May 17, 2010 – Federalist No. 14 – Objections to the Proposed Constitution From Extent of Territory Answered, From the New York Packet (Madison) – Guest Blogger: W. B. Allen, Dean and Professor Emeritus, Michigan State University

Sunday, May 16th, 2010

In the fourteenth essay Publius argues that America has discovered the merit of making the mechanical principle of representation the basis of unmixed and extensive republics. This is not only an extended republic, but it is a republic in which we do not have to make a special place for the rich and the poor. We will not reserve one legislative house for the rich, another house for the poor. We will not create formal classes in government, and the government will not depend on class distinctions.

It may not have been observed that the tenth essay’s principle of the extended sphere of the republic has a consequence in the operations of politics. There will be commerce, and single district representation also. There will be the “multiplicity of interests.” But we must not neglect that as interests multiply they must affect more people. The consequence of that fact for the ancient distinction between the rich and the poor is a significant diminution in the numbers of the poor. The logic and dynamic of the extended commercial republic is precisely to squeeze rich and poor towards the middle.

The real impact of this constitutional design is to get rid of the struggle between the rich and the poor. The great American middle class is an historical oddity that has come to characterize all the modern world impacted by the industrial revolution and the principles of modern republicanism. This growing middle class is the basis of the unmixed constitution, a constitution founded on the middle class that turned almost into the only “class.” One of the most extraordinary things about the argument in the tenth essay, which is reflected as well in the fourteenth essay, is that it anticipates the nineteenth century debate about class and political life. Publius responded in advance, in effect, to the arguments of Marx and others, insisting that the United States need not have the rich overcome the poor or the poor overcome the rich. It could rather offer a social, economic, and political dynamic through which in fact those distinctions disappear in terms of their political significance.

Grant we must that what are called the super-rich do exist, as do the tabloid sheets that celebrate. But we do not view the rich, or even the super-rich as a class. Which is the reason that they can be just about anyone, from extraordinarily gifted athletes to people of very old money and families. They are isolated; they are individuals. They are not a class. In fact the only thing that distinguishes them today is their money. Otherwise they seem much like everybody else, and sometimes less. What matters is that this happened not by accident; it happened by a constitutional design that aimed to base the Constitution’s support on the strength of a very large middle class.

The claim, therefore, in the fourth paragraph of the fourteenth essay, that we have an umixed and extensive republic, goes to the very heart of the Antifederalist challenges to the Constitution and leads Publius to inquire in the paragraphs following, what are the limits of a democracy? and how are we supposed to calculate this? The question must be asked because we know that general arguments must be tested by practical limits. We cannot assume that there are no limits to representation as an approach, especially if we take seriously the task of “harmonizing and assimilating” differences. Differences must at least be kept to such a level that they are subject to being thus harmonized.

Publius provides a calculation in the fifth paragraph and those following. It is interesting because of what it says about 1787 technology and what it implies about the future. First, he describes the limits of democracy as a dynamic function: “the natural limit of democracy is that distance from the central point, which will just permit the most remote citizens to assemble as often as their public functions demand.”

The natural limit is the distance determined by public functions.  The natural limit of a republic is that distance from the center, which will barely allow the representatives of the people to meet as often as may be necessary for the administration of public affairs. Can it be said the limits of the United States exceed this distance? “It will not be said by those who recollect that the Atlantic coast is the longest side of the Union, that during the term of thirteen years, the representatives of the States have been almost continually assembled.”

To say that members of the Confederation Congress were “continually assembled” is a bit disingenuous; for although the Congress was almost constantly in session, one of the chief complaints about it was the notoriously poor attendance of delegates.

Publius then conducts a lesson in public geography, leading him to conclude that the ability to travel from any point, within a certain period of time (two weeks in 1787), to reach capital and conduct business, sets the allowable size of the system. This is a fairly mechanical definition, and it can be misleading. Not only does it not respond to the matter of harmonizing and assimilating, but it deflects attention from the ultimate basis of Publius’s judgment. The twelfth paragraph makes this clear, when Publius appeals to ties of affection to sustain “one great respectable and flourishing empire.”

In other words, Publius reminds us that we started with a Union, not with a theory on the strength of which we generated a Union. A theory may tell us that the Union is not too big for its britches, but that does not imply its indefinite extension. The condition for extending the Union is the continual existence of the Union. But that, in turn, would depend upon people accepting its principles, and first and foremost those principles enunciated in the Declaration of Independence.

Thus, two things operate simultaneously: first, the notion of the mechanical theory, the distance limit and, second, the moral limits, the moral distance. To the extent that we accomplish Union on the scale of the moral distance, it becomes possible by the mechanical theory to justify extending the reach of the Union, and not one bit farther.

W. B. Allen is Dean and Professor Emeritus of Michigan State University


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