Posts Tagged ‘Publius’

As we saw a few months back, the ratification of the U.S. Constitution caused no end of debate among the Colonists.  The new charter called for a stronger central government than the Articles it replaced, albeit a three-sided government designed to hold itself in check.

But its passage, in September of 1787, had the effect of dividing the Colonies along political lines.  Hyperbole, foolish rhetoric, and exaggeration certainly aren’t exclusive to our day, and they were rampant as the second half of 1787’s September turned to October.  Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton is immensely quotable, and his characterization of the time is most telling.

“The rancor ushered in a golden age of literary assassination in American politics. No etiquette had yet evolved to define the legitimate boundaries of dissent.  Poison-pen artists on both sides wrote vitriolic essays that were overtly partisan, often paid scant heed to accuracy, and sought a visceral impact.”

It was against this backdrop that Alexander Hamilton, already busy with the duties of an attorney, threw himself into a project of his own creation…defending the U.S. Constitution.  While Hamilton possessed a brilliant mind, he was smart enough to know that he couldn’t handle all aspects of a proper defense.  So he assembled a “dream team”.

John Jay, with his sharp intellect and strong integrity, was the first choice.  The two of them then selected three additional supporting writers.  James Madison and Gouverneur Morris were natural choices, as both had been at the Constitutional Convention and would most clearly understand the Framers’ intents.  The fifth was William Duer, with whom we are also familiar.

Morris really wanted to contribute, but was too busy.  Duer began a couple papers, but they weren’t finished and didn’t make the completed set.  That left Jay, Madison, and Hamilton.  Jay, with his expertise in foreign affairs (he had helped negotiate the Treaty of Paris in 1783), handled that arena.  Madison covered issues relating to the Republic itself.  Hamilton took the executive and judiciary sections, taxes, and the military.

In the end, John Jay’s rheumatism limited him to a mere 5 essays, so the Constitution’s defense became largely a two-man show.  James Madison wrote 29 essays, and Hamilton contributed the remaining 51.

The first of the essays, from Hamilton, appeared in The Independent Journal on October 27, 1787.  Over the next seven months, these writings, penned by the anonymous “Publius”, would lay the groundwork of “Constitutional” understanding to the public.

More than 200 years later, those same essays, published as The Federalist Papers, continue to give us insight into the hearts and minds of the creators of one of the most exceptional documents in written history.

Recommended Reading: The Federalist Papers – Every American citizen should read at least two works…the U.S. Constitution and The Federalist Papers.  I’ve read the first, but sadly, only a couple of essays from the second.  That will change.  I’m making The Federalist the first book on my 2010 reading schedule.  I challenge you to do the same.


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It didn’t take long for the leadership in the newly-freed 13 Colonies to realize that the current charter, the Articles of Confederation, were seriously lacking.  A meeting was planned in September of 1786 in Annapolis, Maryland to address the issues, but only five Colonies were represented.  So they decided to shelve the meeting and try again in May of the following year.

That meeting, which became known as the Constitutional Convention, lasted nearly four months and didn’t just amend the Articles, it wadded them up in a little ball and chucked them from the window into the Philadelphia heat and humidity.

An entirely new government had been created, and those present at the meetings now had to go to their respective homes and sell their constituents on the idea.  In some states, that proved to be a most tedious process, and it didn’t take long to realize that 13 Colonies, united just a few years before under the push for independence, could just as quickly become ugly and divisive over the Constitution.  Those that supported the new government were labeled Federalists, those against it, Antifederalists.

Nowhere was that better seen than in New York.  When Alexander Hamilton (shown above) returned there from Philadelphia, the fight was waiting for him.  Governor George Clinton, no friend of Hamilton’s and a staunch Antifederalist, campaigned hard against ratification.  Marinus Willett, formerly one of the Sons of Liberty, called the document “a monster with open mouth and monstrous teeth ready to devour all before it.”

Hamilton, for his part, responded by taking on the secret identity of Publius and writing The Federalist Papers (with some help from James Madison and John Jay), a series of newspaper articles defending each piece of the Constitution to the New York public.

As the winter of 1787 turned into the spring of 1788, Colonies began achieving statehood by ratifying the Constitution.  And in New York’s legislature, the battle continued.  The Federalist Papers were bound and published, and James Madison distributed hundreds of copies in Virginia to aid with ratification.

But the tone of the argument changed radically when New Hampshire ratified the Constitution as the 9th state in June of 1788.  The new government was now activated, and the debate was not over forming such a union, but rather joining it.  Four days after New Hampshire, the Madison-led delegation passed ratification in Virginia.

Back in New York, Hamilton and his entourage put the screws to the Antifederalists.  With tireless energy, he pushed and prodded the delegation.  And finally, on July 26, 1788, a group of Antifederalists led by Melancton Smith (the leading voice of Gov. Clinton’s opposition) changed their votes.  Ratification in New York had passed, and the Colony had become the 11st State in the Union.

Recommended Reading: Alexander Hamilton – Chernow’s work is all-engrossing and 100% worth the effort.

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