Collective Self-Interest and Efficient Government in Federalist No. 3

April 15, 2024   Joseph Kochanek

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In Federalist No. 3, John Jay argued for a strong and united American government, but he did so in a curious way. Rather than arguing in his own voice, Jay began the essay by characterizing the opinions of Americans in general:

“It is not a new observation that the people of any country (if, like the Americans, intelligent and well informed) seldom adopt and steadily persevere for many years in an erroneous opinion respecting their interests.” (Federalist No. 3)

How the Americans Understood Their Interests

Federalist No. 3 is by no means ineffective as an argument, but the order of the argument is distinctive. After flattering the intellect of his fellow Americans, Jay began, as shown above, by stating that the American people will rarely persist in a misunderstanding of their interests, leaving open the inference that the American people typically understand their interests well. So, that is step one of the argument– Americans can and do understand their own interests.

An Efficient National Government

Step two of the argument is a claim, in the sentence following that quoted above, that the Americans understand a strengthened federal government of the kind to be created by the Constitution to be in their interests: “That consideration naturally tends to create great respect for the high opinion which the people of America have so long and uniformly entertained of the importance of their continuing firmly united under one federal government, vested with sufficient powers for all general and national purposes.” (Federalist No. 3 ) Jay advocates here a strengthened and efficient national government – that’s step three of the argument.

Near the end of the essay, Jay’s argument is more conventional, referring to Jay’s own views rather than the views of others. However, as we see at the beginning of this blog post, Jay’s advocacy of such a strengthened government early in Federalist No. 3 was often second-hand: Jay describing the support of Americans for such a government as an element of his own argument in favor of the point. And this is a feature of Jay’s argument that is worth a second look: when you read Federalist No. 3, do you think Jay’s argument is weakened by not approaching the topic directly, or strengthened by its association with this claim about the American people?