Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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Some comments on the “The Federalist Papers”

For parts of 2022 and 2023, I have given The Federalist Papersw (TFP) two thorough readings, and I would very strongly recommend them to anyone who wants to gain an understanding of political issues (in general) and the U.S. Constitution and its historical background (in particular). They are certainly worth more than the corresponding page/word count in a random pol.-sci. textbook, and contain many insights that even some alleged experts of today seem to lack.


As always, but particularly with TFP, do not read to have someone provide a preformed opinion. Read to gain food for thought, to see and understand the reasoning of others, to find new perspectives, etc. (And by no means do I, myself, agree with everything in TFP.)

I would strongly recommend that the reader pay particular attention to how various parts of it might still be relevant today, why some current tendencies are the more dangerous in light of TFP, why this-or-that group might want to do away with something and why this is a bad idea, etc.


As a disclaimer to the below: Due to how stretched out my reading was in time (cf. below), it is very possible that my memory is imperfect. Moreover, the individual “papers” were written over a longer time (original publication, according to my edition, October 1787 to May 1788) and by three authors, implying that they are not necessarily consistent on all issues. (However, I can recall no truly notable inconsistencies off the top of my head.)

Any discussion going beyond the shallow, unfortunately, would take pages upon pages, would likely require a third read, and will not even be attempted by me. However, a few points of particular interest:

  1. Special insights relate to the whys and wherefores of the U.S. constitution, with implications on why it is important not to weaken it further. Note in particular the separation of powers and the “checks and balances”.


    A problem in today’s world, in the U.S. and elsewhere, is that those who speak on political topics are disproportionally often politicians. Politicians, however, often have a strong aversion towards what limits their powers, no matter the reason. Correspondingly, those who listen to politicians, and especially Leftist politicians, might get an entirely wrong impression of both the value of and the motivation behind various such limits—and a significant motivation behind the U.S. Constitution is exactly to limit the politicians.

    (In this, the U.S. is also a historical rarity, as constitutions elsewhere have often grown organically over long time frames, with no clear principle of construction, been constructed with little insight, been constructed by politicians for politicians, or otherwise been deficient with regard to limitations on the powers of politicians/the government, to the protection of the rights of the citizens, whatnot.)

  2. There is a wealth of historical examples, reaching back to ancient Greece, and attempts to actually learn from the errors of past systems, including past versions of democratic systems (which, of course, were far rarer when TFP was written than they are today and did not necessarily match today’s textbook definition).

    Similarly, but of less relevance to the reader of TFP, the authors drew on existing literature and thought on related matters, notably the works of Montesquieu, where modern politicians, reformers, whatnot, disturbingly often seem to be ignorant of past thinkers, base their thought on ideological concerns, draw only on a small circle of Leftist writers (who, in turn, were driven less by insight than ideology), or otherwise be weak.

  3. TFP pushes a “federalist” take in a “stronger central government” sense (focus on the “unum” part of “e pluribus unum”), which was understandable at the time, with an arguably too weak central government, the risk of war with the British, and whatnot. (Whether I would have been a federalist, had I been a contemporary, I do not know.)

    When the word is used today, however, it mostly seems to be used in a “weaker central government” sense (focus on the “pluribus”), in that e.g. the remaining self-determination of the individual states should be protected or increased.

    (The question to which camp the TFP authors would have belonged, if confronted with the modern world, is interesting, but one where I can give no good answer at my current level of understanding of the authors and where the answer might be different for the three individual authors, e.g. that Madison turned “pluribus” while Hamilton remained “unum”.)

    This is a potentially interesting illustration of several issues:

    Firstly, the stances that we take can depend strongly on the problems that we face (e.g. the risk of war with Britain vs. the risk of an over-bearing federal government), to what degree, and with what urgency. Similarly, overlapping, the circumstances at hand can influence our priorities.

    Secondly, we have a risk of a “fellow-traveler fallacy”, that temporary allies on an issue are seen as permanent allies. (TODO import texts from Wordpress and link.) Notably, it is possible to push for more X when we perceive a deficit of X and for less X when we perceive a surplus, without having gone through a change of deeper opinions and priorities.

    Thirdly, great care must be taken when applying a given political term or classification to different times or places. (Note, as a particularly telling example, how the alleged Liberals of the current U.S. often have opinions outright antithetical to those of classical Liberals.)

  4. TFP contains a level of thought, insight, reasoning, and, above all, an attempt to persuade by reasoning that is virtually unheard of among the leading politicians (and the leading figures, in general) of today.

    There is, unfortunately, a fair bit of mere rhetoric, especially of the “anyone reasonable will agree” kind; however, compared to what is standard today, with extremely simplistic reasoning, sloganeering, defamation, emotional arguments, whatnot, TFP is a far lesser evil.

  5. In contrast, the style of writing is awful—a good example of what happens when authors try too hard to sound smart. Or: exert themselves excessively in the illustrious pursuit of an aura of great erudition and extraordinary mental faculties.

    Language changes, e.g. drifts in word meanings and frequencies, can also be a hindrance to the reader; however, a lesser one.

    For my part, I limited myself to one “paper” a day (or roughly 85 days per reading), to ensure that I kept my concentration up. Greater quantities increased the risk of sloppy reading and skimming. (I have generally made good experiences with reading smaller portions from several books a day, over binge reading a single book, in terms of retention, understanding, whatnot; however, it was particularly beneficial with TFP.)


    However, the authors differ from many others who try to sound smart, especially Leftist pseudo-intellectuals, in that they actually were men of notable intellect, as can be seen in the underlying contents and their respective track records in life.

    Further, unlike many Leftist pseudo-intellectuals, their style of writing was not intended to hide a lack of actual contents behind a barrage of words or a lack of actual thoughts behind cryptic formulations.

  6. Where the authors went wrong was usually where the world has changed in a manner not predicted by them and/or on a time scale beyond their intended scope. Incidentally, these changes often point to issues where it might have been better, had the change not taken place.


    There is a clear insight in TFP that the Constitution-as-then-suggested could not be expected to be a perfect solution down the years, and the below should not be seen as an accusation of lack of foresight—especially, as parts of society have changed very drastically. (Not that perfection in the “now” was claimed.) A particular foreseen issue is that the expected growth in both citizens and states could require reforms to the system of elections/representation/whatnot.

    (In reality, after the shortly following Bill of Rights, surprisingly little reform has been made in the interim, considering the long time span and the greatly changing circumstances. Whether this is a sign of strength in the original design or e.g. of laziness in later generations, I leave unstated. Sadly, the reforms that have taken place have not always been for the better.)

    Consider e.g. the intermingled assumptions that congress would only be “in session” for comparatively limited periods of the year, while members would live virtually entirely in their home states outside of session periods. (Today, congress is active for the clear majority of the year and members likely spend more time in Washington than at home—even with access to far faster means of travel.)

    Ditto that political conflicts, power struggles, attempts to gain an advantage at the cost of someone else, whatnot, would be between groupings like the one house against the other, the one branch against the other two, the one state against the others, the one sector of the economy against the others, etc. Issues like the immensely strong current political class, the deep-seated party loyalties, and the risk that some group (like the current U.S. Left) would push an agenda through all branches of government in parallel, were either not foreseen or not given enough consideration.

    Ditto that the military would be the largest, likely even dominating, expense, with no thought for the possibility of the absurdly bloated current U.S. government, the immense transfer payments, and the many non-critical areas in which the government meddles at great expense.

    Ditto that e.g. income tax hardly found mention, while trade tariffs were the main source of income.

    Ditto that the need for a Bill of Rights was almost ridiculed, while the Bill of Rights that was subsequently added is now in very high standing, might be the single most important part of the overall constitution, and is a welcome brake on the current Leftist excesses. (A very imperfect brake, of course, as the government often ignores it and the courts do not always intervene to protect it.)