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The Federalist Papers: No. 39

On this day in 1788, Federalist Paper No. 39 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”) dives in, immediately, to fend off criticism that the new government isn’t a “republican” one.

“[N]o other form would be reconcilable with the genius of the people of America,” he contends, “[or] with the fundamental principles of the Revolution; or with that honorable determination which animates every votary of freedom, to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government.”

Americans in 1788 were upset that anyone might force a non-republican (small r) government upon them. Unfortunately, today’s Americans aren’t always taught what that word means. They think the word “republican” is only a reference to the political party. (It’s not.) Publius explains his view: A republican government “derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people, and is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure, for a limited period, or during good behavior.” Such a government should be “derived from the great body of the society,” not from a “favored class of it.”

Hmm. Would Publius think that our permanent political class of incumbents is a little too much like a “favored class”?

Next, Publius tackles the contention that the new Constitution did not preserve “the FEDERAL form,” but is instead “a NATIONAL government.” The former would be a “CONFEDERACY of sovereign states.” The latter would be a “CONSOLIDATION of the States.”

The answer, really, is that our Constitution presents an ingenious combination of federal and national features. This combination helps to protect our freedom.

Publius explains: The process by which the Constitution is to be ratified—state by state—is a FEDERAL act. The House, however, is elected by a direct vote of the people. The House is a NATIONAL body. The Senate is elected by the states themselves (through the legislatures), and the states are equally represented in that body. The Senate is, thus, a FEDERAL body. (Side note: Enactment of the 17th Amendment turned the Senate into less of a federal body and more of a national one, like the House.) The election of the President is partly a national act and partly a federal one.

Similarly, the day-to-day functioning of the government is mostly NATIONAL because it operates “on the people, in their individual capacities.” But if the government’s operations are national, the EXTENT of its powers are federal. Some power is vested in the national government, but all other power remains in the states, which are still sovereign in their own spheres.

Finally, Publius concludes that the amendment process is partly federal (because action is taken state-by-state) and partly national (because amendments can be ratified, even if the states are not unanimous in such a decision.)

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:

You will see various publication dates for this essay. I am going with the January 16 date that appears in the Papers of James Madison.



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