After the Declaration of Independence in 1776 the states were virtually self-governing. The Articles of Confederation were not effective until ratified by all states, and ratification was not final until 1781. Put together in a hurry at a time of acute crisis, the Articles of Confederation left much to be desired. After suffering the tyranny of King George III and his ministers, the central government was purposely left weak. National power, such as it was, resided in an elected Continental Congress, which met at least once a year. In the Congress each state, whether large or small, had an equal vote (one vote). Each state could send no more than seven nor less than two representatives to Congress, but the delegation voted as a unit after a caucus of its members to determine the views of the majority.
In many areas of legislation, Congress was not empowered to make laws for the country as a whole. It could only recommend that the states take action along the lines suggested. This led to difficulties and confusion. On appropriation bills, for example, Congress would decide that a certain sum of money should be spent for a specific national purpose. But it had no way of raising money directly. All it could do was to call on the states to make their apportioned contributions for the purpose. State legislatures held the purse strings and often were very slow in responding, if they did at all, to what might be called solicitations.
Early in 1781, when the Revolutionary War was still far from being won, Congress asked the states for $8,000,000 to meet emergency national needs. At the end of three years, less than $1,500,000 of this assessment had been paid. On occasion, as New Jersey did in 1786, a state flatly refused to pay anything toward carrying out a Congressional decision of which it disapproved.
As a consequence, in want of ready money, the central government was often delinquent in paying its debts and obligations. This hurt American credit and prestige everywhere. It seemed to a growing number on both sides of the Atlantic that a young nation unable to pay its bills on the due date could not long endure. Many shared Patrick Henry's view that ruin was inevitable unless the national government were given "compulsory process" under which it could collect revenues owed it by delinquent states.
Commercial relations, both domestic and foreign, presented another problem. To protect the economic interests of their citizens, states erected higher and higher tariff barriers against one another. In Connecticut, only hats made in that state could be sold. New York levied duties on firewood brought in from Connecticut, and on vegetables and other farm produce shipped into New York City from New Jersey. Other states imposed similar levies on imports of anything produced outside their boundaries.
Problems on foreign commerce were even more complicated. The nation had great need of negotiating advantageous commercial treaties with the European powers: Britain, France, Spain, Holland, and others. Congress had the right to negotiate such treaties, at least in theory; practically, that right was useless.
As European governments asked, what was the point of negotiating a commercial treaty with the central government when the individual states could exercise their right to tax and regulate foreign commerce as they pleased?
South Carolina, for example, levied a general import duty of 2.5 percent on all foreign goods, with a much higher levy on certain specified articles. Massachusetts prohibited the export of goods on British ships, and doubled the tonnage duty on any goods imported on non-American ships. Similar discriminatory laws in regard to duties, port fees, and other charges were in force in New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Maryland, and North Carolina.
To remedy these and other disabilities, a call was sent out to the thirteen states asking them to send delegations to a convention that would consider what revisions should be made in the Articles of Confederation. The convention was to meet in Annapolis, Maryland, but delegates from only five states showed up: Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York. Recognizing that nothing could be done under the circumstances, the delegates — a mere dozen being present — chose Alexander Hamilton to draft an address calling on the states to send delegates to a new convention to be held in Philadelphia on the second Monday in May, 1787.
After five months delay, the Continental Congress cautiously endorsed this plan, saying that it might be "expedient" to hold a constitutional convention "for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation and reporting to Congress and the several legislatures such alterations and provisions therein." In view of developments later, it should be particularly noted here that the convention was called for the "sole and express purpose" of revising the Articles of Confederation, not scrapping them completely, a point that was made much of by the large number of those vigorously opposed to the immediate ratification of the document that finally emanated from Philadelphia.
About three weeks behind schedule, the Philadelphia convention finally got down to work on May 25, 1787. Only seven states were represented, a bare majority, but enough to constitute a quorum. Delegations from five more states soon arrived. Rhode Island boycotted the convention, distrusting the whole project.
For the most part, the delegates were rather young men. Most of them were relatively unknown. The average age of members was 44. Out of this younger group came some of the most active and influential leaders in the convention: Alexander Hamilton, age 32; James Madison, 36; Gouverneur Morris of New York, 35; and Charles Pinckney of South Carolina, 41.
Some stalwarts of the Revolution were present: Gen. George Washington, age 55; Benjamin Franklin, in his 80s and the oldest member of the convention; George Mason and George Wythe of Virginia; Robert Morris of Pennsylvania, who had been the Confederation's superintendent of finance, becoming known as the "Financier of the Revolution"; Roger Sherman of Connecticut, very democratic in his views, an influential member of the First Continental Congress and a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Others were absent for various reasons: Sam Adams and John Hancock of Massachusetts; John Adams because he was in London as our ambassador there; Jefferson, our ambassador in Paris; and John Jay, Secretary of Foreign Affairs, busy negotiating with the Spanish about navigation rights on the Mississippi and other troublesome matters. Patrick Henry had been chosen as a member of the Virginia delegation but, for reasons of his own to be discussed later, had declined to serve, as had his old friend and ally, Richard Henry Lee. Lee had submitted to the Continental Congress on June 7, 1776, Virginia's historic resolution, later adopted:
That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown. . . .
That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective Colonies for their consideration and approbation.
When the delegates at Philadelphia got down to business, Washington was elected unanimously to be president of the convention and, though not a parliamentarian, presided very well, with skill and tact. He was impartial in his rulings from the chair, and remained imperturbable even during the angriest clashes of opinion on points of order or procedures of debate. Everybody trusted the, cool judgment of "old Stone Face," as some called him without any want of affection or respect.
The convention, having chosen officers and organized itself, decided to sit behind closed doors. All of its proceedings were to be kept secret. Nothing was to be said publicly about what went on without the express approval of the convention. The secrecy rule was well kept.
Jefferson, in Paris, was being kept informed of what was going on in frequent private letters from his young friend Madison. On learning of the secrecy rule, Jefferson pronounced it "abominable." The people had a right to know what was being done in their name on matters of vital concern to all.
Replying to Jefferson, Madison made a good point, saying that secrecy was wise at a time when men were groping and feeling their way toward solutions of many complex problems, trying to reconcile sharply conflicting class and sectional interests. There would be much more freedom of discussion, Madison argued, if the delegates could exchange ideas informally and discuss them "off the record." They would not be committed to a public position from which they might later wish to retire if they changed their minds.
The convention in its first major action decided to go beyond its instructions and authority. It would not devote thought, time, and energy to amending the Articles of Confederation. Rather, it would frame a whole new constitution on quite another foundation, having come to the conclusion "that a national government ought to be established consisting of a supreme Legislature, judiciary, and Executive."
For that purpose, Virginia submitted a new constitutional plan, drafted largely by Madison and reflecting the views of the larger states. it provided for a president with stronger powers, a supreme court and lesser United States courts, and a legislature of two chambers. In both chambers, state representation should be based on (white) population, and the lower house would be elected by the tipper house.
New Jersey objected to this, speaking the view of the smaller states. These insisted that there be but one chamber of the national legislature with equal voice for each state, whatever its population and size, as it had been in the single-chamber Congress under the Articles of Confederation. Connecticut offered a compromise on representation and other matters.
In a remarkably short time, less than four months, the Philadelphia convention managed to put together a proposed new constitution which has proved, by the test of time, to be fundamentally sound though arrived at by any number of compromises, accommodations, and evasions — on the question of slavery, for example, which led to bloody conflict in the Civil War.
Having finished its work, the convention sent its document to the Continental Congress, which accepted it and ordered that copies be sent to the proper state authorities. The latter were to call special contentions to ratify or reject the plan. When and if nine states ratified, the new constitution was to go into effect immediately.
Returning from the Philadelphia convention to Mount Vernon, Washington sent copies of the plan to many of his old and influential friends. One of the first went to Patrick Henry. In a brief but friendly note, Washington remarked to Henry that he was sending the plan with — just making any "particular observations" about particular points. Washington wrote:
Your own judgment will at once discover the good and the exceptional parts of it. . . .
I wish the constitution which is offered had been more perfect; but I sincerely believe it is the best that could be obtained at this time. And as a constitutional door is opened for amendments hereafter, the adoption of it under the present circumstances of the Union is in my opinion desirable.
Patrick Henry, also in a friendly tone, wrote back to say that he could not bring his "mind to accord with the proposed Constitution. The concern I feel on this account is really greater than I am able to express."
Benjamin Franklin, a member of the Philadelphia convention, also had his reservations, taking a very ambiguous and ambivalent attitude: "I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such, . . . because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that is not the best."
Writing from Paris, Jefferson asked why the Philadelphia convention had assumed the authority — which it did not have — to scrap the Confederation and set out on the uncharted course of writing a whole new constitution for the struggling infant republic. As much good could have been done, be said, if three or four provisions had been added to the Articles of Confederation, "the good old and venerable fabric which should have been preserved, even as a religious relic."
And why the great hurry on the part of some in pushing for immediate ratification, asked Jefferson. The country was at peace and getting along reasonably well; there was no sudden emergency. If it were thought desirable to make a massive shift in the nation's foundations on which to build a whole new framework of government, why not spend a little time in examining the design of the framework, considering alternatives, exploring all possibilities? After this question had been explored and thoroughly discussed throughout the country, why not hold another constitutional convention to review and improve the work done in Philadelphia?
No one held a lower opinion of the proposed constitution than Alexander Hamilton. As a delegate from New York, he had been very active in the Philadelphia convention at first, but his interest soon subsided. Few were interested in his ideas, which were very anti-democratic and, fundamentally, even anti-republican. His notion of the best system of government was that of the British as practiced under king, ministers, and Parliament. The American colonies had successfully revolted against the perversions of this system under George III and his ministers.
For the new American constitution, Hamilton had some very definite ideas: he wanted a very strong executive, an elected president, who was to serve for life, practically as a monarch; this officer would have an absolute veto on any measures passed by the national legislature. He would also have the power to appoint all state governors who would have an absolute veto on all state legislation.
There should be two houses in the national legislature. Members in the upper house (the senate) should be chosen on a property basis, to serve for life. In a bow to "the people," whom he always thoroughly distrusted and disliked ("The people," he once said, "is a great beast") Hamilton conceded the need of a lower house elected by popular vote, but with the vote restricted as narrowly as possible. In his desire for an all-powerful central government, Hamilton would have liked to abolish completely the jurisdictions of the states, reducing them to the status of counties in England. But he did not push this idea, realizing that it was not only impractical but impossible.
Of the new constitution proposed by the Philadelphia convention, Hamilton said: "No man's ideas are more remote from the plan than my own are known to be," and forthwith threw himself into the forefront of those advocating immediate adoption of the proposed plan. He would take what he could get. Anything was better than the Articles of Confederation. "Is it possible," he asked, "to deliberate between anarchy and confusion on one side, and the chance of good to be expected on the other?"
It was Hamilton, as noted before, who conceived the idea of writing a series of newspaper articles arguing for immediate ratification of the plan proposed. He had no difficulty in persuading Madison and Jay to collaborate, but Hamilton did most of the writing, contributing two-thirds of the articles.
The trio worked fast. The first of the long series appeared in the New York City Independent journal late in October, 1787, little more than a month after the Philadelphia convention adjourned. It was Hamilton who arranged to have the articles collected and quickly published in book form as The Federalist, in two volumes. The first volume, containing approximately half the articles, was rushed through the press and appeared in March, 1788. The second volume, containing the remainder of the 85 articles, appeared in May.
The Federalist could well have stood some good editing and pruning: It is often repetitious; main themes could have been brought together and better organized. But the authors obviously decided (the decision was probably Hamilton's alone) that there was no time for editing. The book had to be put out and given the widest possible circulation with all speed if it was to have any influence in shaping public opinion as the "Great Debate" on ratification was about to begin.
Consequently, the short newspaper articles were put into the book as originally published. Each short article was numbered as a chapter, with the result that there were 85 chapters of varying lengths — a formidable number. Many a chapter was merely a continuation of an argument begun in the immediately preceding chapters. Such chapters might well have been reworked, revised, and brought together in a single chapter or section. But, as just remarked, "Publius" decided there was no time for that. Speed of publication was the prime essential.
Whatever its faults, The Federalist was a masterpiece of its kind. It was closely and cogently reasoned. It met the main issues head-on, with no evasion. It did not deal in invective and personalities, contrary to the fashion of the day; the argument, almost always, was kept on a high, cool level. The writing was strong and good, though it had nothing of the dazzling sparkle of Tom Paine's Common Sense (1776) that, almost overnight, fired Americans to strike for independence, a subject which up to that time, as John Adams wrote, had been a "Hobgoblin of so frightful a Mien that it would throw a delicate Person into Fits to look it in the Face."
The impact of The Federalist on ratification cannot be measured. Most scholars agree that it was not much. Its arguments were too literate, too sophisticated, and too high-flown to make an impression on the many citizens debating the issue in state legislatures, city councils, town meetings, corner groceries, taverns, or among neighbors gathered around a warm kitchen stove in some remote farmhouse.
But The Federalist had a lasting influence. It has become a classic commentary not only on American constitutional law, but on government principles generally, being "equally admirable in the depth of its wisdom, the comprehensiveness of its views, the sagacity of its reflections, and the fearlessness, patriotism, candor, simplicity, and eloquence with which its truths are uttered and recommended." This quotation comes from a Federalist. On a basis of different bias, the great American historian, Charles A. Beard, thought The Federalist to be the "finest study in the economic interpretation of politics which exists in any language."
When it appeared, The Federalist was not alone in the field. There were many other pamphlets and other publications supporting the Federalist cause. There were quite as many publications supporting anti-Federalist views. Perhaps the most representative and influential of these appeared in Letters of the Federal Farmer, written by Richard Henry Lee, a venerable patriot, who had offered the resolution that led to the Declaration of Independence.
Lee objected to the proposed constitution on the ground that, in principle, it was not federalist at all, but "calculated ultimately to make the states one consolidated government." It would erase all state rights, and it said nothing about civil rights: the rights of individual citizens to freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and such things. Lee's views were shared by other patriots of 1776: Patrick Henry, George Mason, Sam Adams, Thomas Jefferson, among many more. Other Anti-Federalist papers and pronouncements, some rather violent in tone, poured from the presses. It was a tense time, with debate raging everywhere.
Such was the stage, rather crowded and noisy, on which The Federalist appeared, eager for response from a large miscellaneous audience, north and south, east and west.