Op/Ed

Victor Nuovo: The choice for a Union

14th in a series
The Constitutional Convention completed its work on Sept. 17, 1787, by adopting the Constitution that it had drafted and sending the document to the states for ratification. Article VII of the draft Constitution provided that it should become operational upon ratification by nine of the 13 states. On June 21, 1788, New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify it. The remaining states would follow suit. Rhode Island was the last, on May 29, 1790.
In between these dates there occurred a great national debate. In New York state, a series of 85 essays in favor of ratification appeared in the press under the pseudonym of “Publius,” a Roman patriot and statesman, Publius Valerius Poplicola (d. 503BCE). They were collected and published in two volumes as “The Federalist Papers.” The authors were Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804), who wrote 51 of them; James Madison (1751–1836), who wrote 29; and John Jay (1745–1829), who wrote five. “The Federalist Papers” were not politically partisan. Hamilton, who served during the Revolution as Washington’s chief of staff, was one of the founders of the Federalist Party, and the first Secretary of the Treasury. Madison, who would become the fourth President of the United States, did not join the Federalist Party; he was one of the founders, with Thomas Jefferson, of the Democratic-Republican Party, which is ancestor to the Democratic Party. Jay, also a Federalist, served as the first Chief Justice of the United States. What is noteworthy of all three is their relative youth: Hamilton was 32; Madison, 35; and Jay, 42.
“The Federalist Papers” defended ratification. But there were others who opposed ratification, and they were thoughtful and articulate. They, too, published essays, also using as pseudonyms the names of Roman patriots, e.g. Brutus and Cato. Both Federalists and Anti-Federalists were well read in the ancient history: the Greek and Roman Classics and classical political philosophy.
It is not surprising that there should be a great public debate. As Hamilton wrote in the first Federalist Paper, “It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” The question, whether human societies can govern themselves by reason and judgment lest they become victims of chance and necessity, has never lost its relevance, and it seems especially relevant today. Politics becomes a matter of chance and necessity, of unreason and folly, whenever this question is ignored. It is the fundamental question of politics, it is where every new generation of citizens must begin. It should be made the fundamental question of public education and studied along with the Classics.
The names Federalism and Anti-Federalism are misnomers. The term Federalism denotes a decentralized form of government, a league of states, a Confederacy, a voluntary association. The authors of the “Federalist Papers” advocated just the opposite — a robust central government with a strong executive, whereas Anti-Federalists were in favor of Federalism. But for political reasons, the authors of the “Federalist Papers” held on to the name.
Madison saw the distinction clearly. In Federalist Paper No. 39, he distinguished two sorts of Union “a Confederacy of sovereign states” and “a national government, which regards the Union as a consolidation of the states,” which is what the Constitutional Convention proposed. As Lincoln said 87 years later, the founders intended to create “a new nation,” a Union, and he gave his life to preserve it. The same principle is expressed in the Preamble. “WE THE PEOPLE of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union … do ordain and establish this CONSTITUTION for the United States of America.” Note that it was not the states, nor a Congress of the States, nor the legislatures of the states, but the People of the United States who ordained and established the Constitution through specially elected conventions of the people in each state. By this means, the People, not the states, became sovereign, and created the Union, a new nation, which they endowed with a fundamental law to which they themselves by their own action became subject.
It was at this point that the Federalists and Anti-Federalists divided. The Anti-Federalists objected that the states had declared their independence in 1776, and by that act, they had become sovereign; that by ratifying the Constitution the states would relinquish their sovereignty. Federalists — and I mean, not members of the Federalist Party, but those who favored ratification — worried that without Union, the American states, still sovereign, were more likely to fall into a Hobbesian state of war of all against all. Leaders in some states of a more adventurous spirit would seek to aggrandize themselves at the expense of other states, to enlarge their territories. Or, there would be an epidemic of Confederacies competing for the unsettled land to the west. America would be like Europe before the European Union. Union was the only alternative.
From a long historical perspective, it might seem that Union was inevitable. But it did not seem so in 1787. Moreover, the Constitution was not a perfect instrument. It achieved union through compromise, especially on the question of slavery, and the nation paid dearly for the failure to confront this gross injustice at the root of its political economy. And one should not overlook the fact that this great debate was carried on by men only: another gross injustice that would not begin to be rectified for more than a century. Nor must it be forgotten that the land that the states occupy was not theirs originally, but once belonged by right to Native Americans. There is irony in the preamble where it is said that the goal of the Constitution was to establish justice.
Postscript: The “Federalist” and “Anti-Federalist Papers” are available in affordable paperback editions. Michael Kammen’s “The Origin of the American Constitution” provides a convenient selection of documents and letters. It is a good place to start. Visit your local bookstore.

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