In order to convince the readers that a government must be at least as energetic and strong as the one proposed, they must carefully examine the defects of the existing government. Madison does not expect people to accept the merits of the Constitution on faith alone. By examining the provisions of the constitution and comparing each provision, Madison will attempt to calculate the effects of the new government on the nation and its citizens.
For Madison, it is one of the ironies of human affairs that important public matters are seldom examined objectively. A new plan of government excites passion and prejudices, not surprisingly. The founding fathers believed those who opposed the Constitution only briefly looked at its contents. But some who write in favor of the Constitution are guilty of the same and much of their supportive writing lacks substance and critical analysis.
There is, however, one critical difference between the supporters and critics of the Constitution: those who support the Constitution superficially usually do so because they know the existing government is weak and the country is in a serious situation: a forgivable fault. The critics, however, cannot be forgiven. But Madison is not writing to either of the two biased groups. Instead, this paper is written for those who sincerely are in favor of and want to promote the welfare of the country and who will listen to reasonable arguments and explanations. In order to appreciate the proposed government, you have to realize that no plan is faultless. The Convention, like all groups, was composed of fallible men. Fallible men drafted the Constitution and fallible men in the end will judge it.
Madison argues that the readers must not only accept the fallibility of men, but also try to understand the difficult task the framers faced. What was done in Philadelphia had no precedent. The framers began their deliberations knowing that the structure of government was weak because the underlying principles that governed it were unsound. They realized that they could not erect a strong structure upon a weak foundation. Unfortunately, the principles to build the Constitution were hard to find because the framers could not look to other confederacies because they, too, were founded on unsound principles. Studying both ancient and modern confederacies served only to warn them of what should be avoided in the establishment of the new government. As a result, the framers took as their "textbook" the experience of this and other countries, not political theories.
One of the most important and difficult problems was how to establish an energetic and stable government without threatening the liberties of the people. Had the framers not solved this problem, they would have failed. Stability in government promotes confidence and is essential to national character. Stability is threatened if too many people hold power, and energetic government requires that the execution of the laws should be the responsibility of one man, the president. But in a free society power is derived from the people and those who hold office are responsible to them. The proposed government reconciles and balances these two important values. Stability is achieved through the principle of representation; liberty is protected because the government rests upon the consent of the people. In addition, a part of this balance was achieved by establishing relatively short terms of office for representatives, senators, and the president.
Another problem the framers faced was how best to divide authority and power between the state and national governments, something that was extremely difficult. The framers also had to wrestle with the problem of describing in specific detail the purpose and limits of different codes of laws and types of courts. The English studied this problem for years, but never came up with specific solutions. No language supplies words and phrases for every complex idea or is so precise that every word has only one meaning. The Convention also faced other problems. The delegates had to reconcile the conflict and competition between the large and small states, as well as the fact that competing sectional interests had to be reconciled, as did various economic and social conflicts within every state. These competing interests will undoubtedly have a beneficial effect on the proposed government, but to reconcile them during the Convention was a difficult task.
Madison concludes that it is remarkable given all of the pressures and difficulties that an agreement was reached at all. While it is easy for a theorist to plan a perfect document in the privacy of his den or imagination, for men to hammer out their differences together is another matter. Madison attributes two factors to the success of the Constitutional Convention: first, the framers were free of party animosities and second, the delegates were so pleased with the final product that they were willing to put aside certain personal objections in order to avoid further delay or the necessity of drafting an entirely new document.
Federalist Number 37 is the beginning of another of James Madison's series of work. Hamilton's series of fourteen papers on the vital need for an energetic constitution ended with Number 36, published on January 8, 1788. On January 11, Madison commenced with 37, explaining how the Convention had combined "energy in government with the inviolable attention due to liberty and to the republican form." In this division of the work so peculiarly suited to his talent he had occasion not only to develop the federal principles of the Constitution, but also to discuss in his own characteristic vein the various questions that lie at the foundation of free government itself. And although twelve of the twenty-four essays he wrote in this section have been claimed by Hamilton, examinations of the papers themselves show they were indubitably written by Madison.
Madison's' first two essays, not only 37 but also 38, were devoted to the difficulties faced by the Convention in guaranteeing both the security of the few and the liberty of the many. Madison's thoughts on the relationship of liberty and authority are interesting, because this is a problem that had been his chief concern since he had entered politics. He eloquently wrote in Federalist 37, "Energy in government is essential to that security against external and internal danger and to that prompt and salutary execution of the law, which enter into the very definition of good government. Stability in government is essential to national character. . . On comparing, however, these valuable ingredients with the vital principles of liberty, we must perceive at once the difficulty of mingling them in their due proportions."
While Madison complains in this Federalist paper that the founding fathers had no guides, this is not completely true as they relied heavily upon the philosophers of their time and of earlier times. Raynal, Delome, Montesquieu, and Hume, are, among others, expressly mentioned and quoted within the Federalist Papers themselves, but these writers do not exhaust the list of those whose impact on the Papers is obvious. Machiavelli, and Hume; Hobbes and Rousseau; Harrington, Coke and Clackston, and above all Locke, were all intellectual forebears of the Federalist's discussion of constitutional democracy. While some of theses authors were fundamentally accepted by Madison, Hamilton, and Jay, others were probably fundamentally rejected. No one philosophy was taken over completely or, for that matter, completely rejected.
It is probably no exaggeration, however, to say that Locke exercised a greater influence upon American political thought during the revolutionary era than any other philosopher. His writings were the colonists' major work of reference in their struggle with the mother country. The Declaration of Independence was so close to the Second Treatise of Government in form, phraseology, and content that Jefferson was accused of copying from it. Locke's influence can be seen in state declarations and constitutions. His ideas were present in the Philadelphia Convention. They played an important role thereafter, as well. Locke is the philosopher to whom the authors of the Federalist are most indebted for an exposition of constitutionalism and free government.