive and the judiciary to exercise considerable authority over the citizenry.

The Constitution was sent to the states for ratification in September 1787. At the time, it proved extremely controversial, and powerful objections were offered against it. There was no assurance that it would be ratified. Opposition was especially intense in New York. Seeking to persuade voters in that state, Alexander Hamilton was the major impetus behind the Federalist Papers ; he recruited John Jay and James Madison for the effort. Because Jay was injured in a street riot at an early stage, he turned out to be only a modest contributor. The name “Publius” was chosen by Hamilton.

The Federalist Papers were written between October 1787 and August 1788. The various essays were published in several newspapers in New York (including the Independent Journal, the New York Packet, and the Daily Advertiser). The goal was to provide a sustained response to the many critics of the new constitution.

2.

The Antifederalists and Small Republics

Throughout American history, scholars, politicians, and citizens have shown enthusiasm for the arguments of the antifederalists—committed opponents of the proposed constitution who claimed that it amounted to a betrayal of the principles for which the American Revolution had been fought. The ranks of the antifederalists included some of the most celebrated names in the nation’s history, such as Patrick Henry, Thomas Paine, George Mason, George Clinton, and Luther Martin. We cannot understand Publius’s originality without exploring the relationship between his arguments and the more standard republican views of the antifederalists, whom he attempted to rebut.

Many of the antifederalists emphasized the importance, for republican government, of civic virtue. Governmental decisions were, in their view, to be made by citizens devoted to a public good separate from the struggle of private interests; and one of government’s key tasks was to ensure the flourishing of the necessary public-spiritedness. In part for this reason, the antifederalists insisted on the importance of decentralization. Only in small communities would it be possible to check a potentially oppressive government, and to find and develop the unselfishness and devotion to the public good on which genuine freedom depends.

In emphasizing the value of small communities, the antifederalists drew on familiar republican theory. Consider the words of Montesquieu, a revered authority for antifederalists and federalists alike:

It is natural to a republic to have only a small territory, otherwise it cannot long subsist. In a large republic there are men of large fortunes, and consequently of less moderation; there are trusts too great to be placed in any single subject; he has interest of his own; he soon begins to think that he may be happy, great and glorious, by oppressing his fellow citizens; and that he may raise himself to grandeur on the ruins of his country. In an extensive republic the public good is sacrificed to a thousand private views; it is subordinate to exceptions, and depends on accidents. In a small one, the interest of the public is more obvious, better understood, and more within the reach of every citizen; abuses have less extent, and, of course, are less protected.2

Emphasizing these points, the antifederalists were deeply hostile to the idea of a dramatic expansion in the powers of the national government. Only a decentralized society would allow the homogeneity, transparency, and dedication to the public good that would prevent the government from degenerating into a war among private interests. The antifederalist who signed himself “Brutus” (probably Robert Yates, a New York judge) much admired Montesquieu, and he was explicit on the importance of homogeneity:

In a republic, the manners, sentiments, and interests of the people should be similar. If this be not the case, there will be a constant clashing of opinions; and the representatives of one part will be continually striving against those of the other. This will retard the operations of government, and prevent such conclusions as will promote the public good.3

The antifederalist “Cato” (probably New York Governor George Clinton) wrote in a similar vein. He called attention to

the immense extent of territory comprehended within the limits of the United States, together with the variety of its climates, productions, and commerce, the difference of extent, and number of inhabitants in all; the dissimilitude of interest, morals, and policies….

He warned that

unkindred legislature therefore, composed of interests opposite and dissimilar in their nature, will in its exercise, emphatically be, like a house divided against itself.4

From this perspective, the grounds on which the antifederalists based their opposition to the proposed constitution should be clear. Citizens would lose effective control over their representatives. Rule by remote national leaders rather than by state and local governments would attenuate the scheme of representation, rupturing the alliance of interests between the rulers and the ruled. Because it could not be closely controlled by the citizenry, the powerful executive branch, raising the specter of monarchy, would compound the problem. The potentially powerful judicial branch, deliberately insulated from the people, could not be trusted. The antifederalists feared that the proposed constitution would provide weakly accountable national leaders with enormous discretion to make policy and law.

3.

Publius’s Response

These objections to the proposed constitution provoked Publius to offer a theoretical response that amounted to a new conception of self-government. This conception reformulated longstanding principles of republicanism, while in the process rejecting some of its apparently deepest commitments.

The authors of the Federalist Papers were historically minded, but they were hardly traditionalists, and they were fully aware of the originality of the American project. No. 1, written by Hamilton, begins in this way:

  1. 1

    Note that Publius is not referring to political parties, which were not foreseen and first emerged some five years later. In his account, factions consist of any kind of organized group that seeks to impose itself at the expense of the public good (a term that he did not define).

  2. 2

    Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws (1748), Book 8, Chapter 16.

  3. 3

    The Complete Anti-Federalist, edited by Herbert J. Storing (University of Chicago Press, 1981), 2.9.16.

  4. 4

    The Complete Anti-Federalist, 2.6.12.

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