Posted by: George | January 13, 2017

Lessons from The Federalist Papers, No. 4

     It is too true, however disgraceful it may be to human nature, that nations in general will make war whenever they have a prospect of getting anything by it; nay, absolute monarchs will often make war when their nations are to get nothing by it, but for the purpose and objects merely personal, such as thirst for military virtue, revenge for personal affronts, ambition, or private compacts to aggrandize or support their particular families or partisans.

     John Jay, The Federalist Papers, No. 4


If John Jay had been one of my classmates at Old Dominion University in 1969, he would have been willing, I imagine, to crunch into one of the seats of my mother’s 1966 VW Bug and drive four hours to Washington, DC, for the privilege of marching, with a few hundred thousand hippies, against the war in Vietnam. I have no doubt that I would have asked him to join me. I have no doubt that he would have come along.


Jay clearly didn’t like war, and he believed that a stronger federal government would deter war. Instead of a loose confederacy, whose weakness would “invite” war, the strong federation would “tend to repress and discourage it.”

Now, over two centuries later, most of us tend to agree with the Federalists because, in the end, they won the argument. They wanted the young country to adopt the proposed constitution, and the constitution was adopted. We tend to push the antifederalists aside. Their arguments, their concerns, tend to recede into background as so much historical noise. Most of us, myself included, tend to think that the antifederalists were, well, the opposite  federalists—that is, opposite of the good guys.

Here is what we, as a nation, as a community, have tended to forget: The antifederalists were not anti-American. They contributed deeply to our national identity and values. They wanted a weaker federal government because they were concerned that a strong federal government “tends to establish a despotism, or, what is worse, a tyrannic aristocracy.” A strong, centralized federal government might damage, compromise, or destroy “this only remaining asylum for liberty.” This was the concern Robert Yates of new York expressed in Brutus I, which was published October 18, 1787.

Here is what I believe we, as a culture, should remember—what we, as a community, should embrace as part of who we are as a country: We need to learn from the federalists and the antifederalists because, at this point in history, we need to embrace the values that serve as the foundation of this nation. This includes the aim to avoid unnecessary wars and despotism. This includes finding the proper balance between strength and checks on power.


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