Posted by: George | May 11, 2017

Lessons from The Federalist Papers, No. 14

Had no important step been taken by the leaders of the Revolution for which a precedent could not be discovered, no government established of which an exact model did not present itself, the people of the United States might have been numbered among the melancholy victims of misguided councils, must at best have been laboring under the weight of some of those forms which have crushed the liberties of the rest of mankind. Happily for America, happily, we trust for the whole human race, they pursued a new and more noble course.

James Madison, No. 14

Reading the Federalist Papers is like sitting around with old friends chatting about old times. The old friends jar our memory. The Federalist Papers bring our history, our origins, our values, and our uniqueness, back to us, putting current events into a new perspective.

We can easily forget that our government was an experiment. While a democracy once existed in Athens and a republic once existed in Rome, these governments could not serve as precise models for what was emerging in the United States in 1787. In Federalist 14, Madison calls the proposed government “an extended republic.” It is not a democracy like that of Athens, where all citizens actively participated in every major political decision. It is not a republic like Rome, where representatives were elected from a city to rule an empire. In the proposed government, citizens would elect representatives from a country that was lready expansive, much of it frontier.

In Federalist 14, Madison asks us to have hope in our experiment “for the whole human race.” He asks that his fellow citizens guard against cynicism: “No, my countrymen, shut your ears against this unhallowed language, Shut your hearts against the poison which it conveys; the kindred blood which flows in the veins of American citizens, the mingled th_002blood, which they have shed in defense of their sacred rights, consecrate their Union, and excite horror at the idea of their becoming aliens, rivals, enemies.”

In 1787, Madison was asking Americans, who identified more with their states than with a weak central government, to have faith in a new form of government and to remain American citizens, unified as they had been during the Revolution. Don’t let, he says, a small faction split apart and divert us from our common purpose.

Now, we have an approved constitution. We also have traditions that support the principles of separation of powers. Some of these traditions, once broadly enumerated in the constitution, relate to how agencies operate, even agencies that emerged centuries later, like the FBI.

The FBI is, of course, not mentioned in the constitution, but the need for it to operate independently is a long-standing tradition, one that evolved from the doctrine of separation of powers.

Our republic is still an experiment. It can still fail. It still needs the protection and faith of the American people.

We should remain optimistic. The constitution was eventually ratified. We have survived constitutional crises.

But we need to place our optimism in the right place. The constitution cannot defend itself. Traditions do not exist apart from what Hegel called Objective Spirit, what we might call our evolving understanding of how we should ethically relate to others. We must place our optimism in the collective action of the American people to protect our constitution, our traditions, and ultimately our democracy.

Consult for background and texts relating to The Federalist Papers.

I also invite your to read Homo Academicus, my serial novel, which is being published at


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