'The Known Opinion of the Impartial World': Foreign Relations and the Law of Nations in the Federalist
NYU School of Law Cambridge Companion to The Federalist, ed. Jack N. Rakove and Colleen Sheehan, March 2017
49 Pages Posted: 25 Oct 2017
Date Written: October 24, 2017
Conventional accounts of The Federalist tend to overlook a critical and uncontroversial fact about the Constitution: the principal function it assigned the proposed new government was the conduct of the Union’s foreign affairs. By neglecting this simple point, readers too often are led to miss the forest for the trees. The Federalist’s central task was not to offer a general blueprint for republican government but, rather, to demonstrate the depth of the Confederation’s failures in foreign affairs and to explain why the new federal government would both govern more effectively in that realm and not imperil the republican commitments of the Revolution. This insight, in turn, reveals another: Even when The Federalist focuses on themes that seem far removed from the problem of foreign affairs — whether in analyzing the general principles of federalism or the separation of powers, the importance of energy in the executive or independence in the judiciary, or the deficiencies of popular assemblies — foreign affairs remains its ultimate subject. It was while developing a theory adequate to explain the interrelation between domestic and foreign governance that the authors of The Federalist were led to their deepest insights. Borrowing from Scottish Enlightenment ideas — which they filtered through their political experiences under the Confederation — they rooted their argument in theories of human nature and the social psychology of governance, which they then applied not only to diagnose the causes of the Confederation’s failings but also to explain the institutional arrangements that could overcome them. The result was an account of how the new federal government would be able to limit the influence of the destructive passions over the making of foreign policy and thereby take advantage of the bounded possibilities of peaceable, productive international relations.
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