Federalist 85 The Closing Argument

In this, Federalist 85, the last of the Federalist Papers, Hamilton addresses two final arguments; the comparability of the proposed constitution to that of New York State (his primary audience), as well as the increase in security to each citizen of the new Republic that would come with its adoption. In comparing the draft document to the Constitution of the State of New York, Hamilton points out that the key objections have been “the re-eligibility of the Executive, the want of a council, the omission of a formal bill of rights, the omission of a provision respecting the liberty of the press.”[1]

Hamilton had addressed each of these “pretended defects” in earlier papers so I will summarize them here. The re-election of the President was designed to incent top performance. Having a ruling council was felt to dilute accountability in the chief executive. Hamilton and the rest of the Founders saw the entire Constitution as preserving the rights of individuals and States over the Federal government (please see last week’s article on Federalist 84 for more detail) rather than being a blueprint for an invasive Federal system. This last point clearly addresses the freedom of the press issue, because Hamilton points out that there was no provision for the Federal government to restrict the press outlined in the document. Since the authority of the Federal government extended only to those powers specifically enumerated, listing it separately was unnecessary.

Having dispatched the primary objections to ratification, Hamilton points to the affirmative reasons for ratification. It is the security a Constitutional Republic provides to “liberty and to property” that is the chief attraction of this proposal. It is important to note here that the founders saw these two as of primary importance. Liberty implies both personal liberty as well as security in one’s property. Through the greatest part of history to this point, the way that people and governments acquired property and wealth was by taking it by force or excessive taxation. That a man who was not nobility should be in possession of the fruits of his labor was not an historically accepted concept.

I can do no better than to quote Hamilton at length here. The greatest benefits of the proposed constitution lie in:

“(R)estraints which the preservation of the Union will impose on local factions … and on the ambition of powerful individuals in single States…from leaders and favorites, to become the despots of the people; in the diminution of the opportunities to foreign intrigue… in the prevention of extensive military establishmen … in the precautions against the repetition of those practices on the part of the State governments which have undermined the foundations of property and credit…”

It is worthwhile to read and consider that list again. These are the things that our Founders feared would most destroy our nation. Yes, they feared invasion from stronger countries, but their greater fear was tyranny from within. They feared these things because their study of history had shown them example after example where these tendencies destroyed the freedom of people. They feared them because they knew from their reading of the Hebrew Old Testament, Plato and Aristotle, from their study of the Romans, and from their observations of their European cousins, that man’s nature was immutable.

The Constitution was specifically designed to prevent these same tyrannical tendencies from gaining a foothold in this new infant nation. This battle was so important to the Founders that Hamilton asks for forgiveness from his occasional “intemperances of expression” that were caused by emotion. We all say things in the heat of battle that might be phrased better. The stakes are so high here that some exuberance is to be expected.

But now it is up to the people. To each voter he says “Let him beware of an obstinate adherence to party; let him reflect that the object upon which he is to decide is not a particular interest of the community, but the very existence of the nation”. This is what is at stake in this most important of votes. To those who objected, then as now, that the document is imperfect, Hamilton points out that it “is the best that the present views and circumstances of the country will permit”.

After all, in a nod to our Hebrew teachings, how could anyone expect “perfect work from imperfect man”. Each of the thirteen states had individual concerns, individual needs, individual populations, individual forms of commerce. From this it is clear that the result “must as necessarily be a compromise”. It is possible to amend this governing document in the future, a process that was designed to be difficult, and not undertaken lightly, but adopting this constitution would require approval of each of the thirteen states. It would be impossible to satisfy everyone. The time for deciding was at hand.

Says Hamilton in closing “The establishment of a Constitution, in time of profound peace, by the voluntary consent of a whole people, is a prodigy.

Yes, indeed it was.

Yes, indeed it is.

  1. All quotes are from https://guides.loc.gov/federalist-papers/text-81-85

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1 thought on “Federalist 85 The Closing Argument”

  1. The limitation of power of individuals or separate States as well as the central government, was crucial to the Founders. The prevention of despots from outside, but also from within was key. Perhaps, Pedo Joe and his minions could learn something, but it would require them to be able to read and comprehend, so I am not hopeful. He is correct, however, democracy is at stake, just not from the source he implies. Pedo Joe is the real risk to democracy.

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