By Michael I. Myerson. Basic Books, New York, N.Y. 309 pages, $26.95
The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past,” is a famous observation of William Faulkner. It is a truism that applies to many historical events. Current America is certainly an outgrowth of George Washington’s defeat of the British in the Revolutionary War, Abraham Lincoln’s leadership during the Civil War, Franklin Roosevelt’s helmsmanship during the Great Depression, and the contributions of many other well-known and not so well-known individuals and occurrences that inhabit the misty fog of American history.
Perhaps we take the institutions and traditions of our democracy somewhat for granted. With the occurrence of the presidential election and the approaching presidential inauguration, the nation focuses on how President-elect Barack Obama will deal with national and international issues of great importance ranging from economics to terrorism. However, the very fact that there is a federal presidential institution, elections every four years for the presidency, and peaceful transitions of leaders is a product of the constitutional framework that was long ago enacted by our founding fathers. Had George Washington wanted to be king at the end of the Revolutionary War our current government might very well be different from its present form. The fact that Washington put down his sword to take up the role of citizen farmer and civic leader made him in the estimation of King George III “the greatest man in the world.”
There were many great men who made significant contributions to this nation in its infancy and helped to create the institutions and philosophy that govern us. In “Liberty’s Blueprint: How Madison And Hamilton Wrote the Federalist Papers, Defined the Constitution, and Made Democracy Safe for the World,” Professor Michael Myerson examines two such icons of American history: James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. Professor Myerson of the University of Baltimore Law School, a specialist in constitutional law and legal history, gives the reader a concise, readable, and highly interesting volume. In this brief, yet, scholarly examination, Professor Myerson examines the relationship between Madison and Hamilton, their role in creating The Federalist Papers, as well as the continuing significance of The Federalist Papers in current times.
What were the Federalist Papers? We are all exposed to this subject by high school teachers or college professors. They were a group of 85 letters written to newspapers in 1787 through 1788 by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay that advocated the passage of the Constitution. A Constitution was drafted at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 to replace the weak Articles of Confederation which served as the nation’s original constitution. However, in order for the new constitution to be enacted, nine of the 13 states needed to approve it through ratifying conventions. The many newspapers of the day, received letters arguing for or against the ratification of the Constitution. The Federalist Papers served as a means to educate potential voters as to the scope and powers of the new constitution and the resulting form government that would be created. They were printed widely both in newspapers and bound versions which were circulated among many readers thereby having a great impact on the nation’s citizenry.
Madison and Hamilton hailed from different areas of the world. Madison came from a plantation owning family of distinction in Virginia. Hamilton came from an impoverished and checkered background in the West Indies. Although Hamilton was the descendant of a Scotch lord, he was referred to by John Adams as a “bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar.” Both were brilliant students who excelled at academics. Madison attended the College of New Jersey, which later became Princeton University, and graduated in two years, and Hamilton attended Kings College, which later became Columbia University, with his tuition paid by wealthy individuals in the Caribbean who were exceptionally impressed with his intellect and potential for success. Both settled upon the law as careers, and Hamilton was known as one of the most brilliant practicing attorneys of his era who passed the bar exam six months after beginning his legal studies.
Madison who played a key role in the writing of the Constitution and became our fourth president is often referred to as the father of the Constitution. Indeed, the American Library Association instituted Freedom of Information Day which is annually celebrated on March 16, Madison’s birthday, in order to honor him for his role in the writing of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Hamilton became one of General Washington’s most valuable aides during the Revolutionary War. Hamilton fought bravely and led troops in the second battle of Trenton. He became one of General Washington’s most trusted and valued aides on his staff. President Washington named Hamilton the new nation’s first secretary of the Treasury where he was instrumental in forging policies to help drive the nation’s economic development and create a strong federal government. Of course, Hamilton’s meteoric rise to prominence was untimely ended by a shot from the pistol of Aaron Burr on the heights of Weehawken in New Jersey while dueling to settle a dispute of honor. Burr mortally wounded Hamilton and spilled the blood of one of the nation’s architects who once said about himself, “My blood is as good as that of those who plume themselves upon their ancestry.”
Benjamin Franklin, upon the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention [reportedly] was asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.” More than two centuries later, the Constitution still governs and as a living document has been amended to articulate freedoms and incorporate changes. Possibly with the results of Election Day, the soon-to-be inauguration, and the continuous political and election cycle, we will be reminded of the profound vitality of this document and the monumental contribution that the Federalist Papers and its authors made in helping to ratify the Constitution in the long ago but living and connected past.
Theodore Pollack is senior law librarian in charge of the New York County Public Access Law Library which is part of the New York Supreme Court.