Foundational Documents - Essentials

Federalist 10 (1787)


Partisan bickering is not new.  At our founding the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists had two very different visions for the new American government.  Federalists, scarred by the weaknesses under the Articles of Confederation, realized a stronger central government was necessary.  The Anti-Federalists preferred smaller more localized governmental units.  Debates took on many different forms.  Both sides submitted a series of essays that were printed in newspapers across the country.  The Federalist Papers were a series of 85 essays written to persuade the state legislatures to ratify our new constitution.  Federalist 10 was one of the most important.  It addressed two vital questions.  First it tried to argue the merits of a republic over a direct democracy.  Second its purpose was to convince the states that a large republic could best guard against the dangers of factions than a small republic. Large republics, in essence, could dilute the potency of factions that hoped to kidnap public policy for its own purposes. History could provide little support for both arguments.  This is why early on the American government was called a grand experiment. A large union best served as a safeguard against domestic faction and insurrection. History serves as both judge and jury of Madison’s claims.


Brutus I (1787)


Partisan bickering is not new.  At our founding the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists had two very different visions for the new American government.  Federalists, scarred by the weaknesses under the Articles of Confederation, realized a stronger central government was necessary.  The Anti-Federalists preferred smaller more localized governmental units.  Debates took on many different forms.  Both sides submitted a series of essays that were printed in newspapers across the country.  One of the earliest essays, written by an Anti-Federalist, was signed Brutus.  In ancient history Brutus was a Roman citizen who fought bravely against tyranny and despotism. This essay, Brutus I, was an Anti-Federalist essay written to alert citizens to the dangers manifest in the new proposed U.S. Constitution.  The seemingly “uncontrollable power” of the new federal government was feared most. The new constitution was flawed.  This essay in particular warned of the “subversion of liberty” that was to be expected if the new constitution was ratified.  The debate over the new constitution was on.


The Declaration of Independence (1776)


The American Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson in 1776, is one of the most quoted documents in world history.  Rightfully so, it contains the values and ideals that spurred not only our own quest for independence but many others as well.  The Declaration of Independence is our creed. It is the foundation of our social contract.  The claims of our Declaration of Independence are normative statements that serve as the guiding force behind American political culture.  More than complaints against King George in 1776, the Declaration of Independence contains a “set of core ideals – liberty, equality, and self government – that serve as the people’s common bond.”  These values have become universals that time and history across the globe have pursued.  The values and ideals found in the Declaration of Independence continue to be our standard.  As it was in 1776 so it is today.  Though we may often fall short of our standard we nevertheless know the principles by which every political debate must be judged. In American politics we disagree on a lot of things.  But there is no disagreement on this – “we hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal…” On July Fourth we can all come together to celebrate the Declaration of Independence.


The Articles of Confederation (1781-1789)


The Articles of Confederation was the first governing charter of the United States.  Ratified in 1781, the Articles successfully empowered the young nation to fight a war for independence against England, organize the means of expansion west and most importantly hold our union together.  At its core, the Articles of Confederation created a league or alliance of thirteen independent states.  Each state would hold onto their “sovereignty, freedom and independence.”  Herein was its terminal weakness.  Illustrated best by its inability to govern sufficiently against the Shay’s Rebellion in Massachusetts the Articles would be replaced due to a number of inherent weaknesses.  Absent in the Articles was a separate executive branch.  There was no national court system.  The Articles gave little legislative authority and virtually no authority to enforce.  There were no provisions to regulate commerce. It contained no Bill of Rights.  Under the Articles of Confederation the United States fought for independence from England.  Yet sustaining that independence would have been difficult, if not impossible, had a new constitutional convention not been called.  The Articles failures can never quite replace its important role in the early development of the United States. Constitutional interpretation even today is aided by our understanding of the successes and failures of the Articles of Confederation.


The U.S. Constitution (1788)


Constitutions are governmental road maps.  The U.S. Constitution, written in the summer of 1787, is no exception.  Our original thirteen colonies had united in 1776 to fight for their independence against a common foe – King George of England.  The colonists feared, rightfully so, that gaining independence from England might result in a Pyrrhic victory.  Their ability to self govern was no foregone conclusion.  As the weaknesses of the newfound government manifested themselves in the Articles of Confederation our United States was imperiled.  As colonial delegates assembled in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787, the fragile survival of the United States was at stake.  What they created was nothing short of “the greatest experiment” in political history.  Overlapping federal and state powers; the separation of three branches of government; a president rather than a prime minister; a dual court system; and the supremacy of the Constitution were just a few of the innovations agreed to that hot summer.  After much debate the U.S. Constitution was ratified.  That same document continues to guide our government today.  As noted political scientist William Galston has argued, constitutions like ours continue to serve a number of critical purposes.  Constitutions are principled documents that authorize legitimacy.  They “establish governing institutions and set forth their respective responsibilities and powers.” Constitutions orient a polity toward “public purposes.” And finally, constitutions are “higher than ordinary law.”  Remarkably, the political experiment first started back in Philadelphia in 1787 continues to serve us as it did then. 

Federalist 51 (1788)


In Federalist #51 Madison again proves to be the guiding light ready and willing to answer the opposition with unyielding wit.  Federalist #51 was not just for the state of New York as they contemplated ratifying the new constitution.  It continues to speak to us today.  This essay one of Madison’s most quoted.  “If men were angels,” Madison wrote, “no government would be necessary.”  Our constitution was not only a charter for a new government but an accurate reflection of nature itself.  Years later Lord Acton would famously record that “all power corrupts.”  Our constitution continues to be a living testament to that natural tendency.  Power here, at every turn, is diluted, checked and balanced against it.  Madison also addressed the possibility of an oppressive class of people.  Government is not the only possible villain.  Segments of the population can tyrannize too.  One part of society must be able to guard itself from another.  Pluralism is the remedy.  The best means to prevent this tyranny of the majority is to foster an independent will and welcome diversity.  A world of difference does not just divide us but it actually strengthens our compact.  The Federalist Papers not only helped to convince a young nation that their new constitution was a legitimate answer to their problems but a living source that informs us today about ourselves.


Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963)


The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. at a critical turning point in time wrote “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”  The American civil rights movement was facing a serious challenge.  King and other civil rights leaders were arrested and incarcerated for being agitators of disorder.  Eight liberal Alabama ministers, open to bringing about racial justice, had written “An Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense.”  King’s strategy for bringing about change was untimely and impatient.  King’s letter was his response.  If the civil rights movement was going to win broad support King would need to address their criticism.  “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” was his response.  It became King’s Manifesto.  The letter “soon became the most widely-read, widely-reprinted and oft quoted document of the civil rights movement.” King’s message was clear and forthright.  The letter legitimized the civil rights movement.  The time for action was now.  King wrote, “For years now I have heard the word ‘wait!’…This ‘wait’ has almost always meant ‘never.’” Patience cannot endure forever.  King’s manifesto, his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” proclaimed that this was the “precious time,” the decisive hour.  The civil rights movement could no longer wait.  King’s letter is as important today as it was back in 1963.


Federalist 70 (1788)


In Federalist #70 Hamilton turns to address the disputes targeting the U.S. President.  Isn’t an energetic president inconsistent with a republic?  Hamilton postulated that we all could agree that a poorly executed government is a poor government.  Therefore creating a weak president would in fact be creating a weak government.  An energetic president would be essential to the protection of the community against foreign attacks; for the steady administration of the laws; for the protection of property; for securing our liberty against the assaults of personal ambition. But what are the ingredients of an energetic president?  In this essay Hamilton emphasizes the unity of the office.  The U.S. presidency cannot be shared.  To be truly energetic it must be held by one person.  Later Hamilton would unpack the president’s length of term, the adequate provisions of power and expected set of prerequisite skills. Under the Articles of Confederation there was no independent executive branch.  The young government had little means to enforce its policies.  The new constitution was written, in part, to address this weakness.  In Federalist #70 Hamilton argues forthrightly that a king, perhaps, was too strong but a president just right.

Federalist 78 (1788)


In Federalist 78 Hamilton’s assessment of the judicial branch could not be clearer.  The judicial branch would be “the least dangerous branch.”  Montesquieu had called the courts “next to nothing.”  Do not be seduced by Hamilton’s humility here.  The Supreme Court of the United States had a significant role to play, from the very beginning. As soon as Hamilton professes the court’s lack of influence he described a power later to be attributed to Chief Justice Marshall and the landmark case Marbury v. Madison (1803).  Here in Federalist #78 Hamilton describes what we today call judicial review.  What may look like judicial superiority, Hamilton acknowledged, would be a mistake.  Nevertheless the court would invariably have the power and authority to rule an act of Congress or the President unconstitutional.  “No legislative act…contrary to the Constitution can be valid.”  Furthermore, Hamilton wrote: “No servant is above his master.” Our master is not found in men but in our laws.  And who decides what those laws mean?  But of course the courts.  The least dangerous branch?  You decide.