Publius Speaks

Publius Speaks
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Monday, April 5, 2010


Publius, of course, as many of you know, is the pseudonym that the writers of the Federalist Papers used when writing to the people of New York State initially (and a broader audience later) explaining and defending the provisions of the new Constitution of the United States of America (as opposed to the Articles of Confederation). 

It was not unusual for essayists in the 18th century to use a well-chosen pen name (often having associations with the Roman Republic) in order to gain a hearing and readership for their views.  It also provided a convenient cover against potential charges of libel, and provided an extra meaning which extended and expanded the writer’s explicit arguments.

When the Congress, under the Articles of Confederation, resolved on September 28, 1787 to refer the proposed new Constitution to the states to be voted on in convention, there began one of the greatest debates in American history.  It basically lasted from 1787-1788 and was of brief duration in some states, but it certainly produced speeches and writings that had unique importance to the future of our country.

Probably the most remarkable of the writings were those that appeared as a long series of letters in the New York newspapers between October 27, 1787 and April 4, 1788, under the pen name of Publius, a pseudonym used by the authors: Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison.  By March 22, 1788, the essays that had appeared to that point were published as a single volume and by May 28th a second volume followed which incorporated essays 78-85 which had not appeared before this.  The title given the volumes was, of course, The Federalist Papers which rankled those who remained loyal to the Articles of Confederation and to the idea that the states were the core of power and that a confederated government was essentially the agent of the states.  In contrast, the Publius writers argued for a stronger central government and a stronger union than was apparent in a confederation or groupings of small confederations of states.

In an essay titled “The Paradox of Democracy” written for the  2008 National Paideia Conference, Terry Roberts gave us as good an answer as any to the question: who was the original Publius?

“Publius Valerius Publicola (died 503 BC) was a Roman consul, who with Lucius Junius Brutus governed Rome in 509 BC, traditionally considered the first year of the Roman Republic. According to Livy and Plutarch, the death of Brutus left Publius the sole consul of the new Republic, and the people feared that he was preparing to seize monarchical power. To calm the populace, Publius ceased construction on his new, ostentatious home and introduced two laws to protect their liberties: one providing citizens with the right of appeal when condemned in a court of law, and the second enacting that whosoever should attempt to make himself a king might be slain by any man at any time (this the law that would eventually be used to justify the assassination of Julius Caesar).  Like Washington, who would resist the temptation of absolute power in our own country, Publius was a founding leader who refused the role of Caesar and, in so doing, proved that the government could function without one.
“In part, then, Hamilton chose Publius as the Federalist pen name, intending to disarm those who would accuse him and his conspirators of the personal consolidation of power. But he also chose it because the Roman’s last name, “Publicola,” famously meant “of the people,” something that a surprising number of the original readers of the Federalist Papers would have known. Thus, we might legitimately say that in 1788 Hamilton and Madison intended the shadowy Publius to mean the man—or mind—of the people.”

Without being presumptuous, the first aim of this blog is to speak as though “I am Publius too” (I.M. Publius II).  That is, to bring to the people, as much as possible, those concerns and issues that are "of the people,” affecting the people and the commonweal of this society.

Two concerns dealt with in the Federalist Papers are of primary effect upon some of the issues and concerns that I plan to present and upon which I shall endeavor to comment.

The first has to do with the fact that the first forty-six letters, more than half of the total essays, are concerned with the need for a strong central government.  That is what the new Constitution brought to the table, and that is what the writers mostly defended in their attempt to secure support for the ratification of the new Constitution.  For the writers, a more perfect union, that is to say, a stronger union could be counted on to secure internal tranquility, stability and order, and to provide for the common defense.  In other words, at the same time that the sovereignty of the people was preserved, a stronger union (or central federal government) was an important step toward a society in which Americans could hope to lead a free and secure life.

Thus, one of the themes that will occur and re-occur throughout the posts on this blog is that a strong central federal government should not constantly be demeaned by those who favor private enterprise and states’ rights as an alternative to what they like to call “government bureaucracy.”  A strong central government (which for the Publius writers generally meant the legislative branch, but included the Executive and the Judiciary) is often essential to the solving of national problems, and indeed is called for explicitly in terms of certain functions:

“To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States;To borrow Money on the credit of the United States; To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States; To establish a uniform Rule of Naturalization, and uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States; To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures; To provide for the Punishment of counterfeiting the Securities and current Coin of the United States; To establish Post Offices and post Roads; To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts; To constitute Tribunals inferior to the supreme Court; To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offences against the Law of Nations; To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water; To raise and support Armies, To provide and maintain a Navy; To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces; To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions; To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;

“To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.”

That latter paragraph gives to that oft-demeaned “federal bureaucracy” the same power and authority as any part of the central government.  Those who deplore a strong central federal government must struggle with their apparent anti-constitutional viewpoint.

The second emphasis from the Federalist authors should give pause to those who advocate laissez-faire or unregulated power to corporate entities, other groups and organizations, including both the public and private sectors of society.  I am speaking of the authors’ view of the nature of human beings. The following discussion is based on the very helpful Editor’s Introduction to a 1961 edition of the Federalist written by Benjamin Fletcher Wright, long a professor at University of Texas-Austin.

There are scores of references in The Federalist to the motives that cause men to act as they do, and a variety of terms express this, including: springs, impulses, inclinations, inducements, dispositions, propensities, humours.  While Publius does not seem to believe that all these motives always lead to actions that are evil or harmful, he seems to assume that in the nature of man “antagonistic and immediate interests  have greater efficacy than true interests and motives of reason and virtue.” In other words, man’s motives seem to be related to passion versus reason and virtue, and to selfish immediate interests versus true or long-term interests.  While not accepting of the supposition of universal venality in human nature, he says in number 76 that “the acceptance of universal rectitude” is equally in error.

The greater part of his arguments about human nature in politics comes down to an evident conviction from history that there is more force in the passions and interests that tend toward antagonism and self-seeking than in those that make for friendly relations and the common good.  In the earlier letters, Publius reiterates that the reason for a strong union (central government) is that” man is not calmly rational or abounding with unfailing generous love for his fellow beings, but is rather passionate, jealous, and selfish”, which in terms of certain national and international issues, can lead to struggles, and even to war.

While there are some exceptions, the general principle or belief that supports the form and structure of the proposed plan of government, with its built-in checks and balances, is that no man can be trusted with unlimited power.

In various essays to come on this blog, it will be evident that this view of human nature will inform many of the arguments made for appropriate trust and mistrust, effective regulation and pragmatic de-regulation, as well as enlightened cooperation between the private and public sectors of society, in terms of their handling of power and societal problem-solving.

My first post on this blog is, in fact, an appeal to a more realistic view of both the public governmental sector and of the private sector that some, in my opinion, would err in trusting more implicitly.