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The Federalist Papers: No. 38

On this day in 1788, Federalist Paper No. 38 is published. The Federalist Papers are a collection of essays that were published in New York newspapers in late 1787 and early 1788. They argued FOR the new Constitution, then being considered for ratification by the states.

James Madison (a.k.a. “Publius”) is basically warning Americans not to sit around and wait for the “perfect” plan of government to present itself.

His arguments here remind me of what I often say about the Electoral College. Is it perfect? No. But is it better than the alternatives? YES. And do the other alternatives have a whole host of problems that people forget to consider? Again – YES!

Publius tells his readers that Americans are like a “patient who finds his disorder daily growing worse.” He and his doctors consult and “are unanimously agreed that the symptoms are critical.” They decide on a course of action. The “prescription is no sooner made known, however, than a number of persons interpose, and, without denying the reality or danger of the disorder, assure the patient that the prescription will be poison to his constitution.” They have no remedy of their own to offer as an alternative, but “forbid him, under pain of certain death, to make use of” the one that he has been offered.

The Constitution’s opponents are like this latter group of people. They agree that America is at a critical point. They each have a different reason for objecting to the proposed Constitution. But none of them have an alternative remedy to propose.

Publius observes that those who are against the Constitution are very good at focusing on perceived defects in that document, but they are very bad at remembering all the currently existing problems. “It is not necessary that the [Constitution] should be perfect,” Publius notes, “it is sufficient that the [currently existing situation under the Articles of Confederation] is more imperfect.” After all, “[n]o man would refuse to quit a shattered and tottering habitation for a firm and commodious building, because the latter had not a porch to it, or because some of the rooms might be a little larger or smaller, or the ceilings a little higher or lower than his fancy would have planned them.”

Problems may exist in the proposed Constitution, but the Articles of Confederation are worse: “Is a bill of rights essential to liberty? The Confederation has no bill of rights. . . . Is the importation of slaves permitted by the new Constitution for twenty years? By the old it is permitted forever.”

Finally, Publius observes that the current Congress has not been given powers equal to its responsibility. As a result, it has stepped outside of its bounds from time to time, all “without the least color of constitutional authority.” The situation shows Americans “alarming proof of the danger resulting from a government which does not possess regular powers commensurate to its objects.”

My post with more background on the Federalist Papers and their authorship can be found in the Federalist Paper No. 1 summary (see October 27 history post, HERE).

A few logistical publication notes for those who care:

James Madison wrote this particular essay. You will see a publication date of January 15 on this paper sometimes. I am going with the January 12 date that appears in the Papers of James Madison. I am sure the discrepancy has to do with the fact that the Federalist Papers were often published in various New York newspapers and not always on the same day.


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