February 19, 1788 – Fishkill, NY
In 1788, Fishkill, New York, was a well known and important city, having once served as the Capitol of New York State. It was also the home of the largest supply depot of the Continental Army. And Fishkill had its own newspaper, The New York Packet, later known as Louden’s New York Packet.
It was this newspaper, on Tuesday, February 19, 1788, that published another in a series of essays which were rapidly taking the country by storm. The essays were anonymous and while there was much speculation as to the authorship, only four or five people (not counting the writers themselves) in the entire nation could say with any certainty that they knew who the author – or authors – was. Even George Washington pretended to not know as he praised the essays and proclaimed, “Who is the author?” In fact, he had been directly told by the authors that they were in fact, the authors.
The Federalist Papers, as the essays had become known, were “the best argument” in favor of ratification for the new Constitution. They were directed at the people of New York, as the debate swirled about the State, but in fact they reached the entire country. Published in bound volumes almost as soon as the ink dried, they became a prized possession of Americans from Maine to Georgia. Indeed they were a hit internationally as well. The French offered “honorary citizenship” to the authors, one of whom would later accept the honor.
For all their grandeur and importance in their day, they have lost a certain appeal to modern Americans. They are dismissed as “old ideas,” and even in the 1860’s some of the essays were… if not ignored, certainly given less priority because of who the author was. And it might surprise you which ones were relegated, given the state of things today.
That Tuesday morning, readers of the New York Packet found two of the letters, numbers 56 and 57. Addressing the concerns over the House of Representatives, the author outlined his beliefs and argued that the House would be something very special and dear to the people as the primary defense of their liberties.
For myself, it is Federalist #57 that speaks loudest. It is written, as we now know, by James Madison. And it is here that we find the answer to the questions so often asked today as to where things “went wrong.” Madison and Hamilton knew and understood the dangers of politics and power against the liberty of the people. The argument of Federalist #57 is how to defend liberty against such incursions.
It remains my personal favorite of the Federalist Papers, and in it I find renewed belief that We the People choose our destiny.
Which is, after all, the very meaning of the word, Liberty.