I’ve been reading the Federalist papers and while I certainly agree that they are an intellectual treasure and a great achievement of the American generation of the Revolutionary period, I often find the arguments weak. Hamilton in particular is prone to argument from incredulity (“nobody could possibly believe that…”) and a special brand of argumentum ad populum (“any intelligent person could see that…”). Now obviously there’s considerable risk in establishing a Constitution more or less from scratch, and despite the best efforts of the founders to find precedents they had to make important choices about the structure of the government without being able to predict the eventual consequences. As Machiavelli put it, there is nothing more difficult to plan than the creation of a new system. In their pamphlets, Hamilton et alia were just trying to pummel their opponents into submission with repeated assertions that their system was as good as it could get – as anyone could plainly see.
One of the most important trains of argument in the Federalist papers relates to separation of powers and checks and balances. These are foundational principles of government going back to the classical ancients whom the founders admired so much, as articulated by the influential Enlightenment era philosophe Montesquieu. One such check, of course, is the legislature’s power of impeachment – hugely important for restraining the much feared threat of a tyrannical executive. As ancient Republican Rome had rejected Kings, so would the new American Republic.
The other great fear expressed in the Federalist papers is that of faction – the natural tendency of men to form groups based on mutual interest and then, in Hamilton’s phrase, use “cabal and intrigue” to manipulate the system in their favor. Vesting the power of choosing representation in the people would – as anyone could plainly see – prevent such factions from working against the interests of the public, at least for very long.
So you can imagine that reading the Federalist in these times has been painful, as I’ve watched the chief executive abuse his powers, enabled by partisanship within a party that has lost its integrity, but nonetheless has popular support despite its many policies that work against the people. A chief executive who is, apparently, untouchable. Hamilton, I imagine, would be flabbergasted. No one could possibly believe that the legislature would tolerate a charlatan in the highest executive office who intrigues with foreign powers, he might have written. Yet here we are.
Or have been, I add, hopefully. With the House finally opening an impeachment inquiry into the President, I can see that there’s still life left in this old Constitution of ours. The fact that the Senate voted unanimously for the release of the whisteblower complaint means that Congress has at least a little integrity left. So maybe, just maybe, we have entered a new chapter in the saga of our ongoing Constitutional crisis – a turning point which will decide if We the People still retain our sovereignty.