In school, we were told that we lived in a great nation, a democracy. We were taught about the sacrifices made to wrest control of this land from the British Crown, and of the brilliant minds assembled in Philadelphia to hammer out the details of how we were to govern ourselves.
I can’t recall if the Federalist Papers were discussed in any detail, though. And so it was most interesting just recently to finally read the slim paperback I bought many years ago for 44 cents. The Federalist Papers (Pocket Books, 7th Printing, 1976) contains 26 of 85 essays penned by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay. The articles were published in leading newspapers, 1787 to 1788, under the collective pseudonym “Publius.”
These Founding Fathers underlined what they felt were flaws and shortcomings in the proposed Constitution being cobbled together to succeed the Articles of Confederation, the original document for governance in the wake of the War for Independence. They believed that a strong national government, as opposed to a mere confederation of the individual states, was essential to guide the original 13 colonies as “manifest destiny” would inevitably vastly increase the territorial area of the new nation, the full extent of which they weren’t even aware.
I’m sure that many of us who complain about what we perceive as dwindling respect for our democratic rights have encountered some smart aleck who immediately replies: “This isn’t a democracy, it’s a republic.” What does this actually mean?
Fortunately, James Madison explained it brilliantly in Paper Number 10, “Factions: Their Cause and Control.” There is a discussion of the problems generated by a particular segment of society gaining undue dominance over the others, and make no mistake: the authors recognized that they lived in a class society, and they themselves represented the wealthy elite of the time.
Democracy means “direct rule by the people [‘demos,’ from the Greek].” But perhaps the only real democracy was the ancient city-state of Athens, where citizens came together at the agora to discuss and debate the pressing issues of the day. Madison points out that the original 13 colonies were already too unwieldy in territory to permit a direct rule by the people, assembled together. Imagine the impracticality of trying to govern the nation by direct rule in the future, when the territories farther west were settled. And so, the need for a republic: a system wherein the citizenry elects locals to represent them in assemblies (legislatures) at a central seat of government at some distance removed, there to decide the course of the nation.
A large republic is preferable to a small, Madison writes, because with more electors “[I]t will be more difficult for unworthy candidates to practice with success the vicious arts, by which elections are too often carried; and the suffrages of the people being more free, will be more likely to center in men who possess the most attractive merit, and the most diffusive and established characters.”
I think we must hold Madison blameless for not foreseeing the rise to the presidency of an inimitable “character” like Donald J. Trump. But throughout the Federalist Papers, the authors exhibit a keen awareness of the threat to national unity posed by internal divisions, insurrections (“Shays’ Rebellion” in New England was a very recent event) and above all, a “confederacy” among several of the states to rebel against the central power. Thus, as Abraham Lincoln would proclaim seven decades later when the Civil War erupted: “The union must be preserved at all costs.”
In Paper Number 11, “Union and Economic Growth,” Hamilton complains of the smug superiority exhibited by the European powers that had established empires: “The superiority she [Europe] has long maintained, has tempted her to plume herself as the mistress of the world, and to consider the rest of mankind as created for her benefit. Men (…) have attributed to her inhabitants a physical superiority…” How marvellous the irony that the USA now proclaims itself “the exceptional, the indispensable nation,” spreading its military tentacles over the whole globe.
In Number 14, “The Virtues of Bigness,” James Madison even hints that empire may yet be the destiny of the newly established nation, so rich in natural resources.
In Number 34, on taxation, Hamilton asserts that the military is needed to defend commerce, and that it would be “absurd” (verbatim) to renounce offensive war on principle. Quite a heaping dose of pragmatism! But he almost tips the scales back in his favor in Number 21, “The Enforcement of National Law”: “The natural cure for an ill administration, in a popular or representative constitution, is a change of men” [emphasis added]. Are you paying attention, Mr. Trump?
The Founders would undoubtedly be horrified at what’s become of the United States. Police departments from coast to coast are now armed with lethal military gear, and they don’t hesitate to employ it. Interestingly, Hamilton argued against a need to enumerate a Bill of Rights, but such was soon incorporated into the Constitution. But the right of young male African-Americans “to be secure in their persons” (4th Amendment) is obliterated by police bullets regularly. Our legislatures are chock full of, not wise, selfless, meritorious individuals, but creatures kept on short leashes by corporate lobbyists. Every few years, we get to re-elect, or replace, these incumbents. Does this constitute democracy? Don’t the citizens of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea exercise the same right? I could easily argue that the representatives elected to their National Congress are more genuinely patriotic than America’s.
In Paper Number 39, “Republicanism and Federalism,” Madison again defines a republic. He reminds us government derives its power from the people, the consent thereof. And I now ask: what recourse save revolution is available when government has become utterly corrupted?