The Original Meaning of The Federalist

Whether or not The Federalist remains relevant in modern America largely depends on how one defines relevancy. Do we mean the work remains relevant because of its theoretical expositions on how the Constitution would operate? Or is it relevant as a historical text? If we mean the former, The Federalist has never been genuinely relevant, but as a historical text, speaking to a specific historical context, The Federalist remains essential.

Several factors explain The Federalist’s supposed relevancy to modern audiences. First is the authorship. The essays were written by two members of the upper pantheon of American founders. Second, their publications followed a logical progression. Third, and as Professor Edmondson points out, the essays were wide-ranging in scope and often brilliant in their analysis. Fourth, the essays were the first collection of ratification essays put into a readily available book form and not scattered in obscure works published decades later or left in eighteenth-century newspapers. These factors explain why jurists and scholars have turned The Federalist into the authoritative source for interpreting the Constitution and consider the text, as Edmondson put it, “the most brilliant work of original political philosophy by an American.”

The Problem of Reading The Federalist as Political Theory

Treating The Federalists as a work of political philosophy suggests that the only way to understand the Constitution and the Founders’ objectives in framing it is through the wisdom of Publius. By understanding The Federalist, we understand the Constitution and, by extension, what it means to be American. This approach transforms Publius into a Philosopher-King and the essays into a decoder ring that cracks the mysteries of constitutional meaning. This, in turn, inclines us to read too much into The Federalist in order to answer our questions rather than theirs. Additionally, it leads to reading Publius in isolation from all other writings and concerns of the ratification debates. Despite its impressive scope and desire to give a satisfactory answer to all the objections,” Publius does not address every single issue or concern—it was impossible for him to do so—and, as Professor Edmondson rightly notes, it is not an easy read. Yet, there are other Federalist writings that cover topics different than those of Publius and that sometimes offer clearer or more concise explanations.

The Federalist is primarily a polemic expressly designed by its authors to address Anti-Federalists’ charges against the Constitution. While the essays contain brilliant insights into the nature of politics, The Federalist is not a systematic inquiry of the type found in Hobbes, Locke, John Adams’ Defense of the Constitutions, or even John C. Calhoun’s Disquisition. Instead, it has a primarily rhetorical purpose: to persuade readers rather than to present a neutral or balanced account of the Constitution. The repetition of points and essay topics and its prolix style reflect the pressing need to respond to this or that Anti-Federalist charge rather than from deep reflection and contemplation. Quite often, those that treat the essays as political philosophy overlook the fact that most essays were written in haste, finished at the last minute, and dashed off to the printer. This time crunch afforded the authors little time to edit, revise, or even run arguments by their collaborators.

Even as a polemic, The Federalist proved ineffective. Edmondson is just wrong to assert that the essays “played a significant role in the ratification of the Constitution of 1787.” As Pauline Maier and Albert Furtwangler have shown, the pieces were not heavily reprinted, especially outside New York, or even heavily engaged by other Federalists or Anti-Federalists. If we are looking for the most critical Federalist essay, it is not to Publius we turn but instead to James Wilson’s “Court House Address,” which received considerable attention and consideration in nearly every state. The argument in Federalist #84 against a Bill of Rights, for example, is little more than a rehash of Wilson’s earlier remarks. Even in New York, where the collaborators published their work, the bulk of the eighty-five essays saw publication long before the state voted for the members of its ratification convention, and the public never saw the last several essays, which first appeared in book form.

Elevating Publius ignores how other Federalist writers sometimes offer better explanations and defenses of the Constitution. John Dickinson’s “Fabius” essays, while lacking Publius’ comprehensiveness, provide a significantly better explanation of federalism than what is found in The Federalist. Edmondson also wonders “if Jay’s inability to contribute substantially to the Federalist project was unlucky or serendipitous.” But Jay penned the 1788 “Address to the People of New York,” which received far more attention in New York and elsewhere compared to anything Publius published. Those seeking a clear picture of the Federalists’ expectations for the Constitution need to read the broad corpus of Federalist works, not simply The Federalist.

Modern Relevancy of Historical Context?

In many ways, the five points for The Federalists’ relevancy that Professor Edmondson lays out in his essay suffer from the Publius-as-Political Theorist treatment. Had a more historical reading been given, one which placed The Federalist within its historical context, perhaps some of Professor Edmondson’s reasons for relevancy would look different.

Edmondson’s points on the complexity of human nature and on slavery particularly suffer from a lack of context. Undoubtedly, The Federalist has a “wary” view of human nature, but it “presupposes an exercise of individual and civic virtue.” There is nothing exceptional about Publius’ remarks on this topic. They are common notions in the late eighteenth century. Other writers express these points better and more explicitly in the ratification contest. Dickinson’s “Fabius” essays offer stronger and more explicit (and better-written) discourses on human nature and the necessity of civic virtue. Even the Anti-Federalists shared Publius’ concerns about human nature, although they believed that the Constitution’s consolidating tendencies would drain away the virtue of the people, leaving them to their base natures. Again, placing Publius’s thoughts on human nature in context does not reveal any particular relevancy to modern America—any insight that one could not get from studying the period more broadly.

When we treat a work written for a specific circumstance as something beyond and above that context, we will misinterpret it or give it greater meaning and emphasis than it deserves. This treatment is how modern America understands, teaches, and uses The Federalist.

In many ways, the discussion of Publius on slavery reads too much into the essay. Federalist #54 is not an anti-slavery tract on the moral problem of slavery or a way to bring guilt to slave owners for “reduc[ing] a black man to three-fifths a human being.” Instead, the essay attempts to persuade northern states that the necessity of a union forced the three-fifths compromise. At the same time, Publius takes a much more historically realistic view of the issue than Edmondson admits. Publius was not “twisting the knife” by putting slavery “in the worst possible light.” Instead, he noted that the “mixed character of persons and property” was the slaves’ “true character” in late eighteenth-century America. I should add here, too, that there is no evidence that later slave owners thought they lost more than they gained from Publius’ remarks. Publius is invoked and celebrated by southern Jeffersonians and Democrats just as much (if not more) than by northerners.

I agree with Edmondson that contemporary America is in real need of the spirit of compromise. But I am not convinced that Publius is inherently relevant to this problem. The appeals and warnings against passion are worthy, but all serve a rhetorical purpose. In essence, and putting these remarks in context, Publius was telling readers that “we are the reasonable ones, the opposition is not.” Indeed, while the essays warn against heated arguments, Publius was not innocent on this front. In Federalist #29, he quotes Milton’s Paradise Lost to describe Anti-Federalists as “transforming everything it touches into a monster.” In other places, he calls Anti-Federalists “far-fetched and extravagant” and “bigoted idolizers of state authority.” One could go on, but the point is that Publius engaged in heated and immoderate language that he chastised others for doing. Indeed, making Publius relevant for his desire for compromise is also striking considering that Federalist #84, published for the first time only after numerous states had ratified the Constitution on the condition that it receive a Bill of Rights, was an argument on why a Bill of Rights was unnecessary.

The Historical Relevancy of The Federalist

It is on the grounds of constitutional interpretation that The Federalist shows its relevancy, although it is for reasons different than Edmondson’s. Reading it in its historical context provides modern readers a chance to compare Publius’ prescriptive on how the Constitution would operate and its theoretical insights with the reality of American constitutional and political development. After all, The Federalist is polemical because it attempted to convince a skeptical public in 1788 that its innovations to the American tradition of self-government were safe. In other words, Publius’ purpose was to explain how the Constitution ought to work. This is why we must give The Federalist a historical rather than a theoretical reading; it is not setting, explaining, or defending the ideal regime or explaining how pre-societal people create civil society, but instead, it deals with a particular problem at a specific moment. Thus, reading it as a historical text clarifies the essay’s point and helps us judge whether Publius’ predictions proved accurate to the actual course of American constitutional history.

The Supreme Court’s use of The Federalist is one method of comparison. Edmondson is correct that its citations to Publius are not necessarily dispositive. This speaks to the crux of the problem of reading The Federalist as something beyond a historical polemic. If SCOTUS is not using Publius’s arguments to settle issues, then any reference becomes little more than window dressing. This is law-office history, using a quote or source detached from its contextual meaning to wrap legal positions with a cloak of historical authority. Instead, if SCOTUS used Publius to guide their interpretations (although it should use more founding-era sources than just this), it would lead to wildly different decisions. Compare, for example, Federalist #11, where Publius argues that Congressional power over interstate commerce would allow for “an unrestrained intercourse between the States themselves” to cases such as Wickard v. Filburn or even U.S. v. Lopez, which placed only the slightest of limitations upon Congressional authority. Both cases recognized an extensive de facto congressional power to restrain—not make regular—interstate trade. If the Court used the essays as interpretive guides, it would distinguish between controlled and unrestrained.

The Supreme Court’s use of The Federalist leads to another historical comparison: judicial independence. Edmondson argues that recent attacks on judicial independence illustrate the continued importance of Publius’s discussion on the topic. I agree with Edmondson that Publius’s remarks on the judiciary are worth considering. Even contextually, Publius was among the only Federalist writers to devote any attention to the third branch. Yet here is another example of how Publius is more historically relevant than theoretically: he can be used historically to compare his explanation of the judiciary with reality. Publius is responding to Anti-Federalists’ formidable charges that the judiciary’s powers, particularly its power over equity, would transform it into a super-legislature in which its will would become law. Given the unrepublican nature of that body with its lifetime appointment, Anti-Federalists feared there was little that could be done to stop it. Publius’ famous response that the judiciary represented the “least dangerous branch” because it lacks the purse or the sword and that removal from daily politics is a barrier to tyranny is a brilliant theoretical response. History tells a different story. Few people today would disagree that the Supreme Court is not the most powerful branch of government because it has claimed supremacy over constitutional questions. Despite Publius’s assurances that the “supposed danger of judiciary encroachments on the legislative authority . . . is in reality a phantom,” it is difficult to deny that the Supreme Court acts as the super-legislature that Anti-Federalists predicted. The provisions Publius believed shielded it from undue political pressure have now turned into hardened fortresses that deflect any attempt to check and balance the branch.

Finally, perhaps the most crucial historical approach is simply to read the essays and compare them to the federal government’s actual operation. A glaring example of this is comparing how the separation of powers should work, essays #47–51, with the administrative state. It is readily apparent that Publius’s brilliant formulation of ambition counteracting ambition has not played out historically. In other words, asking questions of when, how, and why Publius’s explanations have not played out leads us away from abstract considerations and into the complexities of historical development. Thus, The Federalist becomes a relevant text in guiding us from the American founding to today.

When we treat a work written for a specific circumstance as something beyond and above that context, we will misinterpret it or give it greater meaning and emphasis than it deserves. This treatment is how modern America understands, teaches, and uses The Federalist. We consider it relevant for reasons that might not be accurate to its purpose and intent. Reading it in a proper historical context does not take away its brilliance, but it does illustrate that there might be more to understanding the Constitution and America than just the epistles of Publius.