A brief word, as this is the first post in my series on the Federalist Papers, which I’ve previously outlined here. Going forward, I’ll simply post these as I finish them, with no extra commentary. Those who are interested will read them, those who are not are free to skip them. I’ve not yet settled on a format. For this first post, I’ve decided to go with a sort of outline/bullet point style. To this end, I welcome any feedback regarding style, organization, clarity, etc. I also welcome any debate with regard to my analyses, limited though they be.
–DES, 7/28/17, Berlin
The Federalist Project
Federalist No. 1
27 October, 1787
The first Federalist essay goes to Alexander Hamilton, and we essentially begin in medias res, with the self-evidently failing Articles of Confederation, which he refers to as the “inefficiency of the subsisting Fœderal Government.”1 For him, the importance of the proposed constitution is also self-evident. Its consequences include:
- “Nothing less than the existence of the Union…”
- We read later that the “Union” is hardly to be taken for granted. This is, after all, the time of “The United States are” and not “The United States is.”
- “…the safety and welfare of the parts of which it is composed…”
- “…the fate of an empire…”
- My initial impression was that this was a most remarkable choice of words. We must ask, I think, whether seeing America as a nascent “empire” is a particularly Hamiltonian vision. Do opponents see, or even want, this? But we must also ask if H. even uses the word as we understand it today. Later usages of “empire” in this essay may shed some light on this; but I will deal with them as they arise.
- “…, in many respects, the most interesting [empire] in the world.”
- A common view among many of the “Founders,” to be sure; what we today might call “American Exceptionalism.”
“…it seems to be reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force.”
- “…to the people of this country…”, “…reserved…”
- Though he doesn’t use the word, he surely makes reference here to “Providence,” a favorite theme of the “Founders.”
- “…by their conduct and example…”
- Presumably the Revolution and the principles thereof. Otherwise, what can he mean by conduct and example?
- “…capable…of establishing good government from reflection and choice…”
- He presents the situation as unique and unprecedented, as I read it; though whether this is true is debatable. Though direct democracy on the Athenian model was not much in favor, they did seem to have a reverence for the Roman Republic. Was this, at least for a time, not “good government from reflection and choice?”
- “…on accident and force.”
- Force is obvious. Of what he has in mind by accident, I am less certain. Though I might hazard to guess: The chance or accident of having a good king or bad. But this is not quite the “question” of the constitution.
He concludes the first paragraph with strong words indeed:
- “…a wrong election…may…deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.”
- In other words, the scope of the choice goes far beyond the borders of the state (i.e. New York), or even the country.
The second paragraph sets up the questions of interest and motive as well as the way in which the question ought to be approached.
- “This will add to the inducements of philanthropy to those of patriotism…”
- In other words, don’t just do this for your country, but for all humanity!
- “…unperplexed and unbiased by considerations not connected with the public good…more ardently to be wished than seriously to be expected.
- A dose of realism.
He then proceeds to a bit of warning, noting that “The plan…affects too many interests,” among which may be counted:
- “…innovations upon too many local institutions…”
- This is an older usage of innovate, which here means: to “make changes to anything established.”2
- “…not to involve…a variety a variety of objects foreign to its merits…”
- Introducing the question of interest, to be dealt with more fully in the next paragraph.
- “…and the vices, passions and prejudices3 little favorable to the discovery of truth.”
- Hamilton’s truth, surely.
- Introducing the notion that the question should be dealt with rationally and not emotionally (to be dealt with fully in paragraph four).
Paragraph three, then, address interest and motive. Indeed, he argues that “Among the most formidable of the obstacles [will be] the interests of:
- “…a certain class of men in every State to resist all changes which may hazard a diminution of the power, emolument and consequence of the offices they hold under the State-establishments…”
- For H., there always was and always will be an entrenched class who seek to preserve, or even grow, their own power/wealth at the expense of the state; an argument which I find no less true today. That he speaks here of emolument, is striking, to say the least.
- “…and the perverted ambition of another class of men, who hope to aggrandize themselves by the confusions of their country…”
- Some things never change…
- “…or will flatter themselves with fairer prospects of elevation from the subdivision of the empire into several partial confederacies, than from its union under one government.”
- Frighteningly prescient, especially with regard to his choice of the word confederacies – though perhaps this word was not so freighted in 1787. But more on this later.
- Empire But here it seems fairly innocuous and hardly seems as though it should be taken with the modern usage; however striking it might have seemed in paragraph one. Perhaps it is best to read it as a simple 1:1 translation of Latin imperium.4 Still, it will be interesting to note if/how Madison &/or Jay use this word. And also to remember that some would later see H. as having ambition of becoming an “American Napoleon,” due in large part to his desire for (and to lead) a standing army.5
In paragraph four, he calls for an enlightened and rational debate on the subject:
- “…it cannot be doubted that much of the opposition…will spring rom sources, blameless at least, if not respectable, the honest errors of minds led astray by preconceived jealousies and fears.”
- An admirable – if merely rhetorical – show of respect for the opposition; and sorely lacking from today’s discourse, I might add.
- “…that we upon many occasions, see wise and good men on the wrong as well as the right side of questions, of the first magnitude to society.”
- A fair bit of caution…
- “And a further reason for caution…we are not always sure, that those who advocate the truth are influenced by purer principles than their antagonists. Ambition, avarice, personal animosity, party opposition, and many other motives, not more laudable than these, are apt to operate as well upon those who support as upon those who oppose the right side of a question.”
- At first, this seems reasonable and moderate. Yet he never actually admits that his position might be the wrong one. Note the use of truth and the right side of a question.
- “Were there not even these inducements to moderation…”
- The second time he uses the word moderation. seeks moderation as the mode of discourse, but not that it might lead to an opposing conclusion. Only as a strategy, only as the best way to convince people of the truth, as we see in the closing of the paragraph:
- “Nothing could be more ill judged than that intolerant spirit, which has, at all times, characterized political parties.”
- “For, in politics as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution.”
- Man, this guy can write! But we might add that in politics as in religion, for H. as for so many others throughout history, there is only one truth. All that remains is how to convert people from wrong to right; the question of wrong and right having already been decided.
H. begins paragraph five with a few more words against passion:
- “…it will happen in this as in all former cases of great national discussion. A torment of angry and malignant passions will be let loose…”
- At no time, apparently, did (popular) politics not bring out the worst in people.
- “…hope to evince the justness of their opinions, and to increase the number of their converts by the loudness of their declamations, and by the bitterness of their invectives.”
- One might be tempted to see here a parallel with right wing talk radio, &c.
The rest of the paragraph is largely an (elegant) warning against δημηγορία, demagoguery. But first follows a defense of “energetic” and “efficient” government in a very abstract way. And even then, it is more of a defense – or even a counterattack – against the sorts of arguments to be encountered, rather than a defense of the thing per se:
- “An enlightened zeal for the energy and efficiency of government will be stigmatized, as the offspring of a temper fond of despotic power and hostile to the principles of liberty.”
- “It will be forgotten…that the noble enthusiasm of liberty is too apt to be infected with a spirit of narrow and illiberal distrust.”
- “…it will be equally forgotten, that the vigour of government is essential to the security of liberty…”
- Though this argument can surely be used to defend nearly any position, the Trump DoJ comes to mind in 2017. Though this could just as easily be used, I suppose, to defend Trump’s executive orders regarding immigration, &c. On the flip side, the New Deal/Great Society readings are self-evident.
- “…a dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people, than under the forbidding appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government.
- This can only be read, I think, as an attack on populism. However, I doubt he ever had in mind the sort of populism which calls for, among other things, universal health care; surely an example of “energetic” government. In any case, with this, he transitions to his warning against δημηγορία.
- “History will teach us, that the former [i.e. zeal for the rights of the people] has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism, than the latter [i.e. zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government], and that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics the greatest number have begun their career, by paying an obsequious court to the people, commencing Demagogues and ending Tyrants.”
- For H. and the “Founders,” presumably Caesar was most prominent; but also surely Cleon, inter alia. Reading this today, I think first of Erdogan, but also of Putin, Hitler, Stalin…and not a little bit of Trump.
- “By paying an obsequious court to the people” stands out to me as a particularly sharp turn of phrase.
In paragraph six, H. urges caution against all arguments but those “which may result from the evidence of truth.” But here, finally, he openly admits that he has already made up his mind:
- “I am convinced, that this is the safest course for your liberty, your dignity, and your happiness.”6
- Liberty and happiness, yes. But dignity is an interesting choice, and I must confess I’m not entirely clear what he means by it here, except perhaps that he sees the proposed form of government as the most “dignified” yet proposed by man. But that is, at present, only speculation.
- “I effect not reserves, which I do not feel.” “The consciousness of good intentions disdains ambiguity.”
- This is how you say, “I know I’m right,” with class and eloquence.
- “My motives must remain in the depository of my own breast: My arguments will be open to all, and may be judged of by all.”
- On keeping his own motives private: On the one hand, he warns against all foul manner of motivation on both sides of the question. Should we not know his, that we need not fear he will personally profit by adoption? On the other, he has made clear that motivation is not at issue – the only thing that matters is getting to the “truth.”
- I love the construction: “something may be judged of by somebody.” It’s archaic, but it’s also kind of gorgeous.
In paragraph seven, he simply lists the topics that he plans to address in the course of the Federalist. By the very names of the topics, he gives indication that they are all to the good and by the very merits of their names, argue for adoption from a position of already having been decided [i.e. being self-evidently “true”].
If this [i.e. paragraph seven] is not enough, he will also seek to “answer all the objections…that may seem to have any claim to your attention” in paragraph eight. He does seem to recognize that simply laying out his own arguments, no matter how elegant and exact (and “true”), may not be enough. I personally doubt that H. thinks there can be any objection that might fairly have a claim to anyone’s attention. Nevertheless, he knows that such objections are out there and will, apparently, meet them head on.
He closes Federalist No.1 with this ninth and final paragraph, in which he argues for the “utility of the UNION”:
- “…the utility of the UNION…which it may be imagined has no adversaries.”
- It is not just a question, then, of the type of government, but of the very Union itself. In theory, one could support the Union as prescribed by the Articles of Confederation and still oppose the constitution. And surely he means this to an extent. But he goes further:
- “But the fact is, that we already hear it whispered in the private circles of those who oppose the new constitution, that the Thirteen States are of too great extent for any general system…”
- Interestingly, this is not an argument we ever hear today, even in the context of “states rights” or a too-powerful federal government. I’m not even sure it was still relevant by the time of the Civil War. But it was certainly a concern at the time, even amongst the Founders. He continues:
- “…and that we must of necessity resort to separate confederacies of distinct portions of the whole.”
- To the modern eye, the word “confederacies” is striking, if not outright alarming, and seems to lend a certain perspicacity to H.’s words. But I think it should not be so. Small-“c” confederacy obviously predates The Confederacy. Indeed, the nation was already operating under the Articles of Confederation. And yet, this is exactly what would happen. And while the reason would not be the size and power of the federal government per se, it is that which would underlie the question of slavery to a great degree; and from the Southern perspective, more so than any question of right/wrong vis-à-vis that awful institution.
- “…the alternative of an adoption of the new Constitution, or a dismemberment of the Union.”
- These, and nothing less, are the stakes.
- “…begin by examining the advantages of that Union, the certain evils and the probable dangers, to which every State will be exposed by its dissolution.”
- This will “constitute the subject of [his] next address.”
PUBLIUS: All essays are signed with this name. H/M/J speak with one voice. But whereas today we might take a dim view of anonymity in such writings, I think here the idea is, the arguments stand on their own merits and need not the endorsements of their authors’ names; though I think the authorship was no secret.7 But we should also remember that this was a common practice of the time, and on all sides; the opposition signing essays as “Cato” and the like.
The full text of Federalist No.1 may be found here.
- I preserve the original spellings and punctuation as reproduced in the Bantam edition of 1982, edited by Gary Wills. [↩]
- dictionary.com [↩]
- No fan of the Oxford Comma was Hamilton. #myboy [↩]
- Lewis & Short give the following: B.1: supreme power, sovereignty, sway, dominion, empire; b) dominion, government; (a). dominion, realm, empire; 3.(g). the government. [↩]
- I’d dig through Chernow’s book for a better citation here, but alas, it is in NY. [↩]
- Wait, now an Oxford Comma? #wtf [↩]
- I could be wrong about this. [↩]