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Federalist Papers Mark 225 Years Of Prominence

JON MEACHAM: For Americans who believe that our politics is very divided and partisan now, you should have seen it back then.


That's author and historian Jon Meacham. And back then would be way back then.


MARTIN: 1787 to be exact. America was a loose confederation of states. There was no real law of the land, and some of America's greatest political minds had just finished a convention in Philadelphia where they came up with a new way to govern: a constitution. And if ratified, it would change everything. The fight was on.

MEACHAM: Were the states going to be pre-eminent or was this newly conceived federal government going to become the dominant force in American life?

MARTIN: So, anti-federal pundits did what pundits do: they went to meeting halls, gave speeches...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Friends, countryman and fellow citizens, permit one of yourselves...

MARTIN: ...and took to the mass media of the time - newspapers - with scathing arguments against the Constitution.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: And this form of government contains principles that will lead to the subversion of liberty.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: It appears that it is devoid of all responsibility or accountability to the great body of the people.

MARTIN: In response...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: To the people of the State of New York...

MARTIN: ...225 years ago this weekend an essay titled "The Federalist" was published.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: You are called upon to deliberate on a new Constitution for the United States of America. The subject speaks its own importance.

MARTIN: A flurry of other essays would follow, all under the same pen name. And eventually the collected work would be called "The Federalist Papers." Again, Jon Meacham.

MEACHAM: Well, "The Federalist Papers" are one of the great achievements of political philosophy, and I would argue because they were written for a popular audience. If there would have been pro-Federalist superPACs, they would have paid for the space for Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison to write these defenses of the new federal Constitution to combat the anti-federalists, who had - let's be honest - they had the American tradition on their side.

MARTIN: The anti-federalists?

MEACHAM: The anti-federalists, absolutely. You know, the idea of central authority, the revolution had been about central authority - the power to tax - the revolution had been about the power to tax. So, "The Federalist Papers" were the marketing positions, the explanation of what the Constitution, what all these separate battles, were really about.

MARTIN: There were 85 of these essays.

MEACHAM: There were a lot.

MARTIN: There were a lot of them.

MEACHAM: And they did not have to say I am Alexander Hamilton and I approve this.

MARTIN: What in your opinion, though, are the most significant?

MEACHAM: Well, I think the tenth federalist by James Madison is a kind of secular scripture in many ways. I suggested having it read at our wedding.

MARTIN: How'd that go over?

MEACHAM: Not well, like most of my suggestions. But it's Madison explaining how political passion works and how the Constitution Republic, has they had conceived it, could check one group's attempts to dominate and subjugate another. Because one day's majority is tomorrow's minority. And what Madison wrote was basically an argument against extremism. And that's really, I think, at the heart of "The Federalist Papers."

MARTIN: We've said these are 225 years old now, but it seems that all kinds of political factions are able to point to these papers and say, see, this is what the founders intended.


MARTIN: How is that so? Were these just vague enough that people of all kinds of political stripes can use them to bolster their own arguments?

MEACHAM: Well, folks do that with the Bible and they do it with Winston Churchill and they do it with Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. There are some people who can be quoted on many sides of an issue. If I may, one of the many problems with this idea that we can read the minds of the founders through documents like "The Federalist Papers" strikes me as problematic at best because of the way in which they were created, which was in a ferocious political moment. And I think that makes them more interesting, frankly. You know, these weren't philosophers sitting on a mountain. These were working politicians embarked on one of the great experiments in history, and they knew that. But they also knew they had to get the votes. And that's as fundamental as anything.

MARTIN: That's Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham. His new book is titled "Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power." It's out November 13. Thanks so much, Jon. We appreciate it.

MEACHAM: Thank you.


MARTIN: And you're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.