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They were a bit full of themselves, the Founding Fathers, and with good reason. In 1776, they had declared independence from a powerful mother country, Great Britain. Next, they whipped her in war. Then, in 1787, they created the first written constitution in history. Michael Meyerson, a constitutional law professor at the University of Baltimore Law School, writes about this last, architectural feat in Liberty’s Blueprint: How Madison and Hamilton Wrote the Federalist Papers, Defined the Constitution, and Made Democracy Safe for the World. He combines the engaging story behind the writing of the Federalist Papers with a pointed analysis of their modern applicability. There was no precedent for a strong, written constitution. Meyerson calls it “the national big bang.” Two of the era’s better penmen, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, took it upon themselves, with help from John Jay, to write what Meyerson calls the “owner’s manual.” The Federalist Papers were a collection of newspaper articles designed to secure ratification of the Constitution. The authors aimed to cut through the legalese and explain how much better off the country would be under the Constitution than under the Articles of Confederation. They wrote furiously, averaging 1,000 words a day for six months with quill-and-ink technology. The history of their brief friendship and collaboration, which takes up the first half of the book, is edifying. Hamilton was rash and brash. He was an aide to George Washington during the Revolution until, as Hamilton described: “I met [Washington] at the head of the stairs, where, accosting me in an angry tone, �Col Hamilton (he said) you have kept me waiting. … I must tell you, Sir, you treat me with disrespect.’ I replied, without petulancy, but with decision, �I am not conscious of it, sir; but since you have thought it necessary to tell me so, we part.’” Madison was a careful opposite. In 1785, two years before the constitutional convention, he asked Thomas Jefferson, who was minister to France, to send him books on the history of confederations. After two trunks of books arrived, Madison dashed off a thank you, observing that he would not “be deprived of the amusement they promise me for the residue of the winter.” There were other differences. Hamilton was handsome and attractive to women, whereas a woman once broke off her engagement to the plainer Madison by writing a letter sealed with a lump of rye dough. The rapport between the pair eventually soured. By 1792, Madison was anonymously attacking Hamilton in the press, and Hamilton was spreading word that Madison was “his personal and political enemy.” The second half of Liberty’s Blueprint moves away from history to discuss how the Federalist Papers apply today. Since they were written as an advocate’s brief to win ratification, they do not have the force of legislative history. They are, however, evidence of what the state legislatures may have expected when ratifying the Constitution. Meyerson says the Federalist Papers show the Founders anticipated and resolved many of the pitfalls the country would face, such as the need for national regulation of commerce. However, Meyerson sometimes overrates the Founders’ prescience. For example, in today’s world, Hamilton’s comparison of the president’s powers as commander in chief with those of the king of England sounds backward. The president’s power “would amount to nothing more than the supreme command and direction of the military and naval forces … while that of the British king extends to the declaring of war and to the raising and regulating of fleets and armies — all of which by the Constitution under consideration, would appertain to the Legislature.” Likewise, the powerful modern presidency seems to contradict Madison’s concern that Congress was, in Meyerson’s words, the “strongest” and most “dangerous” branch of government because it had the power to legislate, impose taxes, impeach members of the other two branches, and amend the Constitution. Madison said the reason Congress was divided into two houses was to require the “concurrence of two distinct bodies in schemes of usurpation or perfidy.” The anti-Federalist writer, Brutus, could be considered just as prescient in warning of the dangers of the Supreme Court: “There is no power above them that can correct their errors or controul their decisions.” Liberty’s Blueprint is a timely reminder that although some believe the Constitution is sacred text, it was the handiwork of men. They were talented, but they were also fallible and petty. The miracle is that while the original blueprint has needed a Bill of Rights, interpretation, and other amendments, the edifice itself still stands.
James H. Johnston is a Washington attorney and a frequent contributor.

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