Q. For Hamilton, the genius of the proposed federal constitution is it creates a federal government of limited and enumerated rights. There are some things the federal government could do, for example, the regulation of commerce and the ability to wage war and protect national security, but for most tasks of government, the federal government was to leave things to the states or the people therein. A federal government limited in its scope is one more security for the rights of the people. Thus, for Hamilton, adding a bill of rights to the Constitution would be “not only unnecessary,” but “would even be dangerous.” This is because such a bill of rights
would contain various exceptions to powers not granted; and, on this very account, would afford a colorable pretext to claim more than were granted. For why declare that things shall not be done which there is no power to do? Why, for instance, should it be said that the liberty of the press shall not be restrained, when no power is given by which restrictions may be imposed? I will not contend that such a provision would confer a regulating power; but it is evident that it would furnish, to men disposed to usurp, a plausible pretense for claiming that power. They might urge with a semblance of reason, that the Constitution ought not to be charged with the absurdity of providing against the abuse of an authority which was not given, and that the provision against restraining the liberty of the press afforded a clear implication, that a power to prescribe proper regulations concerning it was intended to be vested in the national government. This may serve as a specimen of the numerous handles which would be given to the doctrine of constructive powers, by the indulgence of an injudicious zeal for bills of rights. (No. 84)
In a limited government, there is no need to specify the rights reserved to the states or people, because all such rights and all powers, other than those expressly granted by the Constitution, belong and will always belong to the people and their state and local governments. What the federal Constitution and what the Federalist Papers were designed to do, was to preserve for the American people the most important political right of all: self-government.
R. Those who have understood that point have lavished praise on the Federalist Papers in superlatives that are almost embarrassing, except for the fact that they are correct. Thomas Jefferson describes the Federalist Papers as “the best commentary on the principles of government, which ever was written.” Clinton Rossiter, in his 1961 introduction to the Federalist Papers, describes it as “the most important work in political science that has ever been written, or is likely ever to be written in the United States. It is, indeed, the one product of the American mind that is rightly counted among the classics of political theory.” Jacob Cooke, another editor of the Federalist Papers, says the Federalist is “the most significant contribution Americans have made to political philosophy.” In our era, as in the late eighteenth century, there is a great risk that our government will increase in power and the rights of property and self-government will be increasingly threatened. We can still learn much about political freedom from the Framers, and from Hamilton, Madison, and Jay.