Reviewed by Staci L. Beavers, Political Science Department, California State University San Marcos. E-mail: sbeavers [at] csusm.edu.
As a political scientist with a keen interest in political history, I read Michael I. Meyerson’s work here with great pleasure. His exploration of the tangled relationship of the primary authors of the works known collectively here as THE FEDERALIST was great fun to read, and Meyerson’s “partial originalist” theory of constitutional interpretation is intriguing. While I’m still not certain what critical new insights Meyerson was really able to provide about this pivotal time or about this critical set of writings, or even the essays’ import for today’s constitutional dilemmas, the book is a very interesting read.
Meyerson, a professor of constitutional law, clearly states his primary ends in the book’s Preface: “to present the most important teachings of THE FEDERALIST to a modern audience” (p. xi); “to demonstrate how and when we should call upon the views of the framers when we interpret the Constitution” (p. xii); and “to explore the lives of the authors of THE FEDERALIST and shed light on the unusual personal bond between Madison and Hamilton” (p. xiii).
The book is broken into two major sections. Part I addresses the context and the writing of the essays now known as THE FEDERALIST, and it pays particular attention to the tangled relationship of the essays’ two principal authors, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. Part II lays out Meyerson’s theory of “partial originalis[m]” for utilizing THE FEDERALIST as a collective source to inform constitutional interpretation and also comments on some of the collection’s primary messages, including chapters devoted to separation of powers (ch. 8) and federalism (ch. 9) issues. An entire chapter (ch. 7) is devoted to consideration of Madison’s FEDERALIST 10.
I found Part I to be in some ways the more interesting portion of the book, with its insights into the stormy personal and intertwined professional histories of the primary protagonists. The book moved from their first meeting to their almost frenzied collaboration on these essays to the end of their friendship and ongoing professional antagonisms. For those already interested in political history, it is intriguing to think through how these very temperamentally different and seemingly incompatible men were able to become friends and to work closely together, even for a brief period of time, on such a work. How differently might THE FEDERALIST have turned out had Hamilton’s prior choices for his co-authors (including Gouverneur Morris or William Duer, pp.82-83) [*393] panned out, or had John Jay’s participation in the project not been cut short due to repeated medical emergencies (see pp.84-87)? In discussing the personal relationship of Hamilton and Madison, Meyerson documents that, even when they were on good terms, Madison exhibited frustration with his friend (pp.107-108). Under these circumstances, how did Madison manage to work with Hamilton in the first place, even as an anonymous co-author? While exploring this relationship was a key goal of the book (p.xiii), I am not certain Meyerson ever really does manage to come up with a convincing explanation for why Madison would agree to throw in his lot with Hamilton on a project of such importance. Eventually, of course, the relationship splintered during the Washington administration, as the two men engaged in numerous political and philosophical battles regarding the appropriate scope and divisions of federal power (see, e.g., pp.114-117, 118-120, 126-127, 128-129). Though Madison comes across as inconstant in his political views, Hamilton in particular comes across poorly in these pages. Given his brashness and continual propensity to offend, his early death resulting from a duel may not be difficult to fathom; instead, the reader is left asking how, aside from his sheer brilliance, Alexander Hamilton ever managed to rise to such heights or to survive in political life as long as he did? This portion of the book is enjoyable, but I am still left wondering how important these insights really are in today’s world? Even if, as Meyerson asserts, the “original understanding” of the Constitution is still relevant to today’s constitutional interpretation, what business is it of today’s citizens what the personal relations of these two figures really were?
Part II is probably the more significant portion of the book, even if it is less fun to read. Meyerson asserts that, while in many instances traditional takes on “originalism” may not be particularly helpful in guiding constitutional interpretation, it is appropriate to look to THE FEDERALIST as a potential guiding force with regard to interpreting the body of the Constitution ratified by the states by 1789. In his words,
THE FEDERALIST shows that it may make sense to be a ‘partial originalist.’ We can rely, at least presumptively, on the original understanding of those who drafted and ratified the original Constitution for issues of separation of powers and federalism, yet feel freer to use our more evolved understanding for determining the contours of individual rights and equality (p.xii).
Meyerson seeks to achieve a middle ground on this debate, emphasizing the import of “original understanding” rather than the perhaps unknowable “intent” of the Constitution’s framers; he also attempts to draw on the strengths of originalism and to address many of the claims against this approach to interpreting the nation’s charter (pp.149-157).
Perhaps in part because of his general disinterest in the “intent” of the framers, in tandem with the intellectual sophistication he sees in these essays, Meyerson appears untroubled regarding claims that THE FEDERALIST’s essays should be dismissed as “propaganda” of their day (p.ix, and see also pp.142-143 for a further discussion). He freely acknowledges that neither Madison nor [*394] Hamilton wholeheartedly approved of the document produced in Philadelphia (see p.72, cites omitted), with Hamilton even lamenting that the proposed document was merely “‘better than nothing’” (p.72, citing Farrand 1923). In discussing the splintering of the Hamilton-Madison friendship, he also notes that the same basic philosophical questions that ultimately divided Madison and Hamilton remain unsettled today (p.xiii, p.109). I am left curious regarding how, if Madison himself could not be persuaded by the force of THE FEDERALIST’s arguments over the next several years of his career (see, e.g., p.120), why should the rest of us be so convinced so many decades later?
While Meyerson discusses the importance of focusing on “original understanding” rather than “original intent” as his source of constitutional guidance and makes a very reasonable case that many of the authors’ contemporaries looked to THE FEDERALIST with respect, his assertion regarding “partial originalism” seems to hinge heavily on the fact that THE FEDERALIST’s authors provided a packaged, coherent set of publications that was widely disseminated in support of the Constitution that the Bill of Rights and later constitutional amendments did not enjoy (p.xii, pp.156-158). But it never is made clear how only three men could be expected to speak to the thinking of the whole class of men engaged in the writing and ratification of the US government’s fundamental charter and thus to put forward what the collective “understanding” really was. Additionally, while Meyerson does refer to a speech by Pennsylvania’s James Wilson as another extremely important contribution to the ratification fight (p.100, citing Bailyn 1993), he largely ignores other contemporary writings in favor of the proposed government charter. How can we know how influential this set of essays really was without having a more complete context regarding the tenor of the era’s discussion?
Certainly many past and present influential thinkers, including a number of Supreme Court justices, have agreed with Meyerson’s contention that THE FEDERALIST essays are worth a continuing look. Citing Melton and Miller (2001-2002), Meyerson notes that the “essays have been cited in over 300 Supreme Court decisions” (p.135). While Meyerson never contends that these writings should be read for absolutely binding interpretations regarding the meaning of the Constitution (see p.158) and even confronts Madison’s defense of the Three-Fifths Compromise (pp.94-96), he does describe the essays as “the single most important resource for interpreting the Constitution” (p.ix). Importantly, Meyerson insists on a comprehensive view of the collection as a guide to constitutional interpretation, rather than the “cherry pick[ing]” (p.184) that he asserts is sometimes evidenced by justices whose use of FEDERALIST essays may be more result-driven than geared toward sincere attempts to discern the “understanding” behind various constitutional phrases. He does not hesitate to take several justices to task for opinions in which he argues that such “cherry pick[ing]” took place.
One final point: while most of the book flows logically from one chapter to the next, one incongruous entry was Chapter 7’s discussion of FEDERALIST 10, [*395] Madison’s first contribution to the collaboration (p.164). Though the discussion of “factions” is widely celebrated today, Meyerson asserts that this entry “was essentially ignored for the first century after its publication” (p.163). However, since the chapter does little to address how THE FEDERALIST can be utilized to inform contemporary constitutional interpretation, its inclusion here is a bit mysterious.
On the whole, Michael I. Meyerson has presented an intriguing theory and an enjoyable take on constitutional history that I would recommend to those interested in political history and especially to those interested in the originalism debate.
Bailyn, Bernard. 1993. THE DEBATE ON THE CONSTITUTION. New York: Viking Press.
Farrand, Max. 1923. THE RECORDS OF THE FEDERAL CONVENTION OF 1787. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. (Originally published 1911).
Melton, Buckner F. and Jennifer J. Miller (2001/2002). “The Supreme Court and THE FEDERALIST: A Supplement, 1996-2001.” 90 KENTUCKY LAW JOURNAL 415-440.
© Copyright 2008 by the author, Staci L. Beavers.