March 22, 1788 – Publication of First Installment of Bound Federalist Papers & Review of “Liberty’s Blueprint” by Michael Meyerson

In the seven-month period prior to the adoption of the Constitution, from October 1787 to May, 1788, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison (with a small contribution from John Jay) produced a series of outstanding essays popularly known as The Federalist Papers, designed to sell readers on the idea of ratification. The Federalist, as it is properly called, was more than just a sales document. Thomas Jefferson called The Federalist “the best commentary on the principles of government which was ever written.” Meyerson summarizes the issues covered in The Federalist, including the balance of power among the three branches and different levels of government, the danger of factionalism, and the role of the courts, seeking to show why this brilliant collection retains relevance in the interpretation of the Constitution even today.

The first in the series of eight-five essays by “Publius,” the collective pen name of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, was published on October 27, 1787 in the New York City newspaper “Independent Journal.”

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Federalist No. 1 encouraged the people of New York to support ratification of the Constitution approved by the Constitutional Convention on September 17, 1787.

Although written for the New York press, newspapers around the country reprinted the essays.

Since all of the essays were signed “PUBLIUS,” the actual authors of some are under dispute, but the general consensus is that Alexander Hamilton wrote 52 (including the first), James Madison wrote 28, and John Jay contributed the remaining five.

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton

[You can read the full text of all of the Federalist Papers here.]

On January 1, 1788, the New York publishing firm J. & A. McLean announced that they would publish the first thirty-six essays as a bound volume; that volume was released on March 22, 1788, and was titled The Federalist Volume 1. New essays continued to appear in the newspapers; Federalist No. 77 was the last number to appear first in that form, on April 2. A second bound volume containing Federalist 37–77 and the yet to be published Federalist 78–85 was released on May 28. The last eight papers (Federalist 78–85) were republished in the New York newspapers between June 14 and August 16, 1788.

Meyerson suggests that appreciation of The Federalist has been compromised by the disagreement between “originalists” and “non-originalists.” Originalists contend, as explained by Justice Scalia in a speech in 2005, that interpretation of the Constitution should begin with the text itself, in an attempt “to give that text the meaning that it bore when it was adopted by the people.”

Arguments in favor of originalism include that it provides the best mechanism for preventing judges from deciding cases based on their personal preferences instead of on legal principles. Moreover, the fact is that the legitimacy of the American polity is based on the Constitution as it was written. As Madison pointed out, repeated changes in the Constitution would lead people to assume their founding document [and therefore polity] was flawed and could or should be replaced.

The Federalist, Meyerson argues, can bridge the gap between the seemingly irreconcilable approaches of Constitutional interpretation. Understanding why it was written and what it contains can illuminate the answer to “how and when we should call upon the views of the framers….” Specifically, Meyerson points out that because Hamilton and Madison both attended the Convention, for which no proceedings were released, The Federalist “explains, in detail, the logic and reasoning behind the choices made by those who drafted the Constitution in Philadelphia.” No less importantly, The Federalist “showed how these choices reflected the goals and ideals of the population of their time.

Alexander Hamilton

Unfortunately, shortly after the generation of The Federalist Papers, Hamilton and Madison had a falling out over a number of issues, and Madison, “acquiescing to the views of Jefferson,” became a bitter enemy of Hamilton. Both Hamilton and Madison used The Federalist to argue against each other, even taking positions contrary to those espoused in the essays! As an example, Jefferson was incensed when President Washington (who Jefferson considered to be a puppet of Hamilton) declared neutrality in the war between England and France. Hamilton published some essays defending Washington’s position. Jefferson, an unrepentant Francophile even knowing the excesses of the French Revolution, wrote to Madison in July, 1793:

For God’s sake, my dear Sir, take up your pen, select the most striking heresies, and cut him to pieces in the face of the public.”

Jefferson preferred to execute his dirty tricks through the agencies of others, Madison being one his preferred proxies. But in this instance, the problem for Madison was that Hamilton was making points consistent with what Madison had written in The Federalist Papers. Meyerson notes that “Madison reluctantly took up the challenge,” but was never able to rebut Hamilton.

James Madison

In fact, Meyerson advises us to use caution in relying on statements about The Federalist Papers made by Hamilton and Madison after ratification of the Constitution: “They used temporary, mutable stratagems, adapted solely to support the political positions they were championing at the moment.”

Meyerson suggests that if we avoid that trap, we will benefit greatly from reference to The Federalist Papers. He asserts “the history of the drafting and ratification of a document such as the Constitution simply cannot be irrelevant in understanding the meaning of unclear terms and enigmatic omissions.” Further, he opines “original meaning, whenever it can be recovered, should … prevail over the lesser acts of legislators and the preferences of jurists.” He points out how helpful it has been to have such a thorough understanding of what the words meant in the Constitution as opposed to the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments, for which such documentation is lacking.

Nevertheless, he observes that sometimes it is not possible to uncover an original meaning. Additionally, we now have a “more evolved understanding” of some issues, such as the rights of minorities. Certainly we must not treat The Federalist as “holy writ;” however, the overall structure of our government has not changed in 200 years, and there is much in The Federalist that is instructive on the balance of power and dangers of usurpation by one branch or another.

Evaluation: This is an interesting overview of the writing of The Federalist Papers and the uses to which it has been put from our early Republic through the present Supreme Court. Meyerson tries to give both sides of the originalist – non-originalist issue, although his respect for the brilliance and continued relevancy of The Federalist Papers is clear. His book serves as a useful reminder that the Constitution is the legitimizing document of this country, and should not be trimmed to suit the political tides of the moment.

Published by Basic Books, 2008

July 7, 1783 – Thomas Jefferson Writes to James Madison, Goading Him to Attack Alexander Hamilton

In April, 1793, Edmond Charles Genêt, better known as Citizen Genêt, arrived in America to great fanfare as the newly appointed French minister to the United States.

Genêt’s mission, as recounted by Joel Richard Paul in Without Precedent: John Marshall and His Times, was to persuade the U.S. to help France liberate Canada, Louisiana, and Florida from rule by Britain and Spain. If the Americans refused to enter the war on France’s side, Genêt was instructed to “germinate the spirit of liberty” by instigating a popular uprising in favor of France. He had other assignments as well, all of which were designed to advance the position of France in the U.S. to the detriment of Britain.

Engraving of Edmond-Charles Genêt

Genêt launched an immediate campaign to realize his goals, taking assertive actions that amounted to “an astounding breach of diplomatic protocol and international law” (per Paul, p. 73).

President George Washington wanted the U.S. to remain neutral in the war between France and Britain, much to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson’s chagrin. Jefferson, besotted with France as well as its revolution, fiercely opposed neutrality. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, on the other hand, strongly supported it.

Jefferson had already been meeting secretly with Genêt at Trump Tower, and was anxious for Genêt’s help to elect a republican majority in Congress in return for support for an alliance with France and a removal of tariffs on French imports. Paul writes:

Jefferson made clear that his enemies – the federalists [which included President George Washington], particularly Adams and Hamilton – were France’s enemies. . . . From these conversations, Genêt formed the misimpression that the president was irrelevant and that an appeal to Congress, or to the people directly, would be more effective.”

Genêt also confided his plans to arm regiments in South Carolina and Kentucky to attack Spanish holdings in Florida and Louisiana, and Jefferson helped put Genet in touch with people who could help him.

Paul writes:

Jefferson’s relationship with the French envoy was ill-advised, probably illegal, and certainly disloyal to Washington.”

The President ended up issuing a Proclamation of Neutrality. Republicans denounced the proclamation as exceeding the president’s constitutional powers. Using the pseudonym Pacificus, Hamilton wrote a series of essays in support of Washington’s authority to determine the country’s foreign relations. Jefferson, as was his usual modus operandi, remained silent in public while stealthily prodding his henchman James Madison to attack. [When Jefferson himself was president, he of course would feel differently about presidential authority.]

Thomas Jefferson

On this day in history, Jefferson sent a letter to Madison, bemoaning the fact that nobody was taking exception to the writings of Pacificus:

Nobody answers him, and his doctrine will therefore be taken for confessed. For god’s sake, my dear Sir, take up your pen, select the most striking heresies, and cut him to pieces in the face of the public. There is nobody else who can and will enter the lists with him.”

The sniping over Genêt, Paul writes, would eventually lead to the spawning of two competing political parties. It seems that in terms of partisan squabbling; trying to get foreign help in undermining of the political opposition; and dirty tricks – both in secret and in the open – not much has changed, as evinced by the Trump Administration, et al.

August 18, 1792 – Alexander Hamilton Anticipates Trump

On this day in history, Alexander Hamilton, then Secretary of the Treasury in President George Washington’s cabinet, sent Washington an outline of concerns he had regarding the administration of government.

Alexander Hamilton

He wrote in part:

When a man, unprincipled in private life, desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper, possessed of considerable talents, having the advantage of military habits, despotic in his ordinary demeanor, known to have scoffed in private at the principles of liberty; when such a man is seen to mount the hobby-horse of popularity, to join in the cry of danger to liberty, to take every opportunity of embarrassing the general government and bringing it under suspicion, to flatter and fall in with all the nonsense of the zealots of the day, it may justly be suspected that his object is to throw things into confusion, that he may “ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.

It has aptly been observed, that Cato was the Tory, Cæsar the Whig of his day. The former frequently resisted, the latter always flattered, the follies of the people. Yet the former perished with the republic—the latter destroyed it.

No popular government was ever without its Catilines and its Cæsars—these are its true enemies.”

You can read all of his remarks here.

August 26, 1792 – George Washington Expresses Frustration Over Partisan Wrangling

Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson were both members of President Washington’s first cabinet, but did not get along, and each wrote to Washington complaining about the other. Washington replied to each man, expressing dismay over their bickering, and urging them to get along in spite of political differences. He wrote to Hamilton on this day in history:

Differences in political opinions are as unavoidable as, to a certain point, they may perhaps be necessary; but it is to be regretted, exceedingly, that subjects cannot be discussed with temper on the one hand, or decisions submitted to without having the motives which led to them, improperly implicated on the other: and this regret borders on chagrin when we find that Men of abilities—zealous patriots—having the same general objects in view, and the same up-right intentions to prosecute them, will not exercise more charity in deciding on the opinions, & actions of one another. When matters get to such lengths, the natural inference is, that both sides have strained the cords beyond their bearing—and that a middle course would be found the best, until experience shall have pointed out the right mode—or, which is not to be expected, because it is denied to mortals—there shall be some infallible rule by which we could fore judge events.”

Presciently foreseeing Fox News, he continued:

Having premised these things, I would fain hope that liberal allowances will be made for the political opinions of one another; and instead of those wounding suspicions, and irritating charges with which some of our Gazettes are so strongly impregnated, & cannot fail if persevered in, of pushing matters to extremity, & thereby tare the Machine asunder, that there might be mutual forbearances and temporising yieldings on all sides. Without these I do not see how the Reins of Government are to be managed, or how the Union of the States can be much longer preserved.”

You can read the entire letter here.

George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, 1797

May 5, 1789 – Alexander Hamilton Gives George Washington Entertainment Advice

On this day in history, Alexander Hamilton wrote to George Washington in apparent response to an oral inquiry by Washington concerning the “etiquette proper to be observed by the President.” In this letter, Hamilton submits his ideas on the subject to Washington.

He begins by observing that “The public good requires as a primary object that the dignity of the office should be supported.” He stresses the importance of finding a balance that will satisfy people’s expectations of the office but not alienate them:

Men’s minds are prepared for a pretty high tone in the demeanour of the Executive; but I doubt whether for so high a tone as in the abstract might be desireable. The notions of equality are yet in my opinion too general and too strong to admit of such a distance being placed between the President and other branches of the government as might even be consistent with a due proportion.”

To this end, he suggests holding informal “levees” each week for people to see him, but for him not to accept any invitations in return. He should also, Hamilton opined, give formal entertainments “only twice or four times a year on the anniversaries of important events in the revolution.” He then suggests who should be invited and where they should sit.

You can read the full details of his entertainment advice here.

Alexander Hamilton portrait by John Trumbull 1806

January 11, 1755 – Birthdate of Alexander Hamilton & Review of “Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry That Forged A Nation” by John Ferling

John Ferling, a respected scholar of the American Revolution, sets forth the ideological differences between two of our most influential Founding Fathers, Jefferson and Hamilton, and recounts the poisonous enmity between them that arose as a result. The story is relevant even today, since the bitter partisan divide America is now experiencing is quite similar to that which threatened to tear apart the fabric of the country apart in its infancy.

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Ferling provides a more dispassionate (i.e., less hagiographic) portrait of the two men than many recent biographies. He is quite good at laying out the philosophies of these two great thinkers, and showing how much they both contributed to the tenor and construction of the new nation. Nevertheless, when it comes to dissecting the personal characteristics of the two men, Ferling goes easier on the shortcomings of Jefferson than he does on Hamilton, even making Hamilton sound a bit like he verged on insanity toward the end of his life.

Hamilton was certainly more volatile and impulsive than Jefferson, but the actions instigated by each of them ended up mirroring the other’s. The main difference, in my view, was that Hamilton was more open about his feelings and actions than Jefferson; Jefferson’s behaviors could be just as egregious, but he cleverly operated almost exclusively behind the scenes, using sycophantic lackeys to do his dirty work (most notably: Virginia Congressman William Branch Giles, newspaperman Philip Freneau, and future presidents James Madison and James Monroe). As Ron Chernow observed in his 2004 magisterial biography Alexander Hamilton, Jefferson was a “proficient political ventriloquist” who was “skilled at using proxies while keeping his own lips tightly sealed.” He used other men to hound Hamilton and discredit him, through whatever combination of truth and lies were necessary to accomplish that goal.

In spite of all the time and effort spent by each of these men in attacking the other, they also managed to make major contributions to the establishment of the American Republic. It was largely thanks to Hamilton that the nation was able to grow strong enough to overcome the defects it suffered when bound only by the Articles of Confederation. But Hamilton’s vision included the possibility of a nationstate bound to a plutocracy.

As for Jefferson, it was his radical egalitarian vision (at least in theory) that put into words the dream of equality of opportunity that still inspires those seeking freedom from oppression. (Nevertheless, no matter what interpretation later generations made of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson was a racist who “believed that blacks were slow, lazy, oversexed, less capable than whites of reasoning, and on the whole an inferior race.” They were, however, suitable for sexual exploitation. Although he claimed he wanted to abolish slavery, he did not want blacks, once freed, to remain in the country.)

Library of Congress photo of the only surviving fragment of the broadside of the Declaration of Independence printed by John Dunlap and sent on July 6, 1776, to George Washington by John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.

Library of Congress photo of the only surviving fragment of the broadside of the Declaration of Independence printed by John Dunlap and sent on July 6, 1776, to George Washington by John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.

Ferling devotes some space to trying to explain Jefferson’s hypocritical divide between his professions about slavery and the actions he did, or rather, did not, take. Like other historians, Ferling makes a number of excuses for Jefferson. He does, however, admit that Jefferson absolutely would not consider emancipation without expatriation of freedmen and that “he refused to denounce the spread of slavery, and in private he made it clear that if the Union was torn asunder over the issue, he would stand with the South in defense of slavery.” Still, Ferling suggests that Jefferson was no worse than Washington, writing: “Like Washington, Jefferson made a conscious decision to keep others enslaved so that he might live the sumptuous life.”

But there were crucial differences between Washington and Jefferson on slavery. Washington, even Ferling admits, stated that if the Union broke up, he would move to the North and side with them, not with his home state of Virginia. Ferling does not go into Washington’s position on slavery in depth, presumably because it is beyond the purview of the book. But Washington not only struggled more with how to deal with slavery during his life, but would have freed his slaves at or before his death if he had been able to do so. Under the dower laws of the time, many of his slaves either belonged to Martha, or were married to slaves belonging to Martha. He refused to break up slave families, and Martha had no inclination to free her slaves. (After her husband died however, the slaves, who knew that Washington arranged for them to be freed when Martha died, were looking a little too happy for Martha’s comfort level, and she became uneasy that they would try to advance the date of her death. After a year, therefore, she freed them herself.) In contradistinction, Jefferson stipulated that only five of his slaves be freed even upon his death (all of them were from the Hemings family).

George and Martha Washington portraits. George and Martha Washington, from unfinished painting by Gilbert Stuart

George and Martha Washington portraits. George and Martha Washington, from unfinished painting by Gilbert Stuart

Regarding the invective and undermining engaged in by each man against the other, it is my distinct impression that Jefferson was the more venomous of the two, and did the most damage. His tactics, however, allowed him to escape the judgment of his fellows (and of history) more unscathed than did Hamilton.

Evaluation: Ferling breaks no new historical ground, but he is a spritely writer about an endlessly fascinating subject. He gives a much more balanced view of Jefferson than many other biographers, and does an excellent job in condensing and illuminating the political philosophies of Jefferson and Hamilton. If you are interested in the contributions of these two powerful and formidable men to the American project, this book makes a great introduction.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Bloomsbury Press, 2013

Review of “Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Future of America” by Thomas Fleming

Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Future of America is the haunting and illuminating story of two talented American founders who were ruined and driven against each other by three factors: their own ambition, their passionate natures, and the vicious designs of their powerful rival Thomas Jefferson. Fleming, skilled at presenting great detail without boring the reader, tells what happened in the years from the contentious election of 1800 to the duel that took Hamilton’s life in 1804. This book also provides a revealing look at the poisonous political atmosphere at the beginning of the republic.

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Hamilton was less adept than Burr at reigning in his sensitivity to injustice and his craving for “the praise of persons of judgment and quality” (per Francis Bacon). Noah Webster warned Hamilton about his “ambition, pride, and overbearing temper.” But Hamilton had admirable leadership qualities as well: a brilliant intellect; bravery in battle; passionate support of political causes that seemed infinitely preferable to the Jacobinism of Jefferson; and consummate skills at speaking and writing to convince others of his arguments. (He was George Washington’s speech writer on many occasions.)

Portrait of Alexander Hamilton by John Trumbull, 1806

Portrait of Alexander Hamilton by John Trumbull, 1806

Burr had also proven brave and competent in battle; inspiring in the courtroom, and better able to broker political deals than Hamilton (if a bit too reluctant to commit to one side or another). While Vice President, he made sure Congress was conducted with dignity and decorum, precedents that were continued after his departure.

Portrait of Aaron Burr (1756-1836); Collection of the New Jersey Historical Society

Portrait of Aaron Burr (1756-1836); Collection of the New Jersey Historical Society

Jefferson, whom Fleming calls “at best a lukewarm friend of the Constitution,” engaged in unrelenting calumny and slander against these two political rivals, but always behind the scenes. He hired newspaper editors, he orchestrated moves and feints in Congress, and drafted (anonymously) documents to be presented by others – always working “in deep background.” His pet projects were characterized by emphases on loyalty and submission rather than the democracy he touted publicly.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Fleming’s accounts of the defamations issued by agents of Jefferson against Hamilton and Burr are shocking and depressing. Most people had no alternative means of obtaining information and tended to believe what they read in the Jefferson-sponsored diatribes. The lives of these two great men were ruined and nothing could be done. In the end, both men lost their families, their fortunes, their political careers, and in Hamilton’s case – his life – while Jefferson went on to be worshipped as the embodiment of “We the People”.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Basic Books, 1999

January 16, 1801 – Hamilton’s Astute Analysis of Jefferson

On this day in history, Alexander Hamilton wrote a letter to James Bayard (an American lawyer and politician from Wilmington, Delaware and a member of the Federalist Party). He delineated his objections to the nomination of Aaron Burr for the U.S. Presidency. In the process, he actually defended Thomas Jefferson by way of comparison. In so doing, however, he mentioned aspects of Jefferson’s character that, while blatantly evident in Hamilton’s time, have tended to get lost in our elevation of the Founding Fathers to the status of deities:

I admit that his politics are tinctured with fanaticism, that he is too much in earnest in his democracy, that he has been a mischevous enemy to the principle measures of our past administration, that he is crafty & persevering in his objects, that he is not scrupulous about the means of success, nor very mindful of truth, and that he is a contemptible hypocrite. But it is not true as is alleged that he is an enemy to the power of the Executive, or that he is for confounding all the powers in the House of Rs.”

It should also be noted that Hamilton was not even aware of all of the “dirty tricks” against him that came from the instigation of Jefferson. You can read all of Hamilton’s remarks to Bayard here.

Alexander Hamilton portrait by John Trumbull 1806

Alexander Hamilton portrait by John Trumbull 1806

January 1, 1801 – John Marshall Writes Alexander Hamilton About Jefferson and Burr

On this day in history, John Marshall, who became the fourth Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court at the end of the same month, on January 31, 1801, wrote to Alexander Hamilton about his opinions of the two candidates for the next president of the United States.

John Marshall

John Marshall

He averred (spelling kept as in original):

…my own mind had scarcely determind to which of these gentlemen the preference was due. To Mr. Jefferson whose political character is better known than that of Mr. Burr, I have felt almost insuperable objections. His foreign prejudices seem to me totally to unfit him for the chief magistracy of a nation which cannot indulge those prejudices without sustaining debt & permanent injury. In addition to this solid & immovable objection Mr. Jefferson appears to me to be a man who will embody himself with the house of representatives. By weakening the office of President he will increase his personal power. He will diminish his responsability, sap the fundamental principles of the government & become the leader of that party which is about to constitute the majority of the legislature.”

But then again, he gathered Burr wasn’t so great either:

Your representation of Mr. Burr with whom I am totally unacquainted shows that from him still greater danger than even from Mr. Jefferson may be apprehended. Such a man as you describe is more to be feard & may do more immediate if not greater mischief. Believing that you know him well & are impartial my preference woud certainly not be for him—but I can take no part in this business. I cannot bring my self to aid Mr. Jefferson. Perhaps respect of myself shoud in my present situation deter me from using any influence (if indeed I possessd any) in support of either gentleman.”

You can read the complete letter here.

Book Review of “Alexander Hamilton” by Ron Chernow

Alexander Hamilton’s wife Eliza lived fifty years after her husband was killed in a duel by Aaron Burr, and would frequently say thereafter that she longed for a reunion with “her Hamilton.” After some 730 pages of being enmeshed in Hamilton’s life, I found myself feeling a bit of the same way.

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Hamilton had a remarkable intellect, was a prolific writer, and contributed hugely to the political and philosophical underpinnings of the new American republic. Yet his years in public life were also fraught with unbelievable pettiness and nastiness from his fellow Founders. [Hamilton contributed his share, but the author makes a good case that he spent more time on the defense than the offense. He notes “Through the years, Hamilton was to exhaust himself in efforts to refute lies that grew up around him like choking vines. … These myths were perhaps the inevitable reaction to a man so briliiant, so outspoken, and so sure of himself.” Chernow also surmises that “Since critics found it hard to defeat him on intellectual ground, they stopped to personal attacks.” (Hamilton’s status as a “bastard” by birth facilitated this process.)] Certainly, as Chernow observed, “The contentious culture of these early years was both the apex and the nadir of American political expression.”

Chernow guides us through Hamilton’s life and times with immense detail, but this enables the reader to obtain a very good exposure to many important contributions of Hamilton, including his fiscal policies (as he veritably created our entire economic system) and The Federalist Papers (fifty-one out of eighty-five of which have been attributed to Hamilton). We also get a thorough accounting of Hamilton’s relationship with George Washington. This is a rewarding book that enlightens readers both on Hamilton the man and on the political landscape and personalities of the country’s beginnings. Highly recommended.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Penguin Press, 2004