Some Musings on the Federalist Papers and the American Founding
The following is from the comment thread on my post A Question Regarding the Commerce Clause.
OTB contributor Alex Knapp wrote:
Most of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention fought tooth and nail for Federal Supremacy. Hell, Alexander Hamilton’s plan was to abolish the states entirely. All over the Constitution, Federal powers are defined in vague terms while states are specifically proscribed from doing LOTS of things.
Most of the Founding Fathers wanted a strong, central, Federal government. Because the Constitution had to be approved by the states, the Federal powers were watered down, but only enough to allow for ratification.
To which OTB contributor Robert Prather responded:
Interesting read on this Alex. Some might even say “novel.” I’ve always heard that the Founders / Framers feared centralized government, hence a federalist system with checks and balances for the federal government.
What do “The Federalist Papers” have to say about this?
Myself, I’ve always been a Jefferson man; never cared much for Hamilton.
Having just read through Papers and being in the process of working on a book on the institutional design of the United States in comparative perspective, I can say the following. While Alex’s interpretation (granted, as manifested as a comment to a blog post and not a fully developed argument) is perhaps a bit more strident than is warranted, it is not really novel or especially off the mark. Now, the degree to which this actually helps us understand proper use of the commerce clause is a different matter.
At any rate, some thoughts:
1) It actually is incontrovertibly true that the purpose of the Philadelphia convention was to strengthen the federal government at the expense of the states. If the goal was true sovereignty for the states, the Articles of Confederation would have been just fine.
As Madison argued in a letter to George Washington in April of 1787, “I would propose that…the national government should be armed with positive and compleat authority in all cases which require uniformity; such as the regulation of trade, including the right of taxing both exports and imports, the fixing the terms and forms of naturalization, etc. etc.” (Meyers, 67).
2) Of course, the exact amount of power that they all thought was appropriate for the federal government to have over policy remains unclear (and was unclear to them as well). Whether one looks at the Federalist Papers, Madison’s Notes, or the Debates of the Adoption of the Federal Constitution what one sees is s discussion of basic power allocation and governmental design, not specific policies or even scopes of policies.
3) It is impossible to take the more modern issues we discuss now and know what the Founders would have thought–the very nature of government in a general sense has changed since 1789. One of the things that gets ignored in debates like this is that there is simply a difference between governing a country in 1789 v. now (or, really, after the Industrial Revolution). If one doesn’t understand that there is a profound difference between governing an industrial/post-industrial country v. an agricultural one can’t make a cogent argument on these counts (a statement not aimed, by the way, at anyone in particular, but rather a general observation about the way people often talk about this stuff).
4) We have to remember that capitulations to the states (specifically to smaller states and/or slave states) were not on the basis of some grand theory or philosophically pure position. Indeed, it worth noting that Madison’s plan (the Virginia Plan), which was the original basis for debate in the convention for roughly the first month, allocated power to the states based on population and gave a considerable amount of general power to the House of Representatives, which would have chosen the president.
Short version: we often treat what was fundamentally a political compromise as if it was far more of a well developed and applied political theory that it was. Indeed, theoretical discussion of the topic (such as is found in Federalist 39 and 51) was very much an ex post intellectual defense of federalism as we understand it by Madison, rather than a theory of governance that pre-dated the convention. In other words, as a political matter, the Federalist were written to defend the constitution as written, compromises and all.
5) Jefferson, it is worth noting, was not at the constitutional convention (serving the US overseas as a diplomat at the time). Further, while he often talked about limited power on the part of the federal government, was more than happy to do more than the constitution allowed when he was president (the most Louisiana Purchase being the most obvious example). Pointing this out is not to use it justify any particular action since that time, but rather to underscore that the notion that there was a time when there was absolutely clear and shared vision of what the constitution meant and that therefore constrained action in way that it no longer does never existed.
Elliot, Jonathan, ed. 1888. Debates of the Adoption of the Federal Constitution. Vol I. New York: Burt Franklin.
Madison, James. 1966. Notes on the Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Reported by James Madison. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.
Meyers, Marvin. 1981. The Mind of the Founder: Sources of the Political Thought of James Madison., revised edition. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.