Sunday, July 8, 2012

John Jay on the Nature of Government

John Jay, writing in The Federalist Papers, addressed the perennial question of government's power versus citizen's rights - only, in 1787, it was a far from theoretical question. The United States had found its "Articles of Confederation" to be inadequate for organizing the nation, and was considering whether or not to adopt the new Constitution. The Federalist Papers were a series of articles written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. These articles were written to encourage the ratification of the Constitution. Jay wrote:

Nothing is more certain than the indispensable necessity of government, and it is equally undeniable, that whenever and however it is instituted, the people must cede to it some of their natural rights in order to vest it with requisite powers.

At that moment, this eternal question took the concrete form of the Union. Specifically, should the thirteen former colonies continue to form one nation, and - under the new Constitution - an even more cohesive nation than they had been under the articles of confederation? Or should the thirteen states be even more independent from each other? It might have been a step toward greater liberty for the thirteen colonies to function as independent governments; but it might also have been the end of them - if the Union were indeed necessary for the continued freedom from British rule - and the step toward greater liberty would have resulted in the termination of liberty. John Jay hoped to persuade the citizens that the Union was necessary for continued survival; that, without the Union, independence and freedom would disappear, and English rule would resume:

It is worthy of remark that not only the first, but every succeeding Congress, as well as the late convention, have invariably joined with the people in thinking that the prosperity of America depended on its Union. To preserve and perpetuate it was the great object of the people in forming that convention, and it is also the great object of the plan which the convention has advised them to adopt. With what propriety, therefore, or for what good purposes, are attempts at this particular period made by some men to depreciate the importance of the Union? Or why is it suggested that three or four confederacies would be better than one? I am persuaded in my own mind that the people have always thought right on this subject, and that their universal and uniform attachment to the cause of the Union rests on great and weighty reasons.

Jay, writing in the second of what would ultimately become a series of 85 articles, reminds his readers that it is the nearly unanimous opinion of the Congresses run under the old articles of confederation, and the opinion of the people at large, that the Union is necessary for the preservation of the thirteen states.