Jay and the Federalist

Here, roughly, is what I will say today if time permits about John Jay and the Federalist.

The Constitution, when it was published by the Philadelphia Convention in September 1787, was just a proposal.  It would only take effect once it was ratified by conventions in nine of the thirteen states.  Those who favored ratification termed themeselves the  Federalists, so those who opposed ratification became known as the Antifederalists.  Why did they oppose the Constitution?  How could they oppose something that we see as so eminently sensible?  They were concerned about excessive power in the federal government.  Concerned that the president would become a King.  Concerned about their liberties:  freedom of speech, freedom of religion.  What would prevent the federal government, for example, from prohibiting Catholics from serving in Congress–the way they were at that time excluded from service in the British parliament?

How did the Antifederalists oppose the Constitution?  Through the equivalent of political advertisements:  they wrote essays in the newspapers.  How did the Federalists support the Constitution?  Ditto:  essays in newspapers.

Alexander Hamilton writes the first of essay in the Federalist series, it appears in the newspapers in October 1787.  Jay writes numbers two through five, a masterly exposition of why the United States are better off as one nation rather than as several nations.  Here is a long quote from number two:

“It has often given me pleasure to observe that independent America was not composed of detached and distant territories, but that one connected, fertile, widespreading country was the portion of our western sons of liberty. Providence has in a particular manner blessed it with a variety of soils and productions, and watered it with innumerable streams, for the delight and accommodation of its inhabitants. A succession of navigable waters forms a kind of chain round its borders, as if to bind it together; while the most noble rivers in the world, running at convenient distances, present them with highways for the easy communication of friendly aids, and the mutual transportation and exchange of their various commodities.

With equal pleasure I have as often taken notice that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people–a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence.

This country and this people seem to have been made for each other, and it appears as if it was the design of Providence, that an inheritance so proper and convenient for a band of brethren, united to each other by the strongest ties, should never be split into a number of unsocial, jealous, and alien sovereignties.”

Then, after writing and publishing essay number five, Jay more or less stops writing:  he only writes one more, number 64.  Jay contributes less than ten percent of the words in this vast writing project; he leaves almost all the work to his friends Hamilton and Madison.

Why?  The usual explanation is that he fell ill.  When I researched, I found that that was a partial explanation; he did indeed fall very ill.  But by February 1788 Jay was well enough to resume almost all his work as secretary for foreign affairs; why didn’t he resume his share of the writing of the Federalist?  It seems more likely that he realized at that time that Hamilton and Madison had the Federalist project well in hand, and decided to focus his efforts on a different kind of essay, the Address to the People of the State of New York, which appeared as a pamphlet in April 1788.

The Federalist essays are  important and interesting:  imagine writing an essay in a day or two and having it still read two hundred years later.  But Jay’s real contribution to ratification came at Poughkeepsie, at the convention, when he secures the last few votes necessary to get New York from “no” to “yes.”  A real turning point in American history:  imagine what would have happened if New York had rejected the Constitution?  A nation without New York?  Civil war in New York between those in favor and those against?  It is long complex story; if you are interested, read the book.  The Jay book is now available in electronic format.