The Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison, selected papers with an introduction by Andrew Hacker, Washington Square Press (1964).

 

This book samples a series of papers (26 out of 85 total) written and published in the newspaper after the Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1787.  The principal authors were Alexander Hamilton, who favored an energetic national government and pro-business policies, and James Madison who was more attuned to the need for restrictions on government and the preservation of state rights. John Jay wrote 5 of the papers, principally dealing with foreign policy.

 

Some general comments: the papers are masterfully written.  Not for nothing does Andrew Hacker state in the introduction that “it is difficult to believe that these words were originally penned for a general readership.”  And although the objective was to win grass roots support for the then proposed Constitution, i.e., the papers constituted a sales pitch, the tone is solidly logical and free of personal attacks on critics (who are frequently mentioned as a group however).  It is hard to imagine a campaign of such importance being waged at the same high level today.

 

No need to get into all the specific points about the merits of a federal system, separation of powers as between the three branches of government, etc., which  are pretty well known.  But the care with which this ground is covered does make one stop and think about the dismissal of the idea that the provisions of the Constitution should be interpreted in accordance with the intent of the founders. After all, a lot of effort and thought went into the drafting this document, which represents perhaps the most thoughtful effort to create a good government in history (before or since 1787).

 

On the other hand, one must concede that the experience with the Constitution over time has diverged markedly from the expectations of Hamilton and Madison in the Federalist Papers.  Today, the lion’s share of federal expenditures is for domestic programs, not the military as was predicted.  The federal government has amassed more power and functions than the state governments, rather than the other way around.  Tariffs are no longer the main source of federal revenues; income and payroll taxes fill that role.  And although Congress may be the most powerful of the three branches in theory, its inability to fill this role in practice has fueled the development of a strong executive branch.

 

If Hamilton, Madison and Jay could come back and see how things have gone, wouldn’t they be surprised!