It is unfortunate that John Jay fell ill and was unable to compose more than a few essays for what became known as the Federalist Papers. Jay was one of the great intellects of the early republic, and his genius is often overlooked. The first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and the man who negotiated the much maligned but ultimately providential treaty with Great Britain, Jay is rarely included among the list of significant early Americans, and this is unfortunate. As this and his few other contributions to the Federalist Papers demonstrate, Jay was an original and penetrating thinker.
Jay wrote Federalist Numbers two through five, representing all but one of his contributions to the overall project. These four essays are all centered on the dangers of foreign influence and the importance of maintaining a strong UNION. This paper in particular makes what many of his contemporaries would consider to be a fairly radical argument, namely that the United States of America had from its beginning been ONE unified country rather than 13 independent states joined in a confederacy. He makes this argument right out of the box.
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.
Jay advances an argument that all three authors collectively known as Publius would maintain throughout – the failure to ratify the Constitution would result in the states falling into discord. The states are stronger as one nation rather than 13 independent states. The idea that the United States is a singular rather than plural noun would certainly discomfort the Anti-Federalists, and it was a notion rejected by the secessionists some 73 years later. But Jay insists that not only are the United States a unified whole, those who would argue otherwise were the true radicals.
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.
Jay begins to outline why Union is so necessary for the country’s survival. Here it is necessary to quote from Jay at some length.
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.
In some ways we can see here an advancement of the “American exceptionalism” thesis. America is not simply fortuitous to possess such a fertile territory, in fact it has been blessed directly by God. As such, Americans would be foolish to smack away the providential hands of God by rejecting union.
Jay emphasizes the characteristics that suggest, once again, that we are a united whole. Our common ancestors, our common tongue, and our common creed lead Americans to share fundamental values. Most importantly, we have been one Nation from the start.
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 well-balanced 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 is a contentious point being made here. We would see the Nation engage in a Civil War based in part over divided opinions on this very question. John Jay blows by the idea of America as a confederation of independent and sovereign states and asserts that the United States – at the very outset from its independence from Great Britain – formed one united nation. Southern secessionists – and to be sure they were not the only ones who saw it this way – would disagree with Jay. In their mind the separate colonies formed a pack, but little more than that, when they declared their independence from Great Britain. They retained their individual sovereignty and formed, as it were, 13 independent states. They were as independent to one another as they were to any foreign nation. The Constitution changed that relationship in a profound way, though the secessionists would argue that the states retained just enough independent power to be able to lawfully secede from the compact.
In the long run, John Jay’s conception of America won out, but what he is expressing here would hardly accepted by all, and probably not even by a significant number of people who supported the Constitution.
From here, Jay shifts course slightly and returns to one of the themes Hamilton discussed in the first paper.
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.
On the one hand, the public very nearly decided to take an injudicious course of action because of the baleful influences of the media (sound familiar?) and other designing men. And yet Jay winds up praising the populace for ultimately choosing wisely. Once again, Publius tends to do this with some regularity. He – in this case Jay – argues that people are led astray by their passions. Yet the American public is praised for its wisdom and ability to rise above self-interest. Is Jay dispensing high-minded political philosophy, or is he engaging in a bit of populist rhetoric in order to get the people on his side? It seems that even though the Federalists were wary of democracy, they understood right from the start that one went nowhere in the political world without trying to suck up to the populace just a bit. Yet another reminder that what we think are developments of the 2oth century have really been with us from the start.
Jay finishes with a flourish, wrapping up all these themes in a neat little bow.
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.
Well done. The United States cannot long endure if it is divided into disparate polities with no firm center, and the American people are smart enough to recognize that fact. They just have to ignore all those well-meaning but wrong-headed individuals who are trying to persuade them otherwise. Because if they don’t, then America is done for.
Now that is some good political rhetoric.