'Publius': The Federalist Papers

By Teti, Dennis | The World and I, October 1998 | Go to article overview

'Publius': The Federalist Papers


Teti, Dennis, The World and I


New York's struggle over whether to adopt the 1787 Constitution was critical to the nation's survival and perhaps to avoiding civil war. The Constitution's draftsman, James Madison, along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, anonymously coauthored 85 essays, or "op-eds," signed "Publius," to promote the new system; these became known as The Federalist Papers. New York ratified the Constitution by a narrow three-vote margin. Publius' Federalist helped save the country with the finest commentary on limited government ever written.

America, Publius began, can accomplish something unheard of: the establishment of good government by "reflection and choice." The framers had looked to "reason and common sense," since the "dim light of historical research" revealed no model for limited government. Even Britain's traditional bills of rights--the Magna Carta, Petition of Right, and Declaration of Right--were useless in their new plan. Publius argued that good government should have "energy," not weakness, but be limited in its ends and its means.

The Constitution's greatest contributions to limited government are "republican" form (popular rule) and the balanced structure of separate powers.

The Federalist followed the Declaration of Independence in seeking standards for good government in reason and religion, "the transcendent law of nature and of nature's God." Both teach that government's rightful object is "the safety and happiness of society," so its end must be limited to preservation of the common good. The Declaration of Independence also recited the British king's "long train of abuses and usurpations." The framers therefore divided government's means, granting the national government broad but specific powers while the states kept the rest.

"Republican" government was notorious in theory and historical practice. Thinkers claimed large republics couldn't be governed. Small republics never survived, because "factions" oppressed rivals and quickly overthrew the government. …

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