The Federalist Project
Federalist No. 3
3 November, 1787
The third Federalist, as the second, is composed by John Jay. This essay is more squarely in J’s wheelhouse, as it deals with the advantages of Union (again, almost always capitalized) vis-à-vis foreign affairs; and to a lesser extent vis-à-vis internal stability. The essay is more firmly grounded in the real world, rather than theory, and is, in my opinion, the stronger for it. As in my previous essay, we will proceed through his arguments paragraph by paragraph, beginning with the first:
- “It is not a new observation that the people of any country (if like the Americans intelligent and well informed) seldom adopt, and steadily preserve for many years in, an erroneous opinion respecting their interests.”
- Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure…
- Anyway, J opens again with a ‘we can all agree’ position.
- “…the high opinion which the people of America have so long and uniformly entertained of the importance of their continuing firmly united under one Fœderal Government…”
- ipso facto: “intelligent and well informed” people don’t keep bad opinions for long; Americans are “intelligent and well informed” and have had this opinion for a while…therefore it must be right and good.
In the third Paragraph, J introduces the main theme of the essay: Safety:
- “Among the many objects to which a wise and free people find it necessary to direct their attention, that of providing for their safety seems to be the first.”
- There’s something interesting going on here. J stipulates that the people must first be “free.” That is, “safety” can’t be addressed until independence (in this case from Britain) is secured. However, it strikes me that this argument cuts both ways. For surely, the opposition would view themselves as being ‘unfree’ under one (in their eyes) too-powerful Fœderal Government, and would themselves be in no position to address their own (and ‘sovereign’) “safety.”
- Be that as it may, J will, in the the next paragraph, define safety “precisely and comprehensively.”
Paragraph Four sets out that definition:
- “At present I mean only to consider it [i.e. safety] as it respects security for the preservation of peace and tranquility, as well as against dangers from foreign arms and influence, as from dangers of the like kind arising from domestic causes.”
- Now J moves into an area where he can, and does, speak with greater clarity and authority – real world policies (opp. theory). As we will see, his reasoning is largely based on history and practical experience as well as America’s current geo-political relationships.
- “…a cordial Union under an efficient national Government, affords them [the people] the best security that can be advised against hostilities from abroad.”
- In Fed.2.2 (and echoing Rousseau), J writes: “the people must cede to it [the Government] some of their natural rights, in order to vest it with requisite powers.” Here, he is essentially substituting the States for the People. For, as we will see, his arguments all revolve around the efficiency of the Union in these matters, as opposed to the thirteen States or three or four confederacies.
Paragraph Five addresses advantages of Union with respect to the causes of war:
- “The number of wars which have happened or will happen in the world, will always be found to be in proportion to the number and weight of the causes, whether real or pretended, which provoke or invite”
- I suppose this is more or less true, if a bit circular. But more interesting – to me, anyway – is that this is another example of J beginning an argument with what he posits to be a universal truth, or at least, a universally agreed upon principle. It seems, at those early stage, to be a marker of his rhetorical style.
- “…it becomes useful to enquire, whether so many just causes of war are likely to be given by United America, as by disunited America…”
- Now we embark upon one of the two main arguments of this essay: that Union will better promote peace and security on the international stage.
- On an orthographic level, what, if any, is the significance of capitals and italics for “United America” v. non-italic, lower case “disunited” (and not “America”)? Does he mean to imply that one is more legitimate – more “proper,” so to speak – than the other? Or am I reading too much into it?
- “…for if it should turn out that United America will probably give the fewest [just causes of war], then it will follow that, in this respect, the Union tends most to preserve the people in a state of peace with other nations.”
- “Useful to enquire,” “if it should turn out”: A change in rhetorical style here. Now he proceeds from inquiry, thesis. In the following paragraphs, he will set out to prove these.
Paragraph Six sees J leave theory behind and enter the upon the ‘real world’ with special attention to America’s actual relationships with other powers in the real of geo-politics. Nor should we forget J’s experience as a diplomat, which lends weight and expertise to his arguments and analyses.
- “The just causes of war for the most part arise either from violation of treaties, or from direct violence.”
- I read this as simple analysis rather than the rhetorical ‘first principles’ we have previously seen.
- “America has already formed treaties with no less than six foreign nations, and all of them, except Prussia, are maritime, and therefore able to injure us…”
- This information is no doubt as useful to the modern reader as to the contemporary.
- “She also has extensive commerce with Portugal, Spain, and Britain, and with respect to the two latter, has in addition the circumstances of neighborhood to attend to.”
- Somewhat tangentially, perhaps, J reminds the reader that not only are war and peace at stake, but trade and commerce as well; surely no small thing for the sate of New York in particular, to whom these essays are, after all, primarily addressed.
- “Neighborhood”: I assume, Spanish Florida and British Canada, as well as the various holdings of both states in the Caribbean. That he does not identify these means, presumably, he well expects the reader to know exactly what he means.
- This may contradict my earlier note about separation/protection by ocean (cf. Fed.2.4). For if the Spanish are in Florida and the Brits in Canada; and both in the Caribbean, than perhaps the Atlantic is not so great a barrier and protection as I previously allowed; even if it is not wholly insignificant.
We the readers – both modern and contemporary – tend to focus our analyses of the Federalist essays and the debate over adoption of the constitution on how empowered the federal government should be. But in Paragraph Seven, J reminds us that America’s legitimacy on the international stage was very much at stake here:
- “It is of high importance to the peace of America, that she observe the laws of nations towards all these Powers…”
In Paragraph Eight, J argues that one national government will necessarily lead to the election and appointment of the best people and those most suited to manage national affairs (as opposed to local), both foreign and domestic:
- “Because when once the efficient national government is established, the best men in the country will not only consent to serve; but also be generally appointed to manage it…”
- So much to unpack here. First, “men” only and white men at that. Second, it’s optimistic, although perhaps not unfairly so. After all, the quality of the members of the Continental Congress and the Convention was at an extremely high level. But is it unfair to think that this was a time when much greater emphasis was placed on public service? Furthermore, those assemblies may have been the greatest collection of minds in our history. Is it naïve to think such constellations would be easily repeated? I don’t’ know. In any case, it does seem that today, our best minds do not go into public service.
- “…for altho’ town our country, or other contracted influence may place men in state assemblies, or senates, or courts of justice, or executive departments; yet more general and extensive reputation for talents and other qualifications, will be necessary to recommend men to offices under the national government…”
- Again, I don’t know if this reasonably optimistic or foolishly naïve. Additionally, I wonder now how one is able to acquire “more general and extensive reputation” outside of military service. Outside of the one-time initial Continental Congress, must not all politicians make their names locally before they can aspire to national office?
- “…especially as it will have the widest field of choice, and never experience the want of proper persons, which is not uncommon in some of the States.”
- Even if this can be said to be generally true – and I’m not sure that it can – it is certainly not nearly always true, as the election of 2016 made painfully clear.
- “Hence it will result, that the administration, the political counsels, and the judicial decisions of the national Government will be more wise, systematical and judicious, than those of the States, and consequently more satisfactory with respect to other nations, as well as more safe with respect to us.”
- But this has not always been true. Sometimes the national Government is “more wise [etc.]” than the States (e.g. Brown v. Board of Education). But sometimes states take the lead (e.g. California with environmental standards). And even on the international stage, it is now states (and cities) which must take the lead on environmental issues after national withdrawal from the Paris agreements.
- Earlier, I mentioned military service as a way to gain “general and extensive reputation.” It occurs to me hat success in business is another avenue. But in our history, businessmen have tended to stay in business, while politicians seem to run a sort of cursus honorum beginning at the local level. But perhaps this is a post-industrial view? Hancock and Jefferson were both ‘businessmen,’ albeit of very different sorts. And Adams would have gained national notoriety as a lawyer for defending the accused in the Boston Massacre. But in modern times, names like Perot and Trump come to mind, and I don’t think either can be said to have been (or be) successful, despite the latter’s electoral victory; certainly not in the ways that J here describes.
In Paragraph Nine, J addresses the efficacy of “committing such questions to the jurisdiction and judgment of courts appointed by, and responsible only to one national Government.” Such questions include:
- “…treaties and articles of treaties…”
- “…laws of nations…”
- The importance of doing so “cannot be too much commended.”
Paragraph Ten continues to present the advantages of one national government:
- “Because the prospect of present loss or advantage, may often tempt the governing party in one or two States to swerve from good faith and justice; but those temptations not reaching the other States, and consequently having little or no influence on the national government, the temptation will be fruitless, and good faith and justice be preserved.”
- This is a very sound argument, I think. Thirteen states acting under one federal government should, in theory, only arrive at decisions which benefit the nation as a whole, even if certain aspects of a treaty may be found to be harmful to a particular state or region. Perhaps the nature of trade or relations with England or France might be examples of this.
- “The case of the treaty of peace with Britain, adds great weight to this reasoning.”
- Though this is surely right, J is hardly a disinterested party here, having been a principal negotiator in that treaty. But this, I think, serves to lend weight and expertise to the argument.
Paragraph Eleven paints the proposed national government as a counterbalance to the “temptations” and jealousies of local and regional politics. And while the two-party system had yet to manifest itself, it is easy to read this paragraph as presenting the proposed national government as a counterbalance to the “temptations” and jealousies of party politics as well:
- “Because even if the governing party in a State should be disposed to resist such temptations, yet as such temptations may, and commonly do result from circumstances peculiar to the State, and my affect a great number of the inhabitants, the governing party may not always be able if wiling to prevent the injustice mediated, or to punish the aggressors.”
- And now J returns to theory, where I have so far felt him less strong. In nay case, while this may be true to an extent of the “governing party,” nevertheless, it has not seemed to hinder the independent judiciary. If we take NY as an example, the state Attorneys General have shown themselves equal to the task of taking on members of their own party as well as of the opposition. And this has been no less true of the Federal prosecutors (e.g. Preet Bharara).
- “But the national Government, not being affected by those local circumstances, will neither be induced to commit the wrong themselves, nor want power or inclination to prevent, or punish its commission by others.”
- I’m not sure that the national government isn’t affected by “local circumstances,” first of all. But let us stipulate this for the sake of argument. I find the notion that the national government wouldn’t be “induced to commit the wrong” somewhat laughable. And when those wrongs do happen on the national level, it is here, I think, that politicians have shown themselves least willing to go after members of their own party. Indeed, they seem all too ready to defend the wrongdoers – and indeed the wrongs themselves – in the interest of protecting the “brand.” But perhaps this is too modern, too current, a view. And if so, should J be held to be in the wrong on this account?
Taking Paragraphs Twelve & Thirteen together, we say J return to the causes of war:
- (12) “So far therefore as either designed or accidental violation of treaties and of laws of nations afford just causes for war…the former [i.e. “one general government”] most favors the safety of the people.”
- (13) “As to those causes of war which proceed from direct and unlawful violence…one good national government affords vastly more security against dangers of that sort, than can be derived from any other quarter.”
- ¶12 is based on his arguments in ¶11, which read to me as being more relevant to domestic concerns. I do not alter my commentary however, where we might cite Benghazi as an example of the politicization of an external matter on the one hand, and defense of torture on the other. Though the decision to go to war in Iraq was blundered into on both sides, which shows that one “general government” is hardly infallible or incapable of giving “just causes” of war. But perhaps this is more relevant to ¶13-14.
- As ¶12 depends on ¶11, by a sort of chiasmus does ¶13 depend upon ¶14…
Paragraph 14 sees J attempt to show that one national government could hardly be expected to give “unjust causes” for war:
- “Because such violences are more frequently caused by the passions and interests of a part than the whole, of one or two States than of the Union.”
- He may be right here, when the question of adoption is still unresolved and the States had more power to act independently outside their own borders. The fact that this point seems hardly relevant today may actually prove him right.
- “Not a single Indian war has yet been occasioned by aggressions of the present Fœderal Government, feeble as it is…”
- But perhaps no such war had “been occasioned” precisely because of the federal government was so “feeble.”
- “…but there are several instances of Indian hostilities having been provoked by the improper conduct of individual States, who either unable or unwilling to restrain or punish offences, have given occasion to the slaughter of many innocent inhabitants.”
- Yes, well, his concern for the “innocent inhabitants” is touching. Perhaps he’d be willing to re-negotiate of Manhattan with those “innocent inhabitants” on more favorable terms, or give back other appropriated lands unjustly taken.
- In any case, president Jackson would soon put the lie to this argument, nevermind the “general government”’s dealings with the “innocent inhabitants” during the course of the following century.
In Paragraph Fifteen, J argues that local interests might be more likely to entangle single states or regions in wars with Great Powers and that, consequently, one national government would be more likely to prevent such occurrences:
- “The neighborhood of Spanish and British territories, bordering on some States, and not on others, naturally confines the causes of quarrel more immediately to the borderers. The bordering States if any…will be most likely to direct violence, to excite war with these nations…”
- J returns again to present real world affairs, and again – I find – his arguments are stronger for it.
- “…and nothing can so effectually obviate that danger, as a national Government, whose wisdom and prudence will not be diminished by the passions which actuate the parties immediately interested.”
- That a strong central government can – and will – provide a moderating influence on local passions is almost certainly true, at least within the scope here addressed. However, when those passions become regional – e.g. slavery – a strong central government can, and will, exacerbate those passions. But clearly the Founders/Framers were aware of this and decided to leave that particular problem for another day and another generation.
In Paragraph Sixteen, J argues that one national government will be better suited to settling (violent) disputes when they do arise:
- “But not only fewer just causes of war will be given by the national Government, but it will also be more in their power to accommodate and settle them amicably.”
- Certainly true vis-à-vis foreign affairs.
- “The pride of States as well as of men, naturally disposes them to justify all their actions, and opposes their acknowledging, correcting or repairing their errors and offenses.”
- An astute observation of human nature. And insofar as States are made of men, then of States as well. Whereas one national government should (or would, J argues) dissipate such “pride” (cf. ¶11).
- “The national Government in such cases will not be affected by this pride, but will proceed with moderation and candour to consider and decide on the means most proper to extricate them from the difficulties which threaten them.”
- Perhaps true in the case of local border disputes. But if the national government perceives itself wronged, surely it too is capable of (self-destructive) “pride.” Or does this register as a “just cause” of war?
Paragraph Seventeen suggests that one national government will have more credibility abroad:
- “Besides it is well known that acknowledgements, explanations and compensations are often accepted as satisfactory from a strong united nation, which would be rejected as unsatisfactory if offered by a State or Confederacy of little consideration or power.”
- Is this a ‘might makes right’ argument? Does he mean to imply that a united government can get away with more “unjust” causes of war? Or simply that they are less likely to be persecuted, hassled, etc. if they are stronger? That unintentional errors can be more easily forgiven? Or perhaps even more simply that a united government is less likely to be ‘taken to the cleaners’ in any negotiation with a foreign power?
J continues the argument in Paragraph Eighteen, after citing the example of Genoa vis-à-vis France in 1685:
- “Would he [Louis XIV] on any occasion either have demanded, or have received the like humiliation from Spain, Britain, or any other powerful nation?”
- So perhaps for J, it’s just about respect and not getting ‘taken to the cleaners.’ Still, the idea that powerful nations can more or less do as they please, even unjustly, should not be overlooked. And lest we think that modern norms or NGOs have dealt with this, we need only consider the examples of Russia in Ukraine/Crimea or North Korea’s nuclear program to see that “powerful” nations continue to have a much longer leash.
The full text of Federalist No.3 may be found here.