Monday, February 15, 2010

Presidents Day, and the Federalist Papers

Aware that I would be without internet access during my stay in the southern highlands of Tanzania, I took with me the book that I have always wanted to read but kept postponing—The Federalist Papers.

The Federalist Papers is a collection of essays that analyze, defend and, in a way, sell, the American Constitution.  The essays were intended to be along those lines because the principal author, Alexander Hamilton, was deeply worried that the Constitution might not get the backing of enough votes, which would have then brought the revolutionary democratic experiment to a premature end. 

So, in fall1787, soon after the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Hamilton, with considerable contributions from James Madison and John Jay, authored a series of essays advocating the ratification of the Constitution.  Looking at it from 2010, when we continue to operate with that original constitution and with only 27 amendments to it over the more than 200 years since, it does sound strange that Hamilton was so concerned.  But, I suppose this is yet another evidence of the thorough job the founders did and left no stone unturned.

Perhaps it was meant to be that I delayed reading this classic treatise all these years until I was in Tanzania.  For one, it meant reading it under conditions that were not far removed from Hamilton’s times.  After sunset, electricity was available at the Tanzanian village only through a local generator, and that too for a restricted three hours between 7 until 10.  Therefore, most of the reading that I did was while sitting up inside a mosquito net and with a LED headlamp on—instead of candles or oil lamps that Hamilton might have used after sundown.

From a political perspective, of course, Tanzania has been one of the fortunate countries in Africa with a relatively high degree of stability.  In contrast, half the sub-Saharan African countries are authoritarian regimes, according to The Economist magazine’s report on democracy, which classifies countries into full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes, and authoritarian regimes.  Thus, reading this classic while in Africa, in a continent where democratic governance cannot be taken for granted even in the year 2010, was quite a reminder of how much the 18th century thinking of the framers of the Constitution continues to be way ahead of a great part of the contemporary world. 

Yet, as much as they were blazing a new political trail, the authors of the Federalist Papers were no dreamy idealists.  For instance, Madison notes that “if men were angels, no government would be necessary.” He then masterfully reminds us that government is a reflection of human nature, which then logically underscores the need and structure for checks and balances. Unchecked governments, which seem to be in plenty around the world, certainly do prove that they are no angels.

Lest anybody mistakenly conclude that the Constitution is the perfect model without blemishes and where no ideal was compromised, Hamilton observes in the final—85th—Federalist paper, “I never expect to see a perfect work from imperfect man.”  Yes, we need this reminder in the 21st century America, too, as we continue to renegotiate the social contracts at the federal and state levels in order to correct the old imperfections and to mitigate the new ones we introduce.

The fact that the cogent arguments that are offered in the Federalist Papers are as applicable now as they were back in the 18th century is more than a testament to the clear vision of the founders and their belief in the virtues of democracy.  I now have that much more of an appreciation of my good fortune in having spent all my life in democratic societies, one-half in America and the other, earlier, half in India. 

Finally, reading the Federalist Papers was highly encouraging for a personal reason—these were published as a series of essays in the newspapers in New York.  In other words, discussing policy issues with fellow citizens through the pages of the newspapers is an American tradition that pre-dates even Washington’s presidency.

Which is why I now have a simple explanation for writing opinion columns—it is an absolutely American thing to do!  Thank you, Alexander Hamilton.

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