Bench Memos

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The Perennial Publius, part 2


From Federalist No. 2, written by John Jay (later to become first chief justice under the new Constitution):

“Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country, to one united people, a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established their general liberty and independence.”

To some modern readers, sniffing the air for any scent of an offense against multiculturalism, Jay’s remarks about American homogeneity must seem terribly underinclusive. Even in his own day it could be asked, What about American religious diversity, including the Jews? What about non-British or non-English-speaking immigrants? What about the Tories who rejected republican principles? (Never mind, them we chased out.) What about Native Americans? (Move aside.) What about the African slaves? (Don’t go there with this guy—Jay was active in antislavery causes.)

Sure, Jay exaggerates. After all, his purpose is to remind Americans of what already unites them as one country, in order to persuade them to knit it still closer together with the new Constitution. But intentionally or not, Jay raises crucial questions for political life. For all our wonderful pluralism, is there an outer limit to the cultural heterogeneity a country can accommodate and still be a country? What is the necessary minimum of “Americanization” that must be undertaken to bring newcomers within the “one united people” he mentions here? For Jay, the crucial factors may be “attach[ment] to the same principles of government” and “fighting side by side.” Wouldn’t differences on the other scores become much easier to deal with?

(For explanation of this recurring feature, see here.)


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