Beyond Factionalism/Virtue and Honor
Tension, balance, adversarial clashes leading to conciliating moderation lay at the core of the Federalist Federalist writers’ thought—but they knew that a mechanically tense, self-balancing system did not activate or maintain itself. Its success would depend in the end on the character of the people who managed it and who allowed themselves to be ruled by it—their reasonableness, their common sense, their capacity to rise above partisan passions to act for the common good and remain faithful to constitutional limits. The Federalist authors shared the common belief that most people everywhere, in their deepest nature, are selfish and corruptible and that the desire for domination is so overwhelming that no one should be trusted with unqualified authority, but they were confident that under the Constitution’s checks and balances power would not be unconfined, and for such a self-limiting system there would be virtue enough in the American people for success. “As there is a degree of depravity in mankind,” Madison wrote, “which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence.” But it was Hamilton, in one of the last of the Federalist papers, who made the point most succinctly: “The supposition of universal venality in human nature,” he wrote, “is little less an error in political reasoning than the supposition of universal rectitude. The institution of delegated power implies that there is a portion of virtue and honor among mankind, which may be a reasonable foundation of confidence. And experience justifies the theory.”
The Uses and Misuses of Power
Defending the establishment of sufficient national power to sustain a stable and effective society, they sought to preserve the maximum range of personal rights consistent with it. In this fundamental concern for the balance of power and liberty— which had been the central theme of America’s earlier struggle with Britain—the Federalist writers, conservators of what were then radical political principles, are our contemporaries. Their constitutional idiom is ours; their political problems at the deepest level are ours; and we share their cautious optimism that personal freedom and national power—the preservation of private rights and the maintenance of public safety—can be compatible. But maintaining that balance is still a struggle, in times of danger or disillusion a bitter struggle; and so we continue to look back to what these extraordinarily thoughtful men wrote so hurriedly under such intense pressure two centuries ago. The Federalist papers—not a theoretical treatise on political philosophy but a practical commentary on the uses and misuses of power—still speak to us directly.
Use of Federalist Papers in Supreme Court
Overall, for the Supreme Court justices The Federalist has never been a treatise on political theory or a masterwork on political science, but a guide to the disposition of power in specific circumstances, an authority on the constitutional use of force and the constraints on the use of force in the intricate functioning of the federalist system of government in America. As these questions grew in complexity and importance in the late twentieth century, so too did the need for an authentic voice of the founding generation to guide the reasoning of the nation’s final arbiters of the legitimate use of power.