The Federalist Papers: Calvin’s Echo Chamber

The popular Federalist Papers in many ways reflect the continuation of Calvin’s view of man and the state.[1] Alexander Hamilton began The Federalist Papers by asserting that the people of this country have reserved to themselves the important question of whether “societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government” (Federalist #1).[2] While he admitted that the people must cede to that government certain prerogatives (#2), Hamilton sought to preserve the balance Calvin espoused, as he phrased it, the equilibrium between an overzealous governor and “an over-scrupulous jealousy” for the rights of the people (#1). Hamilton and Madison, like Calvin, strove to avoid pure democracy or crushing monarchy by defending a democratic republicanism. Later, Hamilton referred to the same dynamic as the combination of “the energy of government” and the “security of private rights” (#26).

The “providence” embraced by the Declaration of Independence, by the proclamations of the Continental Congress, and by Calvin himself was referenced thrice in one paper (Federalist #2), and it was instrumental in uniting the nation in “professing the same religion,” a claim that is astonishing for any who have forgotten the religious thread connecting America’s founding garments. James Madison also averred: “It is impossible for the man of pious reflection not to perceive in it a finger of that Almighty hand which has been so frequently and signally extended to our” national blessedness (#37). Part of Madison’s praise for the Almighty’s hand comes from his observation of the amazing fashion in which providence had reconciled various factions. Without God’s providence, the strife might have been ominously classified “among the most dark and degrading pictures which display the infirmities and depravities (emphasis added) of the human character” (#37).

As an explanation for how the existing confederation could be altered to form a national union, Madison invoked theological phrasing similar to that of the Declaration, i.e., resorting to “the transcendent law of nature and of nature’s God” (Federalist #43). He sounded very much like John Knox and other Old Testament believers when he referred to a covenant as a solemn obligation, the “breach of any one article [being] a breach of the whole treaty” (#43). That Madison was unafraid of using theological terminology is evident in his mentioning of “guilt,” “expiation,” “sacrifice,” and “altar” in a single  sentence (Federalist #44). In Rutherfordian terms, Madison even referred to the Old World notion that “people were made for kings, not kings for the people” as an “impious doctrine”[3] (#45).

Not far into the discussions conducted in The Federalist Papers, Hamilton introduced the Calvinist view of man’s imperfectability by noting that nations often waged war because of disgraceful and avaricious “human nature” (Federalist #4). Recognizing the natural human tendency to commit hostile and aggressive acts against other men, he inferred an early form of the peace-through-strength doctrine, arguing that if the nation had no strong defense, it would “invite war.” Thus, Madison saw a strong defense as a correlate of a realistic assessment of human capacities. He also argued that the well-ordered state would be more prone to cultivate friendship than provoke resentment or invite aggression. Comprehending the impact of passion and ambition, John Jay implied that all nations would not automatically be guided by “the same degree of sound policy, prudence, and foresight” (#5). Habitual human excess demanded prudent protections.

It is worth recalling that when America was founded, only the small republics of Venice, Geneva, and Holland provided exemplary laboratories of republican governing. As Hamilton described it, the American republic was not molded after Greek or Roman republics, which granted relatively smaller freedom. Hamilton clearly had in mind a much more progressive idea of republicanism, developed only after the Reformation. His taxonomy of the features of republicanism itemized the following points, taken largely from the Calvinistic states of Geneva and Holland: “the regular distribution of power into distinct departments; the introduction of legislative balances and checks; the institution of courts composed of judges holding their offices during good behavior; [and] the representation of the people in the legislature by deputies of their own election” (Federalist #9). Of significant interest is Hamilton’s additional comment that these features were “wholly new discoveries [emphasis added], or have made their principal progress towards perfection in modern times.” Hamilton, thus, seems to concur that these additions to republican practice were not originated by the ancient republics. While skeptical that a mere confederacy was durable enough, Hamilton argued that the proposed Constitution should not abolish state or local governments.

Hamilton may have traced the movement away from monarchical privilege, and in particular to the Glorious Revolution of 1688, led by Calvinist William of Orange, who is commemorated on the Reformation wall in Geneva. In that revolution, which limited barons and bolstered individual liberty, Hamilton believed that “English liberty was completely triumphant” (Federalist #26). He also saw the curtailment of standing armies as conducive to individual liberty. From that 1688 revolution, this founding father thought that Americans “derived an hereditary impression” of the danger attendant to excessive power and standing armies. As Zwingli, Calvin, and Althusius had called for ephors and “an efficacious power” to check the militia, Hamilton also invoked the need for checks on military force.[4]

Madison believed that only republicanism—scarce outside of nations influenced by the Reformation—was consonant with American liberty (Federalist #38). He isolated the core of republicanism in power derived from the people “administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure for a limited period” (#39). Such limitations should be appreciated as developing only after Calvin’s ideas permeated political practice. The Constitution extended a guarantee of a republican form of government to each state (#43). Indeed, the Calvinistic sea change was so great as to render anti-republicanism unorthodox at the founding of America.

James Madison added that factions had their seeds in “the nature of man” (Federalist #10). This student of Witherspoon warned against pure democracy as a host of “turbulence and contention.” Instead of unmediated mob rule, which was “incompatible with personal security or the rights of property,” Madison commended a republic which offered a “scheme of representation.” In a classically Calvinistic ethos, Madison identified the “genius of republican liberty” with the “demand on one side not only that all power should be derived from the people, but that those intrusted with it should be kept in dependence on the people by a short duration of their appointments; and that even during their short period the trust should be placed not in a few, but a number of hands” (#37).

Hamilton knew enough about human nature to recognize that centralized power carried with it an innate drive to reduce or eliminate opposition (Federalist #15). From that understanding of power and self-interest, Hamilton drew a logical conclusion: there is “little reason to expect that the persons intrusted with the administration of the affairs of the particular members of a confederacy will at all times be ready with perfect good humor and an unbiased regard to the public weal to execute the resolutions or decrees of the general authority.” “The reverse” of that utopian ideal “results from the constitution of man” (#15). Such a reformulation of Calvinism in a secular political vocabulary is reiterated when Hamilton also analyzed the “ambitious premeditation” of rulers to rid themselves of “all external control upon their designs of personal aggrandizement.” Madison agreed that power bore “an encroaching nature” that should be confined to its assigned limits (#48).

Human nature (see Federalist #17) was often spoken of in the popular Federalist Papers, and the “necessity of a Constitution” (#23) was viewed as a limitation of the tendencies of men to abuse power over fellow creatures. Hamilton acknowledged human depravity when he noted that “the dread of punishment” is a “strong discouragement” to sedition (#27). Hamilton was also realistic enough to note that political maladies (or dystopia) were as inseparable from the body politic as tumors were from the physical body. The founding fathers insisted on factoring human imperfection into the political calculus. They were not so naïve as to think that man’s reason was immune from sin’s affect.

For Hamilton the theory espoused by the post-Reformation theologians (Buchanan, Althusius, Rutherford) had become an accepted “doctrine,” and even if deemed heretical by monarchs, he stood with the likes of Rutherford in maintaining that “a party to a compact has a right to revoke that compact” (Federalist #22).


Note: all quotes are from sources as noted. The only fictitious elements in these diary posts are to treat these as letters from John Calvin.

[1] Although this volume emphasizes the continuity between Calvin’s thought and the founding of America, significant differences, such as those noted in the Preface of this work, should be remembered.

[2] The edition cited (by number) is The Federalist Papers, Clinton Rossiter and Charles R. Kesler, eds., (New York: Mentor, 1999).

[3] This argument should not be viewed as implying that only religious sources buttressed The Federalist Papers. Without dispute, ancient and secular sources were drawn on as well. This study simply seeks to place the thought of the Federalist Papers within the context of post-Reformation ideology.

[4] Other scholars have confirmed that the Glorious Revolution was a key date preceding the American Revolution. See Michael P. Zuckert, Natural Rights and the New Republicanism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994).


David Hall


On YouTube

The Story of Scripture

Reformed Resources

New audio from James Boice

Find Out More

Register for the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology