Posted by: George | December 31, 2016

Lessons from The Federalist Papers, No. 2

    Admit, for so is the fact, that this plan is only recommended, not imposed, yet let it be remembered that it is neither recommended to blind approbation, nor to blind reprobation; but to that sedate and candid consideration which the magnitude and importance of the subject demand, and which it certainly ought to receive.

John Jay, Federalist No. 2

John Jay frames the need for a new constitution by writing about war and peace. From the first conception of an independent American nation, as the Articles of Confederation were drafted, the colonies were at war and the new citizens’ “habitations were in flames.” As we look back, we can easily fail to understand a fundamental part of our history: This first formation of a new nation was an act of imagination. Our forefathers had to imagine that they would win independence, and they had to imagine what kind of new government might bring security and prosperity to a new nation in the new world. They had the principles of the Enlightenment to guide them, but they did not have a history specific to the task. And they were imagining this new reality, which we often take for granted, in a time of war. “It is not to be wondered at,” Jay writes, “that a government instituted in times so inauspicious, should on experiment be found greatly deficient and inadequate to the purpose it was intended to answer.”

The first imagining of a new kind of government, the first experiment, as conceived during war, failed. And so a second act of imaging was needed. Jay writes of the Constitutional Convention of 1787: “In the mild season of peace, with minds unoccupied by other subjects, they passed many months in cool, uninterrupted, and daily consultation; and finally, without having been awed by power, or influenced by any passions except love for their country, they presented and recommended to the people the plan produced by their joint and very unanimous councils.”

Jay’s point is that now, in 1787, in a time of peace and with the knowledge of one failed experiment, the forefathers were able to conceive of a better constitution, a new imagining and a new experiment. This, he says, is an imagining that is more likely to succeed, if ratified.

In No. 2, Jay’s words are also a call to citizenship. When he says that the recommendation of a new constitution is not a recommendation to “blind approbation” or “blind reprobation,” he is asking his fellow citizens to bring “patriotism, virtue and wisdom” to the public debate over whether or not the new constitution should be ratified. He is calling for nothing short of a new kind of citizen. The new experiment, as Whitman later wrote in Democratic Vistas, cannot be realized without a new kind of person. This new person, this new citizen, must be educated and informed. Otherwise, public discourse, though imagined, cannot be realized.

During the 2016 election, I saw this exchange between a Trump supporter and a reporter:

Trump Supporter: Trump is going to build a wall, and he’s going to make them pay for it.

Reporter: Who is going to pay for the wall?

Trump Supporter: China.

You can see a line of thought in this short exchange, if we add a missing step—or misstep—in the logical sequence. (Is “logical” the wrong adjective here? Maybe.) Here’s the full sequence, with the missing link in italics: Trump is going to build a wall. They are going to pay for it. China built the Great Wall of China. Therefore, China must be the country that will pay for the Great Wall of America, which will be capped off with a neon TRUMP. Okay, I added the part about the Trump sign, but you get the idea.

In another interview, a different Trump supporter said he was angry at Obama because he wasn’t in his office during the 9/11 attack. By “office,” he clearly meant the Oval Office. Obama couldn’t be there because 9/11 happened in 2001, and he wasn’t president yet. George W. Bush was president, and Bush wasn’t in the Oval Office, either. He was reading some children’s book about a goat to a second grade class in Florida. I’m sure it was a lovely book about a lovely goat and the little kids were probably lovely, too. I’m also sure that Bush did less damage when he was out of the Oval Office. So, I don’t blame Bush at all—for that.

It is easy to smirk at these grotesquely ill-informed comments by citizens of our country in the twenty-first century, both of whom, I assume, voted on November 8, 2016. So, let us smirk, but just for a moment. Then, let us reflect.

Before the election, I was watching about three hours a day of political news on television and reading additional stories about politics and political issues online. Since the election, I have been watching less than an hour of news a day. If this keeps up, I predict that I will meet these Trump supports at some point. In time, I will be as ill informed. We will become brothers in our country’s experiment in government. Grotesquely so.

I am sure that John Jay would tell me to snap out of it, to buck up and get back in the game. Part of the force of Jay’s frame of war and peace in No. 2 might be lost on a contemporary audience. He was writing in “the mild season of peace” to citizens who lived daily with memories of a brutal war for independence. With even the mention of war, Jay is laying bare these memories. Part of his call for his fellow citizens to be patriotic, virtuous, and wise includes this: People died for your right to be an informed citizen, so do not come to this debate blind.

More have died since. I am going to have to move past the pain and discomfort I feel as I watch the news or even conceive of hearing, over and over, the phrase President Trump.

Consult for background and texts relating to The Federalist Papers.



  1. I’m struck by a passage here in #2 that could be used to support an argument that the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation and that we should strive for a more assimilated culture rather than a multicultural one (emphasis following is mine):

    ” . . .I have as often taken notice that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people–A PEOPLE DESCENDED FROM THE SAME ANCESTRY, SPEAKING THE SAME LANGUAGE, PROFESSING THE SAME RELIGION, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence.

    “This country and this people seem to have been made for each other, and it appears as if it was the design of Providence . . .”

    I think that any arguments for exclusion that might be made using this passage as support can be refuted, and it’s well worth the time to think through why and how one would/should do so. It’s on my to-do list. I look forward to seeing what else in the readings might address the issue.


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