On September 17, we will be celebrating Constitution Day. It's a holiday that, in my opinion, should be celebrated by the people of the United States of America with the same gusto as Independence Day. For all our differences in ethnicity and language, in religion and political persuasion, we are all Americans because we all live under the same governmental framework as set out in the Constitution. It is truly the tie that binds the United States together. The Constitution is one of the two sacred texts of our civil religion, the Declaration of Independence being the other one. I have always thought it quite proper that both documents were approved and signed in the same room in Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
The delegates to the Constitutional Convention signed their completed document on September 17, 1787. It marked the culmination of several months of intense debate, characterized at different times by intellectual brilliance, high idealism, ruthless political bargaining, selfish protection of regional interests, and a willingness to compromise in pursuit of the greater good. The men who made up the Convention comprised a galaxy of great statesmen. Some were names familiar to most Americans: George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton. Others are less well-known but shouldn't be: George Mason, Roger Sherman, James Wilson, and Gouverneur Morris. Thomas Jefferson (who was on diplomatic duty in Paris during the Convention) was not exaggerating much when he described the men as "an assembly of demigods".
The Constitution is not perfect. For all the genius we rightfully attribute to them, the Founding Fathers were ordinary mortals who could not see into the future. I've written previously of changes I would like to see in our governing document, which I think have been made clear by more than two centuries of national experience. Yet the achievement of the men who wrote the Constitution is truly awe-inspiring. Through crisis after crisis, including a terrible civil war, the framework of our government has never been broken. It truly is one of the great intellectual achievements ever to spring forth from the human mind.
The questions that the framers of the Constitution sought to answer were those which have plagued democratic societies since the days of the ancient Greeks and Romans. What power should government have over our lives? If we accept majority rule, how can we ensure that the majority does not oppress the minority? In a government split in constituent states or provinces, what powers should be held by the central government and what powers should be held by the states or provinces? How can we can prevent the person who holds executive power from exerting too much control over the country and making himself a king or dictator? Can we balance the interests of one region of the country against the interests of another region? What rights do citizens have and what obligations do they owe?
We wrestle with these same questions today, more than two centuries after the Constitution was written. In my opinion, there is no better way to consider questions like these than to read the Federalist Papers and the Anti-Federalist Papers.
In the aftermath of the approval of the Constitution by the delegates of the Convention, the arduous process of getting it approved by the people of the individual states began. This was, if anything, a more difficult task than the actual creation of the document had been. A public debate unlike any other in history took place, with ordinary people talking and arguing over the Constitution all across the country in taverns, coffee houses, churches, and anywhere else. The newspapers were filled with editorials voicing different views and untold numbers of pamphlets were printed in favor of one side or the other. In the end, special conventions were called in each state to decide whether or not the ratify the Constitution. By the narrowest of margins, it was approved.
During this period, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, three of the strongest supporters of the Constitution, collaborated together to write a series of newspaper pieces designed to persuade New Yorkers to support ratification. These eventually became known as the Federalist Papers. Comprising eighty-five essays in total, they explore all the issues raised by the Constitution. What taxation power should the federal government have? Should the federal government or the states be empowered to maintain the country's military forces? Are there proper checks and balances between the three branches of government? Does the executive branch have too much control over foreign affairs?
Hamilton, Madison, and Jay set out to answer these questions and, by and large, they did so brilliantly. Hamilton wrote more than half of them, with Madison authoring about a third and Jay only six (he suffered from poor health during this period). From the standpoint of political philosophy, the Federalist Papers represent one of the great literary productions the world has ever seen. Arguably the most important paper was Federalist #10, authored by Madison, in which he makes the case that the large number of different political factions in an extensive republic actually provides stability, since each faction serves as a check on the ambitions of the other factions. I always remember this whenever one of my Democratic or Republican friends suggests that all would be right with the country if only their political party held complete political power.
Set against the Federalist are the appropriately named Anti-Federalist Papers. Unlike the Federalist Papers, these were not a singularly organized effort, but a term given by historians to the much more loosely organized literary efforts of opponents of the Constitution. They include the report composed by the anti-ratification minority from the Pennsylvania ratifying convention, speeches by Patrick Henry and other opponents of ratification, and newspaper pieces written by George Clinton, Robert Yates, Melancton Smith, and numerous others, not all of whom have been conclusively identified. Taken together, these efforts represented a powerful case against ratification of the Constitution. Indeed, historians have persuasively shown that only the better organization and political discipline of the supporters of the Constitution led to their victory in the ratification debate.
I am a person who revers the Constitution as a near-sacred document, so it might be surprising that I would recommend reading the writings of those who were opposed to it. In fact, the Anti-Federalist Papers contain some of the most insightful and incisive commentary on government that has ever been written. Many of the problems with which we are wrestling with today, from an overbearing executive branch of government to a bloated military establishment, were anticipated by the Anti-Federalist writers. Most importantly, it was through their efforts that a Bill of Rights was appended to the Constitution almost as soon as the new government was put into place, placing all Americans in their debt.
The Federalist Papers and the commonly accepted version of the Anti-Federalist Papers are available at any decent library, can be downloaded onto ebook readers for less than a dollar, can be purchased for a pittance at any reasonably well-stocked bookstore, and could probably be had for mere pennies at most large used book stores. There is nothing better for a good citizen to do in commemoration of Constitution Day than to acquire and read them.
Of course, these works are written in the language of the 18th Century, which might intimidate some people. But just as one feels slightly confused for the first few minutes of a Shakespearean theatrical production before the mind adjusts and the understanding becomes effortless, so it is with the writings of the Revolutionary period. Besides, the people of the 18th Century wrote in a more flowing and graceful manner than people do today, making the reading of their words a delightful experience. The authors of the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers were not writing for the people of their own time alone, but for us as well. They wanted us to know why they thought as they thought and why they acted as they did. In accepting their invitation into their thought processes, we are honoring them even as we make use of their astounding intellectual achievements and political insights.
It is incumbent upon anyone who wants to be a good citizen to understand the true nature of the system of government under which he or she lives. The first step for any American is to read the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers. As we prepare to celebrate Constitution Day, why don't you get started?