Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Federalist Papers as Source Documents

I don't remember much coverage of The Federalist Papers in my history classes. In fact, I guess I don't remember my history classes much at all. But I'm reading these as possible source documents for my book Documenting America.

For those who don't know or remember what this is, The Federalist Papers were a series of newspaper editorials written by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison, in 1787-1788 for the purpose of convincing the citizens of New York to approve the new constitution that had been proposed by the Constitutional Convention. They felt that New York was the key to getting the constitution approved as the law of the land, but they were concerned that New York would not approve it.

So these three founding fathers agreed to publish editorials/essays in the New York newspapers to convince the electorate to convince their legislature to approve the document. The essays were published under the name of Publius. History tells us, however, that who was writing the editorials was known at the time. Starting with reasons for having a stronger central government than they had under the Articles of Confederation, they moved on to each branch of government, and all the major provisions passed out of the Convention.

In a way these gentlemen failed in the task. New York the constitution in a timely manner. Yet, it still became the Constitution because enough other states ratified it. Eventually New York came through with a late ratification (not as late as little Rhode Island, which didn't ratify it until two years after the other states, and then only through bullying). It turned out that New York was not as critical as everyone thought.

I haven't read all of these yet. I read the first three, then jumped ahead to the chapters on the Judicial Branch, for another project. But what I've read has been outstanding. The case for a stronger central government was clearly made in the first three, IMHO. Government was essential, Publius said, to the securing of rights. Weak government, weak rights. Stronger government with adequate checks, balances, and separation of power, protected rights.

Should I be considering these as source documents for USA history? After all, they have no official standing as government documents. The three men were acting in official capacities in one way or another, but the editorials seem to be more private than public. I have decided that they are source documents. They are perhaps the clearest indication of what was in the Founding Father's minds for our Constitution and the republic that it created. No doubt many of them also wrote letters that would reveal their minds, but these are scattered—and they are no less private than these. I could go through the minutes of the Constitutional Convention, presuming they are somewhere on-line, and I may do that. I have a book that gives the minutes of the ratifying convention for Massachusetts, and hope someday to glean something from that.

For now, The Federalist Papers form the basis of four chapters in volume 1 of Documenting America. I anticipate using a similar number in all subsequent volumes.

No comments: