The Federalist #3

As I alluded to in a previous post, I have never read The Federalist Papers in full, nor have I studied the founding era on my own, beyond what was assigned to me in various classes throughout my academic career. I am attempting to remedy this by starting with Ron Chernow’s riveting biography of Alexander Hamilton, a book I can’t recommend highly enough. I was actually inspired to read it because I just finished another excellent biography, on Napoleon, which I also give my highest recommendation. I thought it would be good to stick with this turn of the 19th century era, since my head is already in it, and since that helped me overcome the mental hurdle that I sometimes have when a topic or a historical era seems interesting to think about, but I assume it will be dry and boring to read about. I don’t know if that happens to anyone else, but it certainly happens to me. I also just listened to a fascinating lecture by Christopher Hitchens on Thomas Jefferson that I strongly recommend, and it too made the topic seem less dry and more accessible. It’s actually a very interesting era of history, just from a storytelling perspective. And history is all about stories.

I’m at the start of a process of slowly reading all of The Federalist Papers, and I am making notes on them to help my understanding and for future review, and I thought I would share some of them with you. There is no substitute for reading Federalist #1 in terms of an introduction to how the framers viewed the Constitution and the American Experiment, and how we should view it today, so definitely read that one if you have not, or if you don’t remember. It is short, sweet, and rousing.

I would like to start by sharing my notes on Federalist #3: Concerning Dangers From Foreign Force and Influence, by John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the United States. These are just my notes from reading the original text, which I think is an important part of deep and proper understanding of any subject. I know not everyone has the time or inclination to sit with these, so I would like to share my summaries of these texts as food for thought and a bit of an easier or lighter read than the original text itself. I hope you enjoy!


In addition to drafting New York’s state constitution and being a former president of the Continental Congress, John Jay was an experienced diplomat, which is why he was enlisted by Alexander Hamilton to write The Federalist essays on foreign policy. His overarching argument was that a truly United States, a single national polity, would more efficiently, safely, and rationally ensure the diplomacy and international security of the colonies than many independent states or a handful of state confederacies. He believed that a united America will give fewer “just causes for war” to foreign powers than a disunited America, and that one national government will better observe the laws of nations than thirteen separate states, or three or four confederacies. This is almost axiomatic, as one political entity will have fewer flashpoints for contention and dispute, or simple mistakes, than numerous, nominally affiliated entities.

Jay was also concerned with the quality of leadership in the realm of diplomacy, and indeed I am recently thinking that picking the right person is the top priority for the success of any project, endeavor, system, or government. The Napoleon biography makes it clear how his chief failures were mistakes in appointing the wrong people to important positions, usually his family members. I am coming to the opinion that leadership literally makes or breaks any object you undertake, whether it is diplomacy, a departmental project, or a constitution.

Jay argued that a national government will have a larger talent pool to choose from, thereby attracting better leadership, men of more talent, reputation, and other qualifications than you will have in a single state, and therefore tending towards better and wiser decision making. It will be “more wise, sytematical, and judicious than those of individual states, and consequently more satisfactory with respect to other nations,” making it more safe for us.

When it comes to foreign policy, consistency and stability are key. Jay believed that treaties and accords will be more consistent coming from one government than thirteen states or several confederacies, which would have conflicting, inconsistent, and non-accordant relations with other nations. Not only that, but the short-term or immediate prospects of sudden loss or advantage may also sway individual states or confederacies to unwise, unjust, or dangerous decisions that threaten the others. And even when the governing body of a state is wise and just, there may be local circumstances in a state, and/or an overwhelming number of imprudent or bad actors that may cause harm without the state being able to control them, whereas a national government would have the power and inclination to do so. So there will be fewer designed or accidental violations of treaties and the laws of nations under a unified government than under multiple autonomous governments, which “most favors the SAFETY of the people.”

Likewise, when it comes to violations from “from direct and unlawful violence” undertaken by certain parties in a state, a national government is better able to secure against such dangers. Because “such violences are more frequently caused by the passions and interests of a part than of the whole; of one or two states than of the Union.” Interestingly, he cites the context that it had been the states, not the national government, that had up until this time initiated unprovoked Indian wars. “Not a single Indian war has yet been occasioned by aggressions of the present federal government, feeble as it is; but there are several instances of Indian hostilities having been provoked by the improper conduct of individual States.”

He also mentions that there are Spanish and British territories that border some states, but not others, and that quarrels may more quickly and easily arise from those states, again from what you might call “local passions,” and that a national government will be more prudent and deliberative, less susceptible to these.

He further claims that a national government will have more power and be more inclined to settle disputes quickly and amicably. The pride of states, as of men, may be hot in defending their honor, quicker to rise and slower to cool and make peace. A national government will not be influenced by such local pride, again leaning more towards an inclination to peace and settlement.

When it comes to making peace, Jay again believes that a national government is in a far better position to do so than a loose coalition of states or confederacies. He claims that the terms and substantive offerings of peace are “often accepted as satisfactory from a strong united nation,” in a way that they would not be, and would instead be “rejected as unsatisfactory” if offered by a mere state or confederacy.

Finally, he uses the example of King Louis XIV of France being offended by some action on the part of the state of Genoa, and demanding that they send their chief magistrate and four senators, to “ask his pardon and receive his terms,” basically grovel before him. He clearly sees this as a sign of humiliation and submission, as “[t]hey were obliged to submit to it for the sake of peace.” Here he appeals to the national pride of Americans, having just fought the first successful war against a colonizer in history, to not put themselves in a situation as to be humiliated by mere dint of raw power again. His final sentence eloquently evinces and appeals to the national pride of Americans who wish to see their new country strong and unbowed: “Would he on an occasion either have demanded or received the like humiliation from Spain, or Britain, or any other POWERFUL nation?”

This short but powerful paper is a clinic on persuasion and rhetoric, political or otherwise. It is masterfully impressive that he can so succinctly and powerfully encapsulate nearly the entire argument for a united rather than a divided nation for the purposes of foreign policy.

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The Federalist Papers

Recently, I have had the pleasure of reading Ron Chernow’s thrilling biography of Alexander Hamilton. Chernow is an excellent storyteller, and combined with the source material of Alexander Hamilton’s life being so dramatic as to be almost unbelievable, it is an exhilarating read. Of the many fascinating aspects of this book, one that has stood out to me is the truly staggering work ethic and output of Hamilton and other founding fathers. Men like Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison lived lives of constant, daily study and relentless, merciless self-improvement.

One example of this ethic is a tidbit I would phrase as a historical “Did You Know?” piece of trivia: Did you know that Alexander Hamilton wrote The Federalist Papers in his spare time, in between practicing law to support his family? I find this information truly staggering, when you consider the timeless historical feat that the Federalist Papers represent.

This is one of those short bits of information you actually have to step back and think about for a minute to appreciate. As impressive as The Federalist Papers are, as difficult as a philosophical and legal work of this magnitude must be to create, even as a full-time academic or theorist, imagine undertaking such a herculean feat of writing squeezed in between breaks at work, and when you’ve come home in the evening after practicing law all day. You may think you’re fried and need to watch some tv after a long day at the office. Hamilton wrote The Federalist Papers.

And not to besmirch truly great men and historical figures, but it is worth noting the contrast between the working man Hamilton and his writing partner, James Madison. Madison was yet another founding father of Newtonian intellect, who devoted his entire life to ceaseless study and enlightenment. But there is a stark contrast between his life and Hamilton’s, having been born and raised with every advantage and privilege of having his life made smooth and easy for him to be able to devote himself and all his energies to his solitary study. His father was the largest slaveholder in Orange County, Virginia, and owned up to ten thousand acres of land. To quote Chernow, “Until age fifty, [he] lived in economic dependence on his father and even in congress fell back on income from the family plantation.” This does not undermine respect for his work ethic whatsoever (in fact it may enhance it, how many us would work so hard born with such privileges?), but it does highlight how much more freedom men like he and Jefferson had to pursue their energies, interests, and talents, while others like Hamilton had to place their intellectual work in between the mundane toils of daily work.

Which brings me to this: as much as it embarrasses me to admit, I have never read The Federalist Papers in full. I have read the famous ones when assigned to me in school, which I hope most of us have. But as a proponent of full intellectual understanding of a topic and of reading source materials to form my own judgement, as well as a full-hearted believer in the American Experiment, this is a piece of research that I feel is a gap in my knowledge. A gap which I now intend to fill.

Theodore Roosevelt called The Federalist Papers “on the whole the greatest book” dealing with practical politics. They are certainly the foundational theoretical texts of our entire national and constitutional experiment. I am approaching my study of them somewhat in the manner of a bible study. They are just too dense, and of course in somewhat antiquated English, to simply read through like you would a normal history book, or even treatise. In fact, they weren’t even meant to be read that way, as they were written and published in newspapers at a rate of several per week over the course of about eight months. That is the rate they were initially intended to be digested, and I honestly believe that is probably still the best method by which to approach them. So my plan is to read a few of them every week, one at a time, to slowly and deliberately digest and contemplate them. This will be somewhat of a process, which I will approach methodically, and take it slow and easy over the year, contemplating lessons as you would a religious text, which to believers in the Constitution and American greatness, it is. I am also going to be taking notes, to reinforce my learning, and for my own future reference. I began this process last night, and I will be sharing my notes and takeaways from select sections of The Federalist Papers here. I will begin later today.