The Federalist was published in 1787–88 as part of the effort to secure ratification of the new Constitution drafted in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787. The target audience was New York’s delegates, who were widely (and correctly) viewed as less than enthusiastic about the document. A no vote from New York threatened to doom the entire project of replacing the Articles of Confederation. But on July 26, 1788, New York’s delegation voted 30–27 in favor of ratification. The Federalist had done its job.
The Federalist was written by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison, under the pen name Publius. From the beginning, Publius emphasized the “inefficacy”—he would later refer to it as the “imbecility”—of the existing political system established by the Articles of Confederation. Fortunately, there was a solution: adoption of the new Constitution, which would unite the 13 former Colonies in a far more consolidated national government.
At the time, this was a controversial proposition. One critic of the new Constitution, writing under the pen name Agrippa, opposed ratification by arguing, “It is impossible for one code of laws to suit Georgia and Massachusetts.” Georgians and residents of Massachusetts were just too dissimilar, he believed. “They must, therefore, legislate for themselves” instead of endorsing a new political system that will ultimately lead to one-size-fits-all national legislation.
Federalist No. 2, one of the few written by Jay, was an attempt to respond to such arguments by claiming that the heterogeneity of the states was greatly exaggerated; far more important, Publius argues, was the homogeneity of the American people. The system of government Publius espoused would work, he argued, because Americans hailed from common backgrounds and held common beliefs.
The ability of the United States to achieve some kind of political unity out of the plurality of groups that inhabit it is very much the subject of debate, and a fevered one, of late, thanks to neo-nativist presidential candidates like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. The questions they are raising about the importance of national character to the success of the American project are, for better or worse, precisely those suggested by Publius. European nations weighing whether to admit Syrian refugees to their countries are struggling with these questions as well.
What follows below is the full text of Federalist No.2, in the left-hand column, and my commentary on Publius’ text on the right. (On mobile devices, the commentary follows below Publius' text.) My commentary is “present-ist,” in that I am far more interested in the contemporary relevance, if any, of Federalist No. 2 than simply placing it in the context of its own time. Whether we should turn to Publius for wise counsel on our present circumstances is certainly debatable; it is clear, however, that he raised questions of enduring significance to our nation.
Federalist No. 2
To the People of the State of New York:
WHEN the people of America reflect that they are now called upon to decide a question, which, in its consequences, must prove one of the most important that ever engaged their attention, the propriety of their taking a very comprehensive, as well as a very serious, view of it, will be evident.
Nothing is more certain than the indispensable necessity of government, and it is equally undeniable, that whenever and however it is instituted, the people must cede to it some of their natural rights in order to vest it with requisite powers. It is well worthy of consideration therefore, whether it would conduce more to the interest of the people of America that they should, to all general purposes, be one nation, under one federal government, or that they should divide themselves into separate confederacies, and give to the head of each the same kind of powers which they are advised to place in one national government.
It has until lately been a received and uncontradicted opinion that the prosperity of the people of America depended on their continuing firmly united, and the wishes, prayers, and efforts of our best and wisest citizens have been constantly directed to that object. But politicians now appear, who insist that this opinion is erroneous, and that instead of looking for safety and happiness in union, we ought to seek it in a division of the States into distinct confederacies or sovereignties. However extraordinary this new doctrine may appear, it nevertheless has its advocates; and certain characters who were much opposed to it formerly, are at present of the number. Whatever may be the arguments or inducements which have wrought this change in the sentiments and declarations of these gentlemen, it certainly would not be wise in the people at large to adopt these new political tenets without being fully convinced that they are founded in truth and sound policy.
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.
Similar sentiments have hitherto prevailed among all orders and denominations of men among us. To all general purposes we have uniformly been one people each individual citizen everywhere enjoying the same national rights, privileges, and protection. As a nation we have made peace and war; as a nation we have vanquished our common enemies; as a nation we have formed alliances, and made treaties, and entered into various compacts and conventions with foreign states.
A strong sense of the value and blessings of union induced the people, at a very early period, to institute a federal government to preserve and perpetuate it. They formed it almost as soon as they had a political existence; nay, at a time when their habitations were in flames, when many of their citizens were bleeding, and when the progress of hostility and desolation left little room for those calm and mature inquiries and reflections which must ever precede the formation of a wise and wellbalanced government for a free people. It is not to be wondered at, that a government instituted in times so inauspicious, should on experiment be found greatly deficient and inadequate to the purpose it was intended to answer.
This intelligent people perceived and regretted these defects. Still continuing no less attached to union than enamored of liberty, they observed the danger which immediately threatened the former and more remotely the latter; and being pursuaded that ample security for both could only be found in a national government more wisely framed, they as with one voice, convened the late convention at Philadelphia, to take that important subject under consideration.
This convention composed of men who possessed the confidence of the people, and many of whom had become highly distinguished by their patriotism, virtue and wisdom, in times which tried the minds and hearts of men, undertook the arduous task. In the mild season of peace, with minds unoccupied by other subjects, they passed many months in cool, uninterrupted, and daily consultation; and finally, without having been awed by power, or influenced by any passions except love for their country, they presented and recommended to the people the plan produced by their joint and very unanimous councils.
Admit, for so is the fact, that this plan is only RECOMMENDED, not imposed, yet let it be remembered that it is neither recommended to BLIND approbation, nor to BLIND reprobation; but to that sedate and candid consideration which the magnitude and importance of the subject demand, and which it certainly ought to receive. But this (as was remarked in the foregoing number of this paper) is more to be wished than expected, that it may be so considered and examined. Experience on a former occasion teaches us not to be too sanguine in such hopes. It is not yet forgotten that well-grounded apprehensions of imminent danger induced the people of America to form the memorable Congress of 1774. That body recommended certain measures to their constituents, and the event proved their wisdom; yet it is fresh in our memories how soon the press began to teem with pamphlets and weekly papers against those very measures. Not only many of the officers of government, who obeyed the dictates of personal interest, but others, from a mistaken estimate of consequences, or the undue influence of former attachments, or whose ambition aimed at objects which did not correspond with the public good, were indefatigable in their efforts to pursuade the people to reject the advice of that patriotic Congress. Many, indeed, were deceived and deluded, but the great majority of the people reasoned and decided judiciously; and happy they are in reflecting that they did so.
They considered that the Congress was composed of many wise and experienced men. That, being convened from different parts of the country, they brought with them and communicated to each other a variety of useful information. That, in the course of the time they passed together in inquiring into and discussing the true interests of their country, they must have acquired very accurate knowledge on that head. That they were individually interested in the public liberty and prosperity, and therefore that it was not less their inclination than their duty to recommend only such measures as, after the most mature deliberation, they really thought prudent and advisable.
These and similar considerations then induced the people to rely greatly on the judgment and integrity of the Congress; and they took their advice, notwithstanding the various arts and endeavors used to deter them from it. But if the people at large had reason to confide in the men of that Congress, few of whom had been fully tried or generally known, still greater reason have they now to respect the judgment and advice of the convention, for it is well known that some of the most distinguished members of that Congress, who have been since tried and justly approved for patriotism and abilities, and who have grown old in acquiring political information, were also members of this convention, and carried into it their accumulated knowledge and experience.
It is worthy of remark that not only the first, but every succeeding Congress, as well as the late convention, have invariably joined with the people in thinking that the prosperity of America depended on its Union. To preserve and perpetuate it was the great object of the people in forming that convention, and it is also the great object of the plan which the convention has advised them to adopt. With what propriety, therefore, or for what good purposes, are attempts at this particular period made by some men to depreciate the importance of the Union? Or why is it suggested that three or four confederacies would be better than one? I am persuaded in my own mind that the people have always thought right on this subject, and that their universal and uniform attachment to the cause of the Union rests on great and weighty reasons, which I shall endeavor to develop and explain in some ensuing papers. They who promote the idea of substituting a number of distinct confederacies in the room of the plan of the convention, seem clearly to foresee that the rejection of it would put the continuance of the Union in the utmost jeopardy. That certainly would be the case, and I sincerely wish that it may be as clearly foreseen by every good citizen, that whenever the dissolution of the Union arrives, America will have reason to exclaim, in the words of the poet: "FAREWELL! A LONG FAREWELL TO ALL MY GREATNESS."
Federalist No. 2 begins by focusing on the extent to which the United States has gained its unity by virtue of nature's bounty, including its extensive rivers that connect the states with one another. But, Publius adds, "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."
If we were interested in historical truth, it would be easy to demonstrate the utter fatuity of this declaration. Many distinguished historians have shown that those who came from elsewhere (including the hundreds of thousands of slaves coercively brought from all over Africa, not to mention, of course, the Native American tribes who already inhabited the land) were descended from a wide variety of ancestors. They most certainly did not all speak the same language. Benjamin Franklin, for example, was appalled by the presence of German speakers in Pennsylvania. Just as certainly, they did not profess the same religion, even if one decides to ignore the difference between Catholics and dissenting Protestants; and they scarcely could be described as "very similar in their manners and customs." Among the settlers from Great Britain alone, never mind those from other parts of Europe, there were remarkable variations of background. To assume homogeneity simply because of common British origin would be like assuming in today's America that there are no interesting differences among long-established residents of, say, Maine, New Mexico, North Dakota, or Georgia. Finally, the people were hardly "attached to the same principles of government"; think only of the significant number, whom we tend to forget, who cast their lot with King George III and after defeat resettled in Canada, Jamaica, Great Britain, and, in the case of some former slaves, Sierra Leone.
You might dismiss the Loyalists and exiles from post-Revolutionary America as "un-American," but you can scarcely direct this epithet at those who engaged in often-bitter debates in Philadelphia, where three delegates refused to sign the Constitution, or at the ratifying conventions afterward, or at some of the pamphlets and speeches rendered "out of doors" in public gatherings. It would be unfair to tax Publius with knowledge of a future civil war, but that event further calls into question his optimism about homogeneity and concord in America.
For my purposes, it doesn't matter that Publius was a terrible sociologist. What makes his assertion worth our attention today is whether we share his presumed belief that the success (or failure) of the American political experiment (and perhaps similar experiments elsewhere) does depend on a requisite degree of homogeneity. Indeed, the correct word may be homogeneities, as he includes ancestry, language, religion, and broader culture as the source of "manners and customs."
Reading the news or listening to political speeches today, it's clear that there are many "Federalist No. 2 Publians" in 21st-century America who are concerned—perhaps even terrified—that the American "we" is becoming irreparably fragmented. Our national motto, "E pluribus unum," suggests that whatever their apparent differences, Americans ultimately achieve a necessary unity. How is this to be attained? Some believe that it is enough to share a commitment to the political vision outlined in the Preamble or a willingness to be bound by decisions reached through the institutional procedures the Constitution has established. Others believe more is required—that, for example, there should also be a commitment to accept English as the only "American" language. (This position was articulated by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal during his truncated campaign for the presidency.) The proponents of this view presumably applaud the declaration in Article 2 of the French Constitution of 1958 that "[t]he language of the Republic shall be French." No nonsense there about "multiculturalism" and the recognition of multiple languages within the polity, as one finds, for example, in Canada or in what is often called the world's largest democracy, India.
In 2004, the late Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington published his last book Who Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity. He adopted a "Publian" reading of our history, asserting that "the American people who achieved independence in the late eighteenth century were few and homogeneous: overwhelmingly white (thanks to the exclusion of blacks and Indians from citizenship), British, and Protestant, broadly sharing a common culture, and overwhelmingly committed to the political principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and other founding documents." Huntington despaired that this world was irredeemably lost. America is now fully multiracial, with many ethnicities and religions represented in the American "mosaic." Huntington noted the increasing multilingualism generated primarily by the vast new numbers of Spanish-speaking immigrants, whom he feared were far less likely to leave their initial language than were Asians, another growing segment of the American populace.
Huntington warned that we should not blithely assume that the post–Civil War United States would maintain itself into the indefinite future. He explicitly rejected the wisdom of relying only on what might be termed "constitutional attachment," describing this as the "classic Enlightenment-based, civic concept of a nation," in which "nationalism" was predicated entirely on commitment to abstract propositions. "History and psychology, however, suggest that this is unlikely to be enough to sustain a nation for long." Instead, he called for renewed emphasis on the "core culture" that he believed dominated in 1787. He emphasized that his call for returning to an "Anglo-Protestant culture" did not mean privileging "Anglo-Protestant people"—non–Anglo-Protestants could assimilate to that culture, just as immigrants to France are expected to take on the trappings of "Frenchness," beginning with language.
Critics accused Huntington of nostalgia for an America controlled by persons of his own Anglo-Protestant background. Harsher analyses were offered as well. You need only think of some of the reactions to the prospect of immigration by Muslim refugees from Syria to realize the more ominous implications of embracing Huntington's analysis in full.
But you need not agree with Huntington's analysis in order to wonder if there are, in fact, limits to the heterogeneity that a society can welcome if it would try to achieve what the Constitution calls a "Republican Form of Government." Does such a government require a version of "We the People" that, at the very least, shares important ideological presuppositions, even if they are expressed in different national languages? Consider the limitation of American law, going back to the initial naturalization law of 1795, that no one shall be eligible for naturalization—in effect being "reborn" as a full "American" to replace one's former civic identity—unless the applicant for citizenship has been resident within the United States for at least five years; shown himself or herself to be "a person of good moral character"; and, crucially, is "attached to the principles of the Constitution of the United States, and well disposed to the good order and happiness of the United States."
In one of the most eloquent judicial opinions in the history of the United States Supreme Court, which invalidated punishment of Jehovah's Witnesses who refused to salute the American flag, Justice Robert Jackson wrote, "If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us." You might wonder how this magnificent credo of American liberty coexists with the demand that would-be citizens demonstrate attachment "to the principles of the Constitution."
Many of us, I suspect, are hesitant simply to hope for the best with regard to those who wish to enter the United States. I know that I have qualms about certain sizeable groups of immigrants who have come from undemocratic, indeed anti-democratic, countries and, because they live together in this country and recreate their own versions of their former cultures, may be contemptuous of some of the assumptions required to operate a republican form of government. Of course, one might argue that it is far too late in the day for such fears. Given the extent to which our political system is so wholly committed to interest-group politics, perhaps it is completely legitimate for a voter to be concerned exclusively with his or her private interests, including those "partial" groups she identifies with, as opposed to a completely fictitious "We the [one] People of the United States."
These concerns are not limited to the United States. As a frequent visitor to Israel, I have wondered more than once if the significant immigration from the former Soviet Union was altogether good for Israel, inasmuch as many of those immigrants appear to have little commitment to pluralistic democracy and recognition of the equal status of their Arab co-citizens. Israel, it should be noted, differs from the United States in granting immediate citizenship, under the Law of Return, to any Jew who declares that he or she wishes to be a part of the Jewish homeland. Not only can these immigrants vote immediately; they can also stand for election to the Israeli Knesset and therefore play an important role in Israeli politics. In the United States, on the other hand, one must be a resident for five years, to give the newcomer time to assimilate prior to the award of citizenship. Moreover, one of the more obscure clauses of the Constitution requires that naturalized citizens wait even longer—seven and nine years, respectively, after becoming citizens—before they are eligible to serve in the House of Representatives or the Senate. They remain permanently ineligible to become president. I personally object to these limitations and the de facto "second-class citizenship" they create, but they do speak to the kinds of concerns expressed by Publius.
Perhaps the success of the United States is sufficient to render irrelevant the fact that Publius was simply wrong about the homogeneity of American society in 1787. But we've never stopped debating the merit of his underlying assumption: that the system of government he was so eager to support can work only if the American people share both a common heritage and a vision of a collective future and that genuine multiculturalism is dangerous. I hope, and believe, that Publius was wrong, but we do ourselves no favor if we ignore the questions he raises.
This article is adapted from An Argument Open to All: Reading The Federalist in the 21st Century.