We’ve pointed out before that if modern disclosure laws had existed 200 years ago, Madison, Hamilton and Jay would not have been able to publish The Federalist Papers without filling out a lot of forms first. The good folks at Reason have put together a faux campaign ad making the same point.
This is all very amusing, of course, but few people realize just how strong the case for applying disclosure laws to The Federalist Papers would have been. Disclosure laws apply to issue elections, and whether the new constitution should be ratified was undoubtedly the most important issue of the day. It was also highly controversial, with each side making heated accusations about the other. For example, Amos Singletary of Massachusetts claimed during his state’s ratification debate that the constitution was supported by “lawyers and men of learning, and moneyed men that talk so finely, and gloss over matters so smoothly” who want to “get into Congress themselves” and “ be managers of this Constitution, and get all the money into their own hands.”
Alexander Hamilton, who came up with the idea for The Federalist Papers, chose “Publius” as his pseudonym after Publius Valerius, the celebrated founder of republican government in Rome. In fact, the Federalists even co-opted on of their opponents’ best arguments in taking on the label “Federalists,” which, before they adopted it, typically referred to someone who supported state sovereignty and opposed centralization. You can read about these and other interesting facts in Isaac Kramnick’s excellent introduction to the 1987 Penguin edition of The Federalist Papers.
So let’s see, a group of elite political insiders operating under a benign-sounding name wrap themselves in the banner of one of their opponents’ best arguments against them and then support the adoption of a law that will profoundly affect the future course of their government. Sounds like of a campaign finance regulator’s nightmare. And yet, even without disclosure laws and government oversight, the people of the time were able to figure out what the arguments were and to choose accordingly. Imagine that. Maybe there’s a lesson in there for our modern age.