Progress Report: The Federalist Papers

December 4, 2018 • #

I’m making my way through The Federalist, which has been on my reading list forever, and for which I had my interest rekindled last year reading Alexander Hamilton.

For those that don’t know, it’s a collection of essays written by the trio of Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay to convince the populace of the need to ratify the then-draft US Constitution.

Up to Federalist No. 25, the focus is on a) the utility and importance of the “union of states” as a concept worth pursuing and cementing and b) the insufficiency of the Articles of Confederation to do the job of maximizing the combined strength of the states (for various reasons outlined in the essays).

One of the biggest takeaways so far, somewhat unexpected to me, is the depth of research done by the authors to make their case. They draw on a rich historical record and present research to identify pros and cons of what’s been tried in past institutions, what’s worked, and what hasn’t. On the history of the Swiss Confederacy:

The connection among the Swiss cantons scarcely amounts to a confederacy; though it is sometimes cited as an instance of the stability of such institutions. They have no common treasury; no common troops even in war; no common coin; no common judicatory; nor any other common mark of sovereignty. They are kept together by the peculiarity of their topographical position; by their individual weakness and insignificancy; by the fear of powerful neighbors, to one of which they were formerly subject; by the few sources of contention among a people of such simple and homogeneous manners; by their joint interest in their dependent possessions; by the mutual aid they stand in need of, for suppressing insurrections and rebellions, an aid expressly stipulated and often required and afforded; and by the necessity of some regular and permanent provision for accommodating disputes among the cantons.

Looking to historical evidence to validate or reject aspects of governing models helped guide us to the right approach for our new government; the record of trial and error is immensely helpful if you respect and understand the context. The varied governance structures of history allowed the Federalists to make a strong case for centralization (but just the right amount of it). The Founders also sought to maximize freedom of individuals and the states they thought crucial to a stable system.

In Federalist No. 20, Madison even references this fact directly:

I make no apology for having dwelt so long on the contemplation of these federal precedents. Experience is the oracle of truth; and where its responses are unequivocal, they ought to be conclusive and sacred.

“Experience is the oracle of truth.” Model new systems around what has previously worked, make adjustments, and ensure the system is an “anti-fragile” one that responds and gets stronger over time.