Today, I begin the first of a two part series on the Federalist Papers authored by Publius in 1787, I mean Alexander Hamilton, I mean James Madison. You get my drift. This first piece is a look at the Federalist Papers 1-43, from a Christian theologian’s perspective.
Before I begin, let me say a word about the Founders. The problem today with the political discourse of the Tea Party and their progressive opponents is that while many like to cite the authority of “The Founders,” very few of these persons have actually read them. How would I know this? As you shall see in this post, my hypothesis is this: the talking heads for Tea Partydom prefer to read Thomas Jefferson as their primary founder, and thus, they have a problem explaining what was “The Founders'” vision for African Americans with their dedication to states rights (as ambiguous as that term is). On the other hand, there are some, not all, progressives, who simply dismiss the ideas of “The Founders” all together since citizens were discriminated against on the basis of race and sex in terms of voting and political rights. I reject both of these approaches. In fact, I must admit that James Madison and especially Alexander Hamilton were of the utmost creative political geniuses of their time, of which they have never received credit because of our obsession with Jacksonian/Jeffersonian democracy. As a Christian, however, I am ever aware because of our human limitations, that there are biases obviously in the Federalist political philosophy.
First, what we must recognize is that Madison wanted to make a distinction between federal and national governing; today, unfortunately, these concepts are conflated. It is this strict division that we must begin. The case against the Articles of Confederacy, like all human texts, relies on a story, and for the Federalist Papers, it is the stories of the failed confederacies throughout history. In Federalist Papers 18-20, Madison with the help of Hamilton, lists from Macedonia to Germany to the Netherlands the problems that all confederacies suffer– because confederacies are loosely affiliated city-states who only unite in times of emergency, they are apt to either fall the way of dividing further or becoming united under a tyrannical figure, or interest group.
So, what Madison and Hamilton envisioned was a federation of city-states– a federal democratic-republic to be precise–where the federal government would be a decentralized (very key difference) nation-wide government but with limited yet superior general rule. It was the job of the federal government to protect individuals (that’s why we need the Bill of Rights) from the unlimited power of the states. The states, as Madison says again and again, could tax the people as much as they like without any restraint; however, it is implied that because the states are the people, they would not be very likely to put too much burden on themselves, otherwise, the politicians would be out of power. Hence, economics and politics are tied together from the beginning.
In Federalist Paper 36, Hamilton displays his displeasure with poll taxes as implemented by some of the states, because he is all too keenly aware it prevents citizenry from participation. Of course, poll taxes were what kept African Americans from voting; the other day in Forbes magazine, one writer suggested bringing back the poll tax and literacy tests. Of course, for Hamilton, when the national interest from the federal government protects the poor, it was a good thing:
“Happy it is when the interest which the government has int the preservation of its own power, coincides with a proper distribution of the public burthens, and tends to guard the least wealthy part of the community from oppression!” (FP 36).
Alexander Hamilton, in context, is discussing the federal government’s authority to levy duties and as well as regulate interstate commerce so that monopolies within states as well as conflicts between states do not emerge. Limiting the government by way of limiting terms of public officers also seemed to be part of the vision of the Founders; in fact, it was a theological vision, grounded in a Christian notion of divine accomodation–God limiting Godself to human language to relate to us. James Madison in FP37, “When the Almighty himself condescends to address mankind in their own language, his meaning, as luminous as it must be, is rendered dim and doubtful, by the cloudy medium through which it is communicated.” In other words, just as we see through the glass darkly, so too is the complexity of a federal government, limiting itself to protect the rights of individuals, as well as limiting those factions which seek to dominate the republic.
They say that hindsight is 20/20. However, blindspots are 20/80, and one of the major blindspots in the Federalist political vision is the optimism in which they had for expanding West. While not desiring a imperial regime, they left room for the devil with a standing army and an uncertain approach to the Native Americans. In fact, while Madison, in FP42, argues against the slave trade, at least the importation of Africans to American shores, it is the regulation of commerce between the Indian tribes, limited by the Articles of Confederation, which now are unrestricted for the federal government to handle. The Indians “can be regulated by an external authority.” The approach to the Indian tribes, because of Madison’s zeal for expanding West, even Canada, began the double standard by which we pre-determined Manifest Destiny in our National Mind, while treating other foreign nations as sovereign.
The image I have of a federalism is one that is inspired by the cancelled Starz television show Camelot (2001). In one episode, newly enthroned King Arthur travels to a town on the margins to protect the oppressed from a tyrannical local government. I would include Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt as well as Franklin Delano Roosevelt in this Federalist tradition. I do not know whether or not Hamilton/Madison have a 100% correct interpretation of the stories of ancient Greece or the Germanic city-states of that time, but what I do know is that Germany and the United States both experienced a “fall” of sorts when the leaders made their pushes toward the nation-state which spill over into empire. I doubt neither Madison nor John Jay nor Hamilton could imagine the faction we call corporations having their interests prevail. Is repealing the 14th and 17th Amendments the way to go, as some Liberty advocates assume? I doubt it. The problem theologically with the Federalist Papers is that “Publius” assumes that men could be morally neutral in their decision making.
Judaism and Christianity do not in the least bit deal with abstract notions of objectivity–though they do advocate in the form of the Golden Rule an objective principle to judge human laws by. It is this denial of subjectivity that permits Madison to overlook the freedom and truths that the First Nations peoples could have shared with us; instead, the Federalists saw the Western parts of North America and therefore the people who inhabited, as things to be dealt with, in the name of a profit for the national treasury to pay down its debts. In some ways, the current calls for entitlement reform (without a critical and serious look at our Defense budget) ring a similar tone, balancing the budget on the backs of poor people. Democratic-republican empire for a post-colonial age.