Federalist No. 1

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I am reading through The Federalist Papers, in order. I'm taking notes, and providing them here.

Feel free to read along and discuss. If you care to participate in discussion, you may wish to read ahead; however, please don't discuss more than what has already happened. Don't move on to No. 3 in the discussion of No. 2.

A quick introduction to The Federalist is warranted, for those who might need it. It was written in 1787 and 1788 as a series of articles in newspapers, by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay -- all under the pen name "Publius" -- as explanation and defense of the proposed Constitution, which was to be ratified by the states. It became the general authority on the meaning of the Constitution, as to how it should be interpreted, though its status in that regard has diminished over the years.


In the first article, Hamilton introduces the articles which will follow. He starts with the broad question to be answered: "whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force." He has a sense of the worldwide importance of this goal, nothing that this is the era for that question to be decided, and that an incorrect answer would be to the "general misfortune of mankind."

He ends the article with a more modest goal, to determine what is best for the states, union or dissolution.

It seems that one could say Hamilton was being unfair -- or at least, unseemly -- in his opening rhetoric. Is he going too far by implying that if they don't adopt the Constitution, the world would regret it? But Hamilton spends the bulk of the article imploring the reader to be on guard against that sort of thing.

Everyone is biased, he says, and while we can hope for people to put the best interests of the nation first, we can't expect it. Some are against the proposed Constitution because they will lose power. Others, because they hope to exploit the dissolution that would result for personal gain. Still others out of jealousy or fear.

But biases exist on both sides, and someone on the side of truth may not have purer motivations than those on the other: which side you're on says nothing about the worthiness of your motivations. [A nice thing to remember for many of those on the left and right today, who constantly deride those they disagree with.]

Speaking as one who had apparently been on Slashdot for far too long, he wrote:

However just these sentiments will be allowed to be, we have already sufficient indications that it will happen in this as in all former cases of great national discussion. A torrent of angry and malignant passions will be let loose. To judge from the conduct of the opposite parties, we shall be led to conclude that they will mutually hope to evince the justness of their opinions, and to increase the number of their converts by the loudness of their declamations and the bitterness of their invectives.

He hopes people won't do this: "In politics, as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution."

But he knows it will happen, and so asks people to "guard against all attempts, from whatever quarter, to influence your decision ... by any impressions other than those which may result from the evidence of truth." Hamilton doesn't pretend to not favor the Constitution: "I will not amuse you with an appearance of deliberation when I have decided." But as "consciousness of good intentions disdains ambiguity," his "arguments will be open to all, and may be judged of by all. They shall at least be offered in a spirit which will not disgrace the cause of truth."

I am particularly attracted to that last line. The idea of offering all the pertinent evidence, arguing your case, and hoping that people will make up their own minds, is a concept that I've attempted to follow this space.

Come back again for another installment of The Federalist . slashdot.org

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