The Federalist Papers and the Constitutional Debate

The Federalist Papers and the Constitutional Debate

What is truly crazy is that the modern law student can go through all of law school without being taught the Constitution as it was originally understood. “Con-Law” courses in law school these days are mostly inch deep surveys of current Supreme Court jurisprudence on the Bill of Rights, the Civil War amendments, and congressional power. Oh, with a dollop of dormant commerce clause thrown in because someone in charge of Bar Admissions has a fetish for it.

Students have to seek out originalist works. Or luck upon them as I did. Fortunately I took an elective on Federal Courts. For my seminar paper in the class I chose an obscure constitutional provision, The Guarantee Clause, as my topic. There has been so little case law on the clause that I had to dive into the ratification debates and early republic case law to understand its meaning. That was the first time I fully immersed myself in the Federalist Papers. I had encountered them before in undergrad, but never read them cover to cover.

The Federalist papers were a collection of essays authored by founding fathers Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, with the intent of swaying public opinion in favor of ratification of the Constitution. As such, they represent one of the primary sources for the original intent of the Constitution’s authors. Collectively they give the modern reader, whether a student of the law or just an observer of politics, an unmatched understanding of “our scheme of ordered liberty.”

To get the complete scope of the debate I also recommend the Anti-Federalist papers. The Anti-federalists were led by George Clinton, George Mason, and Patrick Henry, among others. They regarded the constitutional project to strengthen the national government as a vanity exercise that mostly benefited aristocratic interests. A particularly poignant quote concedes that while a stronger national government would make the United States a more impactful force on the world stage, “the silence of historians is the surest sign of the happiness of a people.”

Reading these essays contributed to my journey toward conservatism. They help ground me in the belief that what we are conserving are the ideals of the founding generation, and the preservation of a delicate distribution of political power that has preserved our liberty and freedom for more than 200 years. But whether your liberal or conservative or completely non-political I think you’ll enjoy the front row seat that reading these essays gives you to one of the most thoughtful and consequential political debates in history. Enjoy!