Friday, 3 October 2014

Federalist No. 2, Part III: Moderation

             A dedicated devotee of the philosophical Enlightenment, John Jay was also a political moderate as Federalist No. 2 attests. He was certainly not alone in this; during the Revolution many of Jay’s fellow New Yorkers, whose namesake metropolis was particularly vulnerable to British naval attack, were similarly mindful of the need to move the Congressional political process forward at a cautious and carefully considered pace. For that matter he was also joined by prominent men from other states, like South Carolina’s John Rutledge or Pennsylvania’s John Dickinson, in occupying what might be called the moderate nationalist position. Though it would be an oversimplification to say that all who fitted this label thought a certain way, they were certain common positions which they tended to share. Generally the moderates supported tried and true methods over untested proposals; while not opposed to innovation they gravitated towards whatever they felt would afford the best chance of success over what strictly aligned with their principles. They also tended to be realists, not believing that humans were completely virtuous or completely depraved but that strong, reasoned argument had the ability to move people if properly presented. As Federalist No. 2 makes clear Jay could, and did, stray into idealistic or pessimistic arguments from time to time, but at heart he was a conciliator and a diplomat and most often approached from the middle way.

             This gravitational attraction towards temperance can be seen as early as paragraph three, in which Jay began what appeared at first to be a rather idealistic, or at least one-sided, argument before shifting into a more cautious tone. Specifically, Jay asserted that until recently (as of 1787) it was, “a received and uncontradicted opinion” that America’s prosperity depended on the continuation of the Union, and that all of the foremost characters of society were inclined toward the goal of its perpetuation. Advocates for the dissolution of the Union, to the contrary, had only recently emerged, and though their position was “extraordinary” they were not without their adherents. This, in itself, is a rather troubling statement. Considering once again that during the Revolution approximately 1/3 of the population of the various states were supporters of independence, 1/3 sided with the crown and the last 1/3 were more or less indifferent it would seem a strange claim to make in 1787 that sentiments in favour of union were until recently “uncontrodicted.” Taking into account as well the numerous disputes that emerged in the 1780s between the states over trade, borders, and land claims in the West I would ask to what era in the short history of the United States was Jay tacitly referring to, when opinions were so clearly united behind the object of continued unity?

            Regardless of his otherwise questionable claim, Jay managed to quite skillfully dovetail into a call for caution and debate. Whatever it was that had by 1787 supposedly convinced certain individuals in America that unity among the states was no longer in their best interests, Jay wrote, “It certainly would not be wise in the people at large to adopt these new political tenets without being fully convinced that they are founded in truth and sound Policy.” Here is the moderate position; a realisation of clear disagreement between two sides, a tacit admission that one opinion is correct and the other incorrect, and an endorsement of sound argument as the best way to separate one from the other. There is not only Hamiltonian manipulation here or Jeffersonian radicalism, but a middle way that emphasises utility, debate, and the pursuit of truth.

            Paragraph eight is more obviously judicious in tone. In it, Jay admitted that though the Articles of Confederation were symbolic of the desire that existed as early as the 1770s for a Union of the states, the government they created was fundamentally flawed. In point of fact, he claimed their deficiency was due to the reality of their being drafted, “at a time when [the states’] habitations were in flames, when many of their Citizens were bleeding, and when the progress of hostility and desolation left little room for those calm and mature inquiries and reflections, which must ever precede the formation of a wise and well-balanced government for a free people.” Among advocates and critics alike of the newly drafted Constitution rendering a verdict on the Articles of Confederation and the government they laid out was a common tactic, and so Jay was treading a well-worn path. Some, like Alexander Hamilton, dismissed the Articles out of hand as a poorly conceived experiment; others, like Anti-Federalists Patrick Henry or George Mason believed that the Articles were sound in principle and preferable to a government that concentrated too much power in the hands of too few people. As was his wont, Jay adopted a more nuanced perspective than either of these extremes would admit. He believed that Americans were attached to the idea of union, and that the Articles of Confederation were an expression of that attachment. Unfortunately, and through little fault of their own, their enthusiasm, inexperience and unenviable circumstances had prevented them from formulating a government that was capable of living up to their sincerest intentions. In this sense the proposed Constitution was not a replacement for a failed system, but the culmination of an ideal that the Articles had (imperfectly) set in motion.

Jay continued this narrative of continuity and renewal in the ninth and tenth paragraphs of Federalist No. 2, though in a somewhat more idealistic attitude. Indeed, Jay’s rather sunny characterisation of the events surrounding the drafting of the Constitution of the United States seem at times to directly contradict what we now understand to have been a highly contentious process. For example, he stated in paragraph nine that, “This intelligent people perceived and regretted,” the defects inherent in the Articles of Confederation, and, “with one voice, convened the late Convention at Philadelphia, to take that important subject under consideration.” As Alexander Hamilton had pointed out in Federalist No. 1, there were a number of people of the United States who perceived no defects in the political status quo of the 1780s, and would have preferred that the Articles of Confederation stay in place precisely because they stood to benefit from the relative autonomy enjoyed by the respective states. Considering that Jay and Hamilton were, in the realm of the Federalist Papers, collaborators intent on speaking with a single voice, it stands to reason that they would have agreed on most topics touching on the constitution they had mutually set out to champion. That Jay would have so casually contradicted Federalist No. 1, and in the essay that immediately followed it, seems quite a strange way indeed to present a cohesive argument.

Similarly, Jay stated in paragraph ten that the Philadelphia Convention was, “composed of men who possessed the confidence of the people.” While not wholly untrue, this too is something of a misrepresentation of the facts. The various delegates to the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 were invited to participate with the understanding that the task before them was only the amendment of the existing Articles of Confederation. It was only after the state delegations were assembled and a quorum was achieved (which took some time) that those present agreed that attempting to modify the Articles would only be a stopgap solution and that an entirely new governing charter was called for. They proceeded on their task in secret, with the intention of presenting their proposed plan for government upon its completion. Thus, while the men who assumed their stations in Philadelphia in 1787 did enjoy the confidence of their respective state governments, their actions far exceeded that trust in a way that many back home in Virginia, New York and Massachusetts ultimately objected to.

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