Since, in discussing Washington’s Address, I've been able to cover most of the major themes and events of the early years of the American republic, I’d like to now take the opportunity to segue into something a bit more obscure and a bit more challenging. And at the same time I’d also like to backtrack a little, shifting from the 1790s, when the American Constitution was first put through its paces, to the late 1780s, when that same document was initially proposed and ratified. This will involve some amount of background (as ever) and the introduction of a new personality into the discussion: James Madison, Virginian, central architect of the American Constitution, father of the Bill of Rights, Congressman, and President. Madison wrote Federalist No. 10, one of 85 essays written to promote the ratification of the Constitution, and widely regarded as one of the most significant documents in American political history. I’ll get to the why and wherefore a little later; for now, I’d like to talk about what was going on in the United States in the 1780s and why some people thought that a Constitution was suddenly necessary.
In addition to voting in favour of independence in 1776 and publishing a declaration to that effect, the Continental Congress also set about creating, in 1777, a framework for governing the newly-independent states. The charter that the assembled delegates came up with, which was ultimately ratified by all 13 states in 1781, was known as the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union. Unlike the later Constitution, which created a strong federal government complete with taxing power, a Supreme Court and a single executive (in this case a president), the Articles functioned more like a treaty of military and economic cooperation between 13 distinct political bodies. Under the Articles the United States had no president or federal court system and vested executive power almost entirely in Congress. The states retained authority over most of their own affairs, leaving Congress to conduct the war effort, organize loans and engage in international diplomacy. This arrangement was preferred at the time because it avoided the kind of centralization of power that characterized the British system of government, which many of the Revolutionaries had come to see as increasingly tyrannical. For the duration of the war the government under the Articles functioned reasonably well (or well enough), but it was after the end of hostilities in 1783 that its inherent weaknesses became apparent.
In the absence of a war effort to administer, the Congress of the Confederation (as it’s often referred to now) had very few powers or responsibilities. Unable to tax the states, it could only make requests for funds which the states usually ignored. During the war this left the federal government perpetually cash-strapped, requiring it to print an excess of paper money (which quickly lost its value) in order to pay soldiers their salaries, and purchase supplies and ammunition. Without a war to incentivize lending the states became even less inclined to fund the initiatives of Congress, leaving it essentially powerless to repay the debts it had incurred, pursue any kind of internal improvements or organize a national defence. This economic infirmity, combined with the inability of Congress to regulate commerce between states, prevent the adoption of preferential trade practices or encourage manufacturing, created an increasingly anxious political climate. Popular discontent with debts that had accumulated during the Revolution also led to protests and attempts by state governments to nullify certain financial obligations, to the displeasure of the creditors that were owed. By 1786, with disaffected former soldiers holding valueless government bonds, land prices at a low ebb, and many states showing a manifest incapability of coordinating their trade practices (and in fact often competing with each other), it had become apparent to many of the Revolutionary elite that some kind of change was necessary.
The result was the calling of the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, an assembly of notables, statesmen, and lawmakers from 12 of the 13 states (Rhode Island being the exception). Initially convened with the stated aim of revising the Articles of Confederation in order to create a more effective government, the assembled delegates very quickly abandoned that objective in favor of drafting an entirely new governing charter for the United States. Since this post is not intended to provide a complete history of the Constitution I won’t dwell on who said what during the convention, whose plans were adopted and what kinds of things were debated. Suffice to say, the final draft of the Constitution was arrived at after months of work and much heated discussion, and was submitted to the states for ratification by specially appointed conventions in September, 1787. In order to become law the Constitution required 9 of 13 states to vote for ratification, and in some cases this was easily accomplished (as in Connecticut, Georgia, North Carolina and New Jersey). However, states like Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New York (among the largest and most influential states) saw far more significant opposition to the Constitution. In order to promote ratification in these key states, and counter some of the articles that were being printed in opposition to the new charter, Alexander Hamilton (veteran of the Revolution, New York lawyer and first Secretary of the Treasury) recruited James Madison and John Jay (another New Yorker, and later the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) to draft a series of essays that would argue in favour of the Constitution.
Of the 85 Federalist Papers that exist, 77 were printed in prominent newspapers in the battleground states between October, 1787 and August, 1788, all under the pseudonym “Publius” (as was common practice at the time). These essays addressed the Constitution section by section in an attempt to explain to the public how every element had been carefully considered, and how all of the states stood to benefit from its adoption. Federalist No. 10, the first of 26 that Madison contributed, was first published on November 22, 1787 and addresses the question of how a republic, which as a species of government is particularly receptive to the public will, could effectively guard against the excesses of factionalism. Having served in the Congress of the Confederation and the Virginia House of Delegates, Madison had seen first-hand how destructive legislative majorities could be when they disregarded the rights of minorities and gave themselves over to popular passions at the expense of the common good. His Federalist No. 10 sought to address what he perceived as the over-abundance of democracy in the United States, the role that factions played in exploiting it, and how the Constitution could and would provide an effective remedy if ratified and adopted.