In the days when the Constitution lay under active consideration by the state conventions, The Federalist gained only a limited circulation. The speeches, newspaper articles, and pamphlets of several other Federalists played larger roles in securing the constitution’s final ratification.
Friends of the Constitution: Writings of the “Other” Federalists, 1787-1788, eds. Colleen A. Sheehan and Gary L. McDowell.
In contemporary discussions of the meaning of the federal Constitution, The Federalist claims great attention. Part of the respect traditionally bestowed upon that collection of New York newspaper articles results from the enormous prestige of the authors of the “Publius” essays, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. In the days when the Constitution lay under active consideration by the state conventions, however, The Federalist gained only a limited circulation. The speeches, newspaper articles, and pamphlets of several other Federalists played larger roles in securing the constitution’s final ratification.
Publius (in this case, James Madison) himself conceded that the people’s understanding of the Constitution at the time they adopted it formed the true basis of interpretation, so mere resort to The Federalist whenever a question of the Constitution’s meaning arises fails even its authors’ test. In addition, the final number of The Federalist first appeared in May 1788, by which time Federalists in eight states already stood victorious in their local ratification debates. Few people in Virginia, the tenth state to ratify and easily America’s most important state, saw The Federalist before the Richmond Ratification Convention met in June 1788.
Huzzah to Professors Colleen A. Sheehan and Gary L. McDowell, then, for conceiving a volume such as this one. Most scholars, not to mention laymen, have neither the time nor the inclination to peruse the dozen-plus volumes of the Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution already in print (which is a shame, because they richly repay the effort). Therefore, a compilation of the leading non-Publius Federalists’ most important writings constitutes a welcome addition to the literature.
Personally, I would have preferred a new introduction to the corpus of pro-ratification materials instead of Herbert J. Storing’s decades-old piece. The expenditure of many barrels of ink since 1976 must have availed us something, and either Sheehan or McDowell could have done a nice job at setting the papers they have collected into context.
The book is divided into three sections: “The Necessity of Union,” “Energetic but Limited Government,” and “Popular Government and Civic Virtue.” Papers in each section loosely fit under its title. Alternative ways of organizing the book – say, geographically or temporally – suggest themselves, but those alternatives would tend to undermine the general Straussianism of the text as edited.
By far the most influential Federalist statements during the ratification contest, leaving aside the mere fact that George Washington supported the constitutional project, were those of future Supreme Court Justice James Wilson. Wilson has drawn little attention from scholars, in part because the later eminence of the two main authors of The Federalist has led them to ignore Wilson’s fine efforts in support of ratification. Here, he is represented by a number of entries, and they all show him to good advantage.
In one, his 24 November 1787 speech in the Pennsylvania ratification convention, Wilson ingeniously adopted the tactic of referring to each of the controversial choices made in the Philadelphia Convention as the solution to a great difficulty. The main problem the delegates in Philadelphia had had to face, he told his fellow Pennsylvanians, was that their task was essentially unprecedented, especially where the matter of demarcating state from federal authority was concerned. Without any light from the past, in his account, Pennsylvanians should not be surprised to find some parts of the proposed constitution exceptionable. “Man and perfection! – a state and perfection! – an assemblage of states and perfection! – can we reasonably expect, however ardently we may wish, to be-hold the glorious union?”
In this speech Wilson played on the reputedly horrible condition of America in the eyes of the world. The patriots’ hopes at the successful completion of their war for independence, he noted, seemed totally thwarted. Here, he tapped into the ambient Federalist argument (which the Federalists’ most notable opponents, such as Patrick Henry and Richard Henry Lee, considered to be rank demagoguery) that all was rot in the late 1780s. For example, where notable anti-Federalists attributed America’s debt problem to the recently completed war and saw the situation as an unavoidable anomaly, Federalists insisted no such problems would have arisen if only the continental government had been more energetic. Wilson joined that chorus in this speech.
Another common theme of the Federalist propagandists may be found in the “State Soldier” essays of George Nicholas. Nicholas, scion of a very eminent Virginia family and future eminence (literal and figurative) of the new state of Kentucky, is perhaps best remembered as the fellow who demanded an inquiry into former governor Thomas Jefferson’s conduct as Virginia’s first magistrate in the last years of the Revolution. In the Richmond Convention he would serve as mouthpiece for the “rhetorically challenged” James Madison, reciting the arguments for an extended sphere and separation of powers Madison would have made himself if he were not such a poor public speaker. Nicholas also made sure in the Richmond conclave to heap personal insults on leading anti-Federalists.
As the “State Soldier,” in a series of essays contained here in its entirety, Nicholas played the same game. George Mason, the author of the Virginia Constitution of 1776 (the world’s first written constitution) and of the Virginia Declaration of Rights (template for the other states’ declarations of rights and for dozens of others in Europe and around the world, including the United Nations version), became a target of the same type of calumny Nicholas once had heaped upon Jefferson. Mason was corrupt, concerned for his future political prospects, and even insane, in Nicholas’ account.
Mason’s career’s most notable attribute, his repeated refusal to accept high offices, posed no obstacle to Nicholas’s aspersions. Although they do not all join Nicholas in naming names (“A Landholder” being a nasty exception), several other Federalists in this collection make accusations of this kind. That a section of this book should be entitled “The Necessity of Union” says much about Federalist rhetoric, for virtually no one denied that union was necessary, and even those who held it a subordinate interest placed only liberty above it. Patrick Henry, the Federalists’ favorite target of accusations concerning disunionism, left us not a shred of evidence of any but the most American of sentiments. The trashy politics of innuendo feature here.
Most of the better essays and speeches collected here read rather as short versions of The Federalist: they defend the allocation of powers among the three branches of the proposed government via brilliant analyses of British, Roman, Greek, and Continental history; they argue for the necessity of the delegation of further powers to the center; and they appeal to their readers’ patriotic imaginations in calling them to envision the world that might be if only the Constitution were ratified. The Federalists, as Richard Henry Lee lamented, show themselves thoroughly modern in insisting that if there was a problem in their society, reform of political institutions must be the solution.
In general, the essays are well selected: John Dickinson, Roger Sherman, Oliver Ellsworth, and other leading lights of Federalism all find their places in this collection, and the writings of Dickinson and Wilson often outstrip those of Publius in both quality and, as mentioned before, historical pertinence. (The historian David Ramsay’s essay from South Carolina, complete with its mistaken prediction that the South would soon permanently dominate Congress, is especially interesting.) However, in some states, such as Virginia, the sparseness of newspaper debate on ratification makes it essential that students desirous of a rounded understanding of the Federalist case read the ratification debates themselves. Strikingly, despite the availability of a wonderful edition of those speeches, no Federalist oratory from Richmond is included here. Perhaps the reason for this is that the Virginia Convention’s leading Federalist spokesman, Governor Edmund Randolph, was a reticent Federalist. In that, he was typical of Virginia – and of the nation at large.
A large portion of the Federalist vote in that pivotal Richmond convention came from men such as Edmund Pendleton. As he explained the matter fifteen years later, Pendleton voted “yea” only on the understanding that major changes would be made (and to his mind, when measured against the amendments the Virginia Convention had demanded, the Bill of Rights did not suffice) and that the Constitution would be construed as a compact among sovereign states. This last point was made in the convention by the two most loquacious Federalist delegates, Governor Randolph and George Nicholas, for a committee whose five members included John Marshall and James Madison. From the dedication of the volume to Harry Jaffa to the inclusion of an irrelevant essay on slavery (not to mention several other clues in between), the careful reader of this volume has plenty of reason to conclude that the exclusion of this major strain of Federalism is no oversight. Still, given this limitation, the book serves an important purpose, and I recommend it.
Republished with gracious permission from Modern Age (Fall 1999).
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The featured image is 1794 portrait of John Jay by Gilbert Stuart and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.