October 27, 2011

The art of the possible

New Yorkers woke up on this date in 1787 to find the first installment of an exciting new series in the twice-weekly Independent Journal, an essay that came to be called Federalist Paper No. 1.

Seriously, was everyone reading the Federalist papers as they appeared?  I doubt it – you’d have to care a lot to tackle that text.  Maybe a few political wonks did, and shared their opinions in the taverns in the Battery or maybe – as is the case now – people already knew how they felt about having a constitution and very few minds were changed before New Yorkers met to ratify the document.

The real fun of the Federalist essays was trying to figure out who wrote them – they had the pen name ‘Publius’ attached – and what kind of reaction the anti-Federalists might manifest.

Then as now, politicians were addicted to arguing with each other in public.  We like to think of the Founding Fathers as a bunch of wise men sitting around the campfire mulling the best way to provide for the public good, but they were just politicians really, and every bit as snide, back-stabbing and double-talking as now.

Fifteen years after the Federalist papers began appearing, it was revealed that James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay were the authors of the papers, although Madison had been a sworn enemy of the other two on various issues in the past and would be again in the future.  Hamilton and Jay, for instance, strongly urged the formation of a national bank, an idea that Madison just as strongly opposed – until he was president, then he was for it.

James Madison by John Vanderlyn

Madison, in fact, was a major flip-flopper.  He was strongly opposed to a Bill of Rights, until he yielded to anti-Federalist pressure to include a specific list of rights and speed the ratification process. (I’ll confess here that I always thought Thomas Jefferson wrote the Bill, but then I always figure he wrote everything important.)

In short, our smallest, slightest president (five-four and a hundred pounds) was a political heavyweight precisely because he had no fear of compromise, deal-making or just plain changing his mind.

The real power of the Federalist Papers, of course, has been to historians and to interpreters of the Constitution down through history.  They are the go-to source for Supreme Court Justices as well as legislators from time to time – the irony is, the last person who would have let himself be chained to a predecessor’s opinion would have been James Madison.



  1. Well said. Held my interest and governmentis not exactly my strong suit. Gonna get me a bio of Madison.


    Comment by Carol — October 27, 2011 @ 12:49 pm | Reply

  2. You should be the only one to tell American historical stories! It just flows along full of humour, wit and incredible details.Madison was 5’4…and 100 lbs??!!
    A real pleasure to read,and learn so much.


    Comment by GALYA TARMU — October 27, 2011 @ 9:01 pm | Reply

  3. Of course now days he would have been called mimi madison thank you Jean


    Comment by avery — October 31, 2011 @ 7:06 am | Reply

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