Posted by: George | July 1, 2017

Lessons from The Federalist Papers, No. 16


It is in vain to hope to guard against events too mighty for human foresight or precaution, and it would be idle to object to a government because it could not perform impossibilities.

Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 16

The Federalist Papers were written quickly. After John Jay ceased to contribute due to health problems, Hamilton and Madison were writing one or two essays a week, usually without reading what the other had written. Themes are repeated, sometimes intentionally for emphasis and sometimes as a result of haste.


One of the recurrent themes among the Federalists Papers—the central theme of No. 16—is a concern that, without a strong central government and a standing army, states will refuse to follow federal laws or bicker with each. Perhaps, a full civil war might emerge. The Anti-Federalists were just as concerned that the central government might dominate the states. And with centralized power, a tyrant might come to power.

In the Hamilton quote above, he admits that events might emerge that the framers of our constitution could not foresee. Even with a strong constitution, Hamilton is saying here, challenges to the government will occur, even if we cannot predict how or when.

Nonetheless, the framers gave us checks and balances. This structure could not ensure the survival of the nation, but it would improve it chances. In Federalist No. 16, Hamilton writes about the importance of a constitution “competent in its own defense,” courts that could declare laws “contrary to the supreme law of the land, unconstitutional, and void,” and “a people enlightened enough to distinguish between a legal exercise and an illegal usurpation of authority.” The people, he says, are “the natural guardians of the Constitution.” So, too, is the press. During Watergate, the press and the people saw us through our most significant constitutional crisis. The press and the people are much needed now, and the very survival of the press as we know it is uncertain.

While the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech and the press, there is no guarantee the “guarantee” will survive. The people, “the natural guardians of the Constitution,” must protect this right.

It is not overly dramatic to say that the press is now under attack, and Hamilton would not have been able to predict how this assault would materialize in the twenty-first century. The Netflix documentary Nobody Speak (2017) reports on the efforts of billionaires, acting like petty dictators in third-world countries, to buy newspapers and control their reporting. The White House has banned television cameras at press briefings. President Trump is using Twitter to label mainstream news media Fake News and, most recently, to launch venom at Mika Brzezinski, cohost of Morning Joe. This is not democracy.

But how can we support the press? Even though it may be painful to keep up with the news these days, we must pay attention to good news sources—that is, keep our subscriptions to newspapers and magazines, watch good news shows and give them shout outs on social media, go to news websites and support them with our hits and clicks.

We can also give them support reporters by understanding the stress and pressure they are experiencing. I am speaking about more than the pressure of trying to learn how to function in a world of fake news, some of which is generated by the White House. I am also speaking of the frustration reporters feel trying to explain how far the behavior of our president is beyond even normal political corruption. Richard Nixon, his re-election campaign, and his administration might have been undermining democracy behind the scenes, even compiling enemy lists, but Nixon understood that he had to mimic respect for his office in public. Our current president doesn’t even understand that.

As we try to figure out how to act in an era of alternative history, we need good reporting more than ever. It is important that we support journalists that are doing the difficult and tedious work of reporting and speaking, in the midst of chaos, with a calm and strong voice. They are easy to identify. They are the ones that President Trump is attacking.

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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