The first installment of the Federalist Papers was published by Alexander Hamilton 229 years ago today — October 27, 1787. Writing under the pseudonym Publius, which he would share with John Jay and James Madison across the next several months, Hamilton launched the essential defense of the structure and purposes of the proposed new U.S. Constitution. The Federalist Papers still read as the philosophical blueprint of the American system of government.
Come Nov. 8, we as a nation will seek to reconcile our constitutional traditions with our electoral choices, which makes it an apt time to revisit Publius’ most important lessons.
To start: In Federalist No. 1, Hamilton gave sage counsel to consumers of politics to discount the claims of those who “hope to evince the justness of their opinions, and to increase the number of their converts by the loudness of their declamations and the bitterness of their invectives.”
That would argue against paying too much heed to the highest decibel arguments and the most shrill surrogates on all sides. Civility in discourse, if it can be retrieved, should be a primary aim in the final days of the election and beyond. Hamilton offers this tutelage for tolerance: “We, upon many occasions, see wise and good men on the wrong as well as on the right side of questions of the first magnitude to society.”
Such civility is more than its own reward. Hamilton cautioned that heated attacks regularly accompany appeals to extremes; they are seldom entreaties to reason but base appeals to emotion. Fear and intolerance, stoked in polarized echo chambers, leave too little room for respectful disagreement and too much latitude for despotic rule.
He saw danger lurking in the sort of populism that promised to relieve society’s anxieties. “A dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people,” Hamilton wrote. “Of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics,” he warned, “the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.” In the face of such risks, we must filter campaign messages and examine the messengers.
Not all of Publius’ Constitutional sales pitch was cautionary. The collected Federalist Papers set out to assure us that the three branches of the new government — the executive, the legislative and the judicial — would contain inherent checks and balances, to safeguard us against our own worst tendencies. The separation of powers laid out in the Constitution protects us from abuses by winners in electoral contests, and defends us against the politicians and policies we dislike.
Madison reminded us in Federalist No. 47 that the president “cannot of himself [or herself] make a law.” And in Federalist No. 51: The “interior structure of the government,” is designed precisely so that “its several constituent parts may, by their mutual relations, be the means of keeping each other in their proper places.”
The Founders knew what the 2016 campaign has proved again and again: Our elected officials will always be flawed. “If men were angels,” Madison wrote in one of the Federalist Papers most famous passages, “no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” So, he continued, “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
As we cast our ballots in the coming weeks, we should understand that such controls come first from, in Madison’s words, “a dependence on the people” to choose good leaders and replace bad ones. Nonetheless, “experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions”: The system’s checks and balances are as much the genius of our democracy as its representative form.
There happen to be 85 essays in the Federalist Papers, and counting from Oct. 27, there are 86 days before inauguration day. It’s not a bad idea for each candidate, winner or loser — indeed every elected official and every American — to read one Federalist essay a day between now and then.
And regardless of whether you celebrate or mourn the outcome of this election, you can take heart from Publius’ main point: What matters isn’t whether we choose the perfect president but how well we protect and defend all the institutions set up by the Constitution. As long as we demand that all three parts of our government step up to their duties, the American experiment will be safe.
Donald J. Kochan is the associate dean for research and faculty development and professor of law at Chapman University Dale E. Fowler School of Law in Orange.