Reading Journal

What I'm reading

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The Federalist Papers, by Hamilton, Madison, and Jay

The Federalist Papers were written by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison (primarily) with a couple contributions from John Jay. They wrote them for the opinion section of a New York newspaper to convince New Yorkers to ratify the Constitution. It's amazing how well thought-out each paper is when you consider that they only had 3-4 days to write each one. On the other hand, they had been at the Constitutional Convention arguing about it for a whole summer, so most of their arguments had already been worked out.

It really gave me a sense for how precarious the country was under the Articles of Confederation. The national government was so ineffective that if the Constitution had not been ratified, there was serious talk of splitting the country into 2-3 smaller regional confederations. Hamilton warned (correctly in my opinion) that these regional confederations would inevitably war with each other, provoked most likely by European powers.

This is an excellent book to read if you want to know why our government is structured the way it is. I came away respecting Hamilton, Madison, and Jay for their theoretical knowledge and the practical solutions they came up with.

Madison wanted a separation of powers and checks and balances in order to protect against tyranny. I like how he talked about "parchment barriers."
After discriminating, therefore, in theory, the several classes of power, as they may in their nature be legislative, executive, or judiciary, the next and most difficult task is to provide some practical security for each, against the invasion of the others. What this security ought to be is the great problem to be solved. Will it be sufficient to mark, with precision, the boundaries of those departments in the constitution of the government, and to trust to those parchment barriers against the encroaching spirit of power?

In a later paper, Madison developed the idea that each branch will compete for power, and that this structure will keep any one branch from dominating. In this age of vast presidential power, it's interesting that the most dangerous branch in their opinion was the legislative branch, since it was most directly connected to the people and their mandate.
Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxilliary precautions.

Hamilton wanted a powerful executive. In the Articles of Confederation there wasn't a national executive or judicial branch, so this seemed risky at the time. The executive branch felt like... well, like King George.
A feeble executive implies a feeble execution of the government. A feeble execution is but another phrase for a bad execution; and a government ill executed, whatever it may be in theory, must be, in practice, a bad government.

Hamilton was concerned the legislative branch would use its power over the Treasury to coerce the other branches. There are specific rules in the Constitution about how often the President and Supreme Court justices can have their salaries changed.
In the general course of human nature, a power over a man's subsistence amounts to a power over his will.

Hamilton's conclusion:
A NATION without a NATIONAL GOVERNMENT is, in my view, an awful spectacle. The establishment of a Constitution, in time of profound peace, by the voluntary consent of a whole people, is a PRODIGY, to the completion of which I look forward with trembling anxiety.


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