Considering the Constitution

Jack N. Rakove, editor, The Federalist, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay The Essential Essays

Twenty-five pages into his introduction to The Federalist, Pr. Rakove makes an important statement. The Federalist was, firstly an argument for union – but, it is “both an argument about the necessity of national government in general, and a defense of the particular form of national government proposed by the framers at Philadelphia” (25). This is one of the many key ideas enterprising readers may glean from this Bedford Series offering.

Rakove offers thoughts on why The Federalist still appeals, stressing that readers should understand that the essays were a “contribution to a specific political debate” (viii). Further, Rakove argues that you need to know something about the authors to better understand the documents. This observation should be no surprise to regular readers of history. I can recall being pressed to research author’s backgrounds in my first college level history course taught by the late J.J. Holmes. There is, J.J. Would call out, crooked finger pointed everyone yet no one, no reason not to know something of your author – it can explain so much! This volume includes clear, concise biographies of John Jay, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton. Each is extremely useful for instructors seeking to crib information for course discussions based on the Constitution and the Federalist Papers.

There are a number of fascinating points made by Rakove in the introduction. He points out that while Hamilton wrote 3/5 of the essays, only three of his writings crack most “top ten” lists. Rakove explains that this could be due to Hamilton’s subject – chiefly, he focused on why a strong union is necessary. For our nation, where unity is often perceived as a “given,” many of Hamilton’s essays may no longer resonate.

So why do we examine these documents and ask our students to evaluate the rhetoric? We can read them as lines of evidence – herein we see the issues that concerned the delegates at Philadelphia or the arguments to be made in favor of ratifying the constitution. Finally, close study of the essays lets us in on the political philosophy of Madison and Hamilton. To be successful with the documents, we must understand the context, so Rakove provides a short introduction to why the meetings at Philadelphia took place at all (3-6).

Hamilton and Madison generally held that Congress required power in order to protect the nation, and in order to do that, the national Congress had to have revenue. As Madison pointed out, a national government cannot stand if it is based on the idea voluntary compliance by the states (11). When politicians spoke against the ratification, they often found themselves defending the ineffective Articles of Confederation which did exactly what Madison said does not work – depend on the kindness of states (18,19).

Federalist writers answered critiques about consolidation of national power, omission of a bill of rights and more in these essays. Ultimately the first 30+ essays of The Federalist say little about the forms of government that the Constitution would create. Only with Madison’s #37 do some of these details emerge and this was after five states had ratified the Constitution (25). In some ways, argues Rakove, The Federalist is a campaign document seeking to persuade readers, but, and this is important, readers of the time. It is possible, suggests Rakove, that Publius cared little about how we might read the document (29, 30).

For historians, that thought is okay – we don’t tend to look at documents of the past thinking, “they must have known exactly why they wrote that down.” And yet, we also live in an age when our society is pressing constantly to understand the past, though more often than not, on our terms. We get into arguments about “what the founders meant” and we should understand in reading The Federalist that sometimes the founders were not sure what they meant.

Give this edition a try – in addition to the excellent background piece, Rakove provides context paragraphs for every essay, vocabulary, explanatory footnotes, #85 (which gives Publius the concluding statement in “his” collection), a helpful Constitutional chronology, study questions, and a “read more” section. In a small package of just over 230 pages, instructors (and readers interested in better understanding this unique moment in time) can find an excellent companion to the study of the Constitution.

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