The Federalist Papers 11

So in Philadelphia he had failed in his efforts to secure private rights within the states by placing them under the direct guardian¬ship of the federal government. But that bitter experience had gready sharpened his understanding of the general problem of minority rights, and he applied that understanding at the national level in Federalist No. 10 with a brilliance that would enlighten consti¬tutional thought ever after. In that resonant essay, so much more insightful than Hamilton’s Federalist No. 9, which dealt with similar problems, he explained, as no one else had done, how the extended nation’s complex web of tensions would prevent a “common interest or passion” from creating “a majority … in an unjust pursuit” that would deprive individuals of their rights. Others had approached that insight, had written of the moderating effect of diversity, but had not grasped its importance, uncovered its inner logic, or explained its implications as Madison did. And the heart of his understanding lay in his instinctive sense of the balancing equilib¬rium created by the interaction of contending forces.
Tension, balance, adversarial clashes leading to conciliating mod¬eration lay at the core of the Federalist writers’ thought—but they knew that a mechanically tense, self-balancing system did not acti¬vate or maintain itself. Its success would depend in the end on the character of the people who managed it and who allowed themselves to be ruled by it—their reasonableness, their common sense, their capacity to rise above partisan passions to act for the common good and remain faithful to constitutional limits. The Federalist authors shared the common belief that most people everywhere, in their deepest nature, are selfish and corruptible and that the desire for domination is so overwhelming that no one should be trusted with unqualified authority, but they were confident that under the Consti¬tution’s checks and balances power would not be unconfined, and for such a self-limiting system there would be virtue enough in the American people for success. “As there is a degree of depravity in mankind,” Madison wrote, “which requires a certain degree of cir¬cumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence.” But it was Hamilton, in one of the last of the Federalist papers, who made the point most succinctly: “The supposition of universal venal¬ity in human nature,” he wrote, “is little less an error in political rea¬soning than the supposition of universal rectitude. The institution of delegated power implies that there is a portion of virtue and honor among mankind, which may be a reasonable foundation of confi¬dence. And experience justifies the theory.”
Goodwill and a degree of impartiality would always be needed. If every compromise is taken as a defeat that must be overturned, and if no healing generosity is ever shown to defeated rivals, the best- contrived constitution in the world would not succeed. Properly understood and faithfully adhered to, the Constitution, the Federalist writers explained, despite its possible imperfections, was a sensitive instrument for balancing power and liberty. And it is the detail, clarity, and fullness of their explanation of the Constitution’s structure and the principles that underlay it, and their perceptiveness and shrewd¬ness in analyzing the general problems of power and its dangers in human society, that has made The Federalist an enduring document.
For all its distance from us in time and culture, for all the changes that have overtaken the world since 1788, the Federalist papers remain relevant, and acutely relevant, because they address masterfully our permanent concerns with political power—under our Constitution and in general. The Federalist writers knew that a structure of power must exist in any stable, civilized society, but they knew too that power uncontrolled will certainly be abused. They had vividly in mind the principles of political freedom that had been formulated in the decade of pounding ideological debate before 1776 and that had been discussed again in the writing of the state constitutions in the years that followed. Defending the establishment of sufficient national power to sustain a stable and effective society, they sought to preserve the maximum range of personal rights consistent with it. In this fundamental concern for the balance of power and liberty— which had been the central theme of America’s earlier struggle with Britain—the Federalist writers, conservators of what were then radical political principles, are our contemporaries. Their constitutional idiom is ours; their political problems at the deepest level are ours; and we share their cautious optimism that personal freedom and national power—the preservation of private rights and the mainte¬nance of public safety—can be compatible. But maintaining that balance is still a struggle, in times of danger or disillusion a bitter struggle; and so we continue to look back to what these extraordinar¬ily thoughtful men wrote so hurriedly under such intense pressure two centuries ago. The Federalist papers—not a theoretical treatise on political philosophy but a practical commentary on the uses and mis¬uses of power—still speak to us directly.

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