Posted by: George | June 7, 2017

Lessons from The Federalist Papers, No. 15

We may indeed with propriety be said to have reached almost the last stage of national humiliation. . . . It is true, as has been before observed that facts, too stubborn to be resisted, have produced a species of general assent to the abstract proposition that there exist material defects in our national system; but the usefulness of the concession, on the part of the old adversaries of federal measures, is destroyed by a strenuous opposition to remedy, upon the only principles that can give it a chance of success.

Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 15


We tend to freeze our identities—personal, family, tribe, and nation. We talk about how things might have changed, but these seem to be passing thoughts, fleeting notions that we don’t really believe. We might say that we were naïve once upon a time, that our family went through difficulties, that our favorite baseball team fell apart in the August heat, or that our nation has a glorious history, but we don’t seem to believe such events had much of an impact on who we are essentially.

We tend to ignore flux and change and history. If we were more able to live in flux and chaos and change, we would see that it is a miracle that we won the revolution, that the nation survived long enough to adopt its constitution. Our early history was precarious, and here we are, at this moment in history, all precarious again.

In Federalist No. 15, Hamilton writes of the country being in “the last stage of national humiliation.” Sounds familiar. In 1787, he saw a new country, yet unformed, that could not repay its debts. Heard that recently. These facts were “too stubborn to be resisted,” yet too many Americans opposed remedy. Facts being ignored. Heard that on the news this morning.

America was not, in 1787, a great nation, but soon our experiment would take shape and other nations began to look to us for hope—eventually even stability. They embrace the symbol of America. When we fall short of our ideals, they express their disappointment. What we often dismiss as anti-Americanism is often complex—just as “pro” as it is “anti.”

Last week, I attended the NonfictioNow conference in Reykjavik. As I was waiting for a session to begin, I ovewaltwhitmanrheard a professor from Iceland (I didn’t catch his name or institution) talk about how his students were “having trouble dealing with what is going on in America.” That students in Iceland viscerally react to American politics was a bit surprising, especially since so many of our students seem to be oblivious.

In our isolation, speaking only English, reading American authors, watching American television and movies, watching local news, it is easy for us to forget that the rest of the world knows the welfare of America affects them—their futures and safety and dreams. They also essentiaiize America. For them as well, America is a symbol. They want it to be something good, something stable, an aspiration. They know all too well that we have not reached the promise of democracy.

In Democratic Vistas, published in 1871, almost a century after The Federalist Papers, Whitman says that we have not yet achieved democracy. That would wait on universal suffrage and the development of individuals who would be able to participate in democracy. He wrote:

I will not gloss over the appalling dangers of universal suffrage in the United States. In fact it is to admit and face these dangers I am writing. To him or her within whose thought rages the battle, advancing, retreating, between democracy’s convictions, aspirations, and the people’s crudeness, vice, caprices, I mainly write this essay.

Notice the “him or her.” Whitman is not consistent in his use of non-sexist pronouns, but he is consistent in his advocacy for the education of women and the expansion of voting rights.

We can easily forget how recent these rights are—and how fragile they remain. In “The Abortion Battlefield” (New York Review of Books, 22 June 2017), Marcia Angell writes:

     Women couldn’t vote in the United States until 1920 (fifty years after African-American men), and until 1936 they could lose their citizenship if they married a foreigner and lived abroad. As for their children, citizenship was conferred by the father, not the mother. Until 1968, job ads could specify whether men or women would be hired, and that year women were paid 58 cents for every dollar earned by men. Remarkably, women could be denied credit without a man’s signature until 1974, and until 1978 they could be fired from their jobs if they became pregnant. . . . They were expected to submit to their husbands sexually, and martial rape did not become a crime in all states until 1993.

When we hear the chant “Make American Great Again,” a desire to return to the essential American, which is somewhere in the past, we need to ask whose America we are recreating from faulty memory or our ignorance of history. The “Again” signals a turning back of the clock, but to what era? Before 2015, when gays could not marry in most states? Before 1993, when it was legal for a husband to rape his wife? Before 1978, when women could be fired for being pregnant on the job? Before 1920, when women could not vote? Before 1868, when African Americans could not vote? Before 1863, when African Americans were still slaves? Before 1787, when, according to Alexander Hamilton, things weren’t so great?

I may be wrong, but I don’t think there is a Great America back there. If Hamilton were around, I think he would agree.

Consult for background and texts relating to The Federalist Papers.

I also invite your to read Homo Academicus, my serial novel, which is being published at


Posted by: George | May 11, 2017

Lessons from The Federalist Papers, No. 14

Had no important step been taken by the leaders of the Revolution for which a precedent could not be discovered, no government established of which an exact model did not present itself, the people of the United States might have been numbered among the melancholy victims of misguided councils, must at best have been laboring under the weight of some of those forms which have crushed the liberties of the rest of mankind. Happily for America, happily, we trust for the whole human race, they pursued a new and more noble course.

James Madison, No. 14

Reading the Federalist Papers is like sitting around with old friends chatting about old times. The old friends jar our memory. The Federalist Papers bring our history, our origins, our values, and our uniqueness, back to us, putting current events into a new perspective.

We can easily forget that our government was an experiment. While a democracy once existed in Athens and a republic once existed in Rome, these governments could not serve as precise models for what was emerging in the United States in 1787. In Federalist 14, Madison calls the proposed government “an extended republic.” It is not a democracy like that of Athens, where all citizens actively participated in every major political decision. It is not a republic like Rome, where representatives were elected from a city to rule an empire. In the proposed government, citizens would elect representatives from a country that was lready expansive, much of it frontier.

In Federalist 14, Madison asks us to have hope in our experiment “for the whole human race.” He asks that his fellow citizens guard against cynicism: “No, my countrymen, shut your ears against this unhallowed language, Shut your hearts against the poison which it conveys; the kindred blood which flows in the veins of American citizens, the mingled th_002blood, which they have shed in defense of their sacred rights, consecrate their Union, and excite horror at the idea of their becoming aliens, rivals, enemies.”

In 1787, Madison was asking Americans, who identified more with their states than with a weak central government, to have faith in a new form of government and to remain American citizens, unified as they had been during the Revolution. Don’t let, he says, a small faction split apart and divert us from our common purpose.

Now, we have an approved constitution. We also have traditions that support the principles of separation of powers. Some of these traditions, once broadly enumerated in the constitution, relate to how agencies operate, even agencies that emerged centuries later, like the FBI.

The FBI is, of course, not mentioned in the constitution, but the need for it to operate independently is a long-standing tradition, one that evolved from the doctrine of separation of powers.

Our republic is still an experiment. It can still fail. It still needs the protection and faith of the American people.

We should remain optimistic. The constitution was eventually ratified. We have survived constitutional crises.

But we need to place our optimism in the right place. The constitution cannot defend itself. Traditions do not exist apart from what Hegel called Objective Spirit, what we might call our evolving understanding of how we should ethically relate to others. We must place our optimism in the collective action of the American people to protect our constitution, our traditions, and ultimately our democracy.

Consult for background and texts relating to The Federalist Papers.

I also invite your to read Homo Academicus, my serial novel, which is being published at

Posted by: George | May 6, 2017

Lessons from The Federalist Papers, No. 13

The supposition that each confederacy into which the States would be likely to be divided would require a government not less comprehensive than the one proposed, will be strengthened by another supposition, more probably than that which presents us with three confederacies as the alternative to a general Union. If we attend carefully to geographical and commercial considerations, in conjunction with the habits and prejudices of the different States, we shall be led to conclude that in the case of disunion they will most naturally league themselves under two governments.
Alexander Hamilton, No. 13

In Federalist No. 13, Hamilton argues that a central government will be less expensive to administer than the cumulative cost of a number of smaller confederacies. Beyond a brief reference to efficiency of the British empire, the kind of reference that led to accusations that Hamilton was, at his core, an Anglophile, he offers no evidence to support his claim.

His stronger argument is an exercise in reductio ad absurdum. If we are going to divide the United States of American, which was a plural noun at this time, how might the new nation be split? No one, he says, seriously endorses thirteen tiny nations, so how many confederacies should we form? Two? Three? And how should the states be sorted out? Pennsylvania, in Hamilton’s view, was particularly problematic and ran the risk of becoming “the Flanders of America,” that is, a Germania Inferior under the control of larger nations.

That splitting up the nation was seriously considered is a little shocking to modern readers, but we have to remember that the states were, just a few years earlier, colonies under British rule. The country had not yet developed a national identity. Some say that national identity did not come until after the Civil War. I would say it only began to emerge between 1855, with the publication of Leaves of Grass, and 1871, with the publication of Democratic Vistas.

In graduate school, one of my professors said, “If not for Chaucer, the English would not know how to be English.” He never explained this, and I never figured out how “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” instructed the British to have a stiff upper lip. I have, however, often said to my students, “If not for Whitman, we would understand America’s potential. We would not know who we are and who we could be.” In Democratic Vistas, Whitman wrote:

[G]eneral humanity . . . has always been full of perverse maleficence, and is so yet. In downcast times the soul thinks it will always be—but soon recovers from such sickly moods. I myself see clearly enough the crude, defective streaks in all the strata of the common people; the specimens and vast collections of the ignorant, the credulous, the unfit and uncouth, the incapable, and the very low and poor. . . . We believe the ulterior object of political and other government (having, of course, provided for the police, the safety of life, property, and for the basic statue and common law, and their administration, always first in order), to be among the rest, not merely to rule, to repress disorder, etc., but to develop, to open up to cultivation, to encourage the possibilities of all beneficent and manly outcroppage, and of that aspiration for independence, and the pride and self-respect latent in all characters.

Like Hamilton, Whitman recognized the dark side of human history. Yet, he also believed that humanity might move toward perfectibility, that a democracy must go beyond the typical duties of government to protect citizens and property. A democracy must also play a role in developing the potential of individuals, men and women of all races. The potential of democracy itself would not be achieved until it produced individuals able to participate in it. Whitman saw this is as a dialectical movement—government and individuals must historically develop together.

If Whitman were alive today, he would probably say that we may be, in this political climate, moving further away from democracy rather than closer to it. The kind of republic he called for in Democratic Vistas would embrace open education and support the arts. It would promote public discourse of diverse voices.

Consult for background and texts relating to The Federalist Papers.

I also invite your to read Homo Academicus, my serial novel, which is being published at

Posted by: George | April 12, 2017

Lessons from The Federalist Papers, No. 12

It is astonishing that so simple a truth should ever have had an adversary; and it is one, among the multitude of proofs, how apt a spirit of ill-informed jealousy, or of too great abstraction and refinement, is to lead men astray from the plainest truths of reason and conviction.

Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 12

The central argument Hamilton advances in Federalist No. 12 is that a strong central government will promote commerce, which will in turn promote “those darling objects of human avarice and enterprise.” Hamilton was writing in the early stage of capitalism, so he intriguingly sees commerce as an unquestioned good. That’s not surprising. But he also has no problem pairing “avarice” and “enterprise” as equally good. That’s a little startling to modern readers, even serious capitalists, which points to how often arguments beyond question in one context, a historical era or culture, might seem absurd in another.

alexander%20hamilton%20the%20musicalThis is both the appeal and limitation of common sense as a mode of argument. A truth might appear to be “so simple” that it “astonishing” that anyone would have the gall to question it. To Hamilton’s credit (and the credit of his century), he knew he had to do more than say “it’s common sense.” He knew he also had to present more substantial arguments. And he did.

This not always true in our time, so it would benefit us to understand what is at work with the “common sense” argument.

In The New Rhetoric, Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca write: “Common sense admits the existence of unquestioned and unquestionable truths; it admits that certain rules are ‘beyond discussion,’ and that certain suggestions ‘do not deserve discussion.’” In other words, when you make a claim and you say that it is “common sense,” you are saying this is so obvious that I don’t even need to support it with data or facts and, if you question it, . . . well, then, you’re just stupid.

Common sense arguments typically rely on cultural norms, but the application of these norms is not as simple as we might first suspect. We might say that it is common sense to get out of the rain (more convincing in Detroit in the middle of winter than in San Antonio in the middle of summer), or that it is common sense to buy life insurance (more true if you have a spouse and young children than if you are seventy without any family). When common sense emerges from ideology, it becomes even more murky. Some people think it is common sense to say that lowering taxes will create jobs or anyone who works hard in America can make it.

And then there’s the so-called Muslim ban, which was shut down by so-called judges. Here is President Trump’s justification from way back in June, 2016: “You know, I hate the concept of profiling. But we have to start using common sense, and we have to use, you know, we have to use our heads . . . we really have to look at profiling. We have to look at it seriously.”

The interesting thing about common sense arguments is you don’t even need fake news or alternative facts to back them up. They are self-sufficient and hermetically sealed, impervious to counter attacks.

The common sense argument can be an extension of power, like saying, “Because I said so. So there. Shut up, you moron.” We are going to hear a lot of common sense in the next four years.

Here is what we need to remember: If the common sense argument is self-evidently true and beyond question, as it claims itself to be, it is true for a limited segment of the world and a narrow band of history. We need to ask ourselves two questions: Is this how we want the world to view us? Is this how we want history to view us?

Consult for background and texts relating to The Federalist Papers.

I also invite your to read Homo Academicus, my serial novel, which is being published at

Posted by: George | April 1, 2017

Lessons from The Federalist Papers, No. 11

Europe, by her arms and by her negotiations, by force and by fraud, has, in different degrees, extended her dominion over them all. . . . Men admired as profound philosophers have, in direct terms, attributed to her inhabitants a physical superiority, and have gravely asserted that all animals, and with them the human species, degenerate in America—that even dogs cease to bark after having breathed awhile in our atmosphere. . . . It belongs to us to vindicate the honor of the human race, and to teach that assuming brother, moderation. Union will enable us to do it. Disunion will add another victim to his triumphs.

Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 11

The basic argument in Federalist No. 11 is that we need to have a strong union to have a strong navy, and we need a strong navy to protect our national interests from European influence.

To current readers, it might seem to be one of the least consequential of the eighty-five Federalist essays. We now have a strong navy. We are not so worried about being pushed around by Europe. On first reading, it seems like the concerns Hamilton expressed in No. 11 have evaporated in the last two and a half centuries.

But maybe not. I could comment on how a strong navy is not going to protect us from cyber warfare and the influence of other governments on our elections, that Hamilton’s concern, if updated and expanded, is even more real, more portentous now, at this moment. That would be pertinent and timely, but I would rather use this essay to explore the dark side of the Federalist Papers, which means also exploring the dark side of the Enlightenment and Modernism. Here, in Federalist No. 11, I would argue that we see a fear of the Other, which is as American as democracy and freedom.

In this series, I have been arguing that the Federalist Papers can teach us about important American values, which formed our institutions, like the importance of separation of powers. I have argued that our institutions were formed to prevent one leader or one group from dominating all others. Using primarily Whitman’s Democratic Vistas, I have argued that our institutions are only as good as the citizens who support them. If we hope to sustain our institutions, we must become good citizens, which must include a commitment to include others, even those we consider the opposition, so that they too can participate fully and consciously in our democracy.

The Federalist Papers, however, have a dark side, as does the constitution that Hamilton, Jay, and Madison argue their contemporaries should adopt. These figures and their writings and their constitution are products of the Enlightenment, which was a moment, the moment, within the unfolding of Modernism. We are still under the sway of the Enlightenment and Modernism, so it is hard for us to see the dark side of it. But it has been seen for a long time, repeatedly. In The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), Hegel wrote,“The Enlightenment was not very enlightened about itself.” In The Dialectic of the Enlightenment (1944), Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer wrote, “Enlightenment stands in the same relationship to things as the dictator to human beings.” In Shadows of Ethics (1999), Geoffrey Galt Harpham wrote about the inability of “rationality to stay rational, to avoid a moment when rationality is subjected to its other.”

Here are terms that we tend to associate with the Enlightenment and Modernism, if we look at only a thin slice its history: rationality, objectivity, freedom, democracy, humanism, equality, science, skepticism, certainty, progress, and technology. These are the hopes we have not yet fulfilled.

Here are terms that can be associated with the Other of the Enlightenment and Modernism, if we are willing to view the fullness of history: industrialization, capitalism, urbanization, fascism, hegemony, slavery, colonialism, ideology, gender/sexism, heterosexuality, alienation, dehumanization. This is what we tend to forget.

Certainly, some of the terms existed before the origins of Modernism in the early sixteenth-century and the Enlightenment in the eighteen-century, but the particularized meanings we now embrace and how these terms interact with each other did not always exist. Historically, how can we separate modern democracy from colonialism and slavery? The meaning of heterosexuality as we know it dates to the early twentieth-century. A few decades earlier, its meaning was closer to what we would now call sex addiction.

It is important, Hegel said, to negate the Enlightenment and Modernism. In the recently published Age of Anger: A History of the Present, Pankaj Mishra argues that most people, good citizens and terrorists alike, are angry at our modernist world, which “is largely one of carnage and bedlam rather than peaceful convergence.” So, George W. Bush was accidentally almost right when he said that terrorists hate us for our freedom.

It is also important, Hegel said, to negate the negation. As Michael Ignatieff wrote in his review of Mishra’s Age of Anger, “[Y]ou cannot reconstruct faith in the future if you give no credit to what political faith has actually achieved in the past” (New York Review of Books, 6 April 2017). We need to embrace contractions, and we cannot ignore that we are historical beings. It is within history that contradictions play out. We cannot be smug; we cannot be still.

We have eliminated slavery, but we have not ended human trafficking or racism. We have achieved marriage equality, but we are still troubled by where some people urinate. We now have maps without colonies, but colonialism still exists in global economies and cyberspace. Our experiment in democracy has survived for two and a half centuries, but it is under threat from within and without.

Consult for background and texts relating to The Federalist Papers.

I also invite your to read Homo Academicus, my serial novel, which is being published at

Posted by: George | March 16, 2017

Lessons from The Federalist Papers, No. 10

Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other. Besides other impediments, it may be remarked that, where there is a consciousness of unjust or dishonorable purposes, communication is always checked by distrust in proportion to the number whose concurrence is necessary.

James Madison, Federalist No. 10


Madison is arguing that bigger is better—more precisely, that bigger is less dangerous. In consort with Hamilton and Jay, as I have remarked in posts on earlier Federalist essays, Madison assumes we humans are deeply flawed. Thus, we should expect the new government will need to guard against those who advance “unjust and dishonorable purposes.” If we adopt the proposed constitution, if we have a stronger central government, then factions will be less successful with their “wicked projects.” Interestingly, within the larger theater of a national government, with its more diverse terrain, we can find security in our distrust of each other—in other words, the factions of flawed humans will be checked by the human flaws of other factions.

This is a strikingly optimistic view of human imperfection. We will be saved from bad people by pitting more and more bad people against each other.

It is almost like Madison is taking us into the Bizarro World of Superman comics where everything is inverted. Instead of idealistically hoping for security through harmony among factions, we can add more factions and thlet them beat each other to a pulp until they are too weak to do much harm. There’s a logic here, maybe one more Machiavellian than first-century Christian, more dystopian than utopian, but a logic nonetheless.

In 1988, the Democratic National Convention was in Atlanta, and I was teaching at Georgia State University. One of the designated protest zones, the areas where protesters could legally congregate without disrupting the convention or attracting press coverage, was Woodruff Park, just a block from my office. So, I often walked down to the park early in the morning, before the protesters sauntered off to non-protest zones where they hoped to further their cause, whatever that was.

I was curious, maybe also a little bored by being enclosed in my office during the relatively cool summer mornings. And, I was feeding a vague nostalgia for the 1960s—vague because the protests seem to have no focus and the protesters little grit.

Each morning, I watched the youth of America, thirty or forty of them, who wore their anarchy on their tattooed arms and legs, make plans to disrupt the political order. Each morning, they would gather in one large group, arguing about where to go and what to chant. They couldn’t agree on much of anything, as is typical of anarchists, and other humans, but especially anarchists. Eventually, they would split into smaller and smaller groups until little protest movements of two or three people would drift off in search of oppression to press against.

Then, as I watched the artfully tattooed youth, I palpably felt myself aging, my nostalgia slowly sweating out my pores. Now, in this new Bizarro World of Trump comics, I am seeing some hope in the dark side of human nature.

Then, the young anarchists couldn’t get organized. Now, we have a key presidential advisor talking about “deconstructing the administrative state,” the Speaker of the House proposing a new health care plan that is opposed by many key Republicans and maybe even President Trump . . . Democrats and Republicans joining together to say that a Trump tweet about Obama “wire tapping” Trump Towers is pretty much a lie.

To quote Bill Murray in Ghostbusters, “Human sacrifice, cats and dogs living together . . . Mass hysteria.” Yes, anarchy, factions distrusting each other . . . maybe not such a bad thing.

Consult for background and texts relating to The Federalist Papers.

I also invite your to read Homo Academicus, my serial novel, which is being published at

Posted by: George | February 27, 2017

Lessons from The Federalist Papers, No. 9


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 by deputies of their own election; these are wholly new discoveries, or have made their principal progress towards perfection in modern times. They are means, and powerful means, by which the excellences of republican government may be retained and its imperfections lessened or avoided.

Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 9

Much of the debate between the Federalists and the Antifederalists rested upon the same basic goal: creating a government that would ensure liberty and prevent tyranny. The Antifederalists generally argued that a weaker central government would reduce the risk of tyranny. Smaller governments, many of them, would be harder for one despot to control. The Federalists argued that a strong central government would prevent influence and threats from other countries and promote internal harmony. The way to prevent tyranny, they argued, was through checks and balances.

In Federalist No. 9, Hamilton argues that the proposed constitution did not eliminate the further check of state governments. Indeed, it made states “constituent parts of the national sovereignty” by representation in the Senate and by leaving “in their possession certain exclusive and very important portions of sovereign power.”

As I discussed with Federalist No. 6, the founding fathers had a dark view of humanity. Or, maybe we could just say they were realists. They knew that humans often succumbed to the “ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious.” The balance of powers built into the proposed constitution—the separation of powers across three branches of government and between the national and state governments—is an acknowledgment of this dark side of humanity.

Many feel that we are now living out the fears of our forefathers. We are at a point in history where the foundations of our government are being tested. In earlier posts in this series, I have said that our character will also be tested. This was Whitman’s concern when he wrote Democratic Vistas. He argued that people had to develop the knowledge and character to participate fully in a democracy and we would not have a true democracy until we had people capable of participating in it.

All but the most loyal Trump supporters acknowledge that we are in unusual times. We are living alternative history. It is a history that has the power to change us—for the worse.

We might lose our sense of what is normal and support a leader who violates many of our values. Or, we might react to a threat in a way that mimics that aggression. With either option, we have lost ourselves—something of our values—and we have contributed to the loss of a national political dialogue. If we are not speaking to our neighbors, we have lost the very foundation of democracy.

Both scenarios are forms of mimesis, or imitation. Mimesis is fundamental to human nature, to our ability to make connections with others. Anthropologists have found, for example, that when people from different cultures first meet, without sharing a common language, they imitate each others gestures and make a fundamental human connection. That form of mimesis can create bonds and bring us together.

Mimesis can also have negative effects. When confronted with aggression, the actions of a bully, we can mimic that aggression, actively or implicitly supporting it. Or, we can react to the aggression with escalating aggression.

In Conrad’s Shadow, Nidesh Lawtoo discusses how Joseph Conrad’s “The Duel,” generally regarded to be a minor tale, presents a theme central to Conrad’s works. Conrad believed, according to Lawtoo’s interpretation, that the very foundation of social violence—even war—rests on our mimetic reaction to aggression. He writes: “a violent, irrational attack triggers an equally violent defense—no matter how rational the defender is—which, in turn, will continue to fuel the initial attack. And once this interplay of attack and defense, action and reaction, is set in motion between the two parties endowed with equal force, a feedback loop generates a spiral of reciprocal violence fueled by an affective, contagious, and thus highly infective mimetic psychology. The duelists are thus not in control of violence; it is the reciprocal logic of violence that controls them” (p. 18).

This is human nature, but human nature is not human destiny. Over the next four years, we cannot become Trump.

While it is not easy, the key is to step out of the cycle. This is possible. We have models. We have Thoreau, Ghandi, and Martin Luther King.

Consult for background and texts relating to The Federalist Papers.

I also invite your to read Homo Academicus, my serial novel, which is being published at

Posted by: George | February 15, 2017

Lessons from the Federalist Papers, No. 8

The violent destruction of life and property incident to war, the continual effort and alarm attendant on a state of continual danger, will compel nations the most attached to liberty to resort for repose and security to institutions which have a tendency to destroy their civil and political rights.

Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 8

Hamilton continues the concern that the states, without a strong federal government, will seek their own interests, including some advantage over neighboring states. Because a “War between the States” would be likely, Hamilton predicted the rise of standing armies and strong leaders at the expense of liberty and rights.

Hamilton is writing about the balance between security and liberty. When we feel threatened, we want a strong military. Hamilton writes, “The continual necessity for their services enhances the importance of the soldier, and preportionably degrades the condition of the citizen.” Furthermore, “It is the nature of war to increase the executive at the expense of the legislative authority.”alexander%20hamilton%20the%20musical

In contrast to a nightmare vision of states fighting states, Hamilton argues that, with a strong federal government, we could become an “insulated” nation, protected from the dangers of the Old World by an ocean.

The concern about the delicate balance between security and liberty is as old as our nation. It didn’t appear ex nihilo in the aftermath of 9/11 with the so-called Patriot Act. Hamilton predicted it.

In these uncertain times, it does not seem we have to fear the rise of the military, but many of us are concerned about a president who uses fear to rise above the checks and balances that Hamilton endorsed.

Trump called James Robart a “so-called judge” for halting the travel ban on a selection of Muslim countries, none of which sent terrorists our way. Even Trump’s own nominee to the Supreme Court found this “demoralizing.” Last Sunday, Stephen Miller, a senior Trump advisor, asserted, “The powers of the president, as we shall see, are substantial, and will not and must not be questioned.”

The concern about the delicate balance between security and liberty is as old as our nation. It didn’t appear ex nihilo in the aftermath of 9/11 with the so-called Patriot Act. Hamilton predicted it.

Consult for background and texts relating to The Federalist Papers.

I also invite your to read Homo Academicus, my serial novel, which is being published at

Posted by: George | February 8, 2017

Lessons from The Federalist Papers, No. 7

     It is sometimes asked, with an air of seeming triumph, what inducements could the States have, if disunited, to make war upon each other. It would be a full answer to this question to say—precisely the same inducements which have, at all times, deluged in blood all the nations in the world.

 Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No 7

Hamilton and the other Federalists were convinced that only a strong federal government could act as a sufficient restraint to prevent war among the states. It is a fear less vital these days. We don’t tend to think of ourselves as Pennsylvanians or Virginians. We don’t think about protecting state interests to the extent that it might lead to another war between the states.

 We are divided in other ways.

 Living in a farm community or a major city is more likely to separate us than state boundaries. Our geography seems to affect our politics as deeply as race, gender, and income. And race, gender, and income are profound differences.

 We used to come together—find some common ground as we talked through our fears and hopes at church, in bowling allies, and at our neighbor’s kitchen table. We read the same newspapers and watched the same thirty minutes of television news. We weren’t split off into camps that watch Fox News and camps that watch MSNBC.

 Now, we scream at each other. Communities are divided. Even many families have split into factions.

 So many people have told me they have stopped watching the news. It’s just too depressing, they say. It is just too hard to watch.

 They are talking about cable news. When we watch hours of it in a day, we are doing more than taking in information. We are experiencing a kind of trauma. It is almost like watching the Twin Towers come down over and over again.

 In such times, how do we continue to stay informed? How do we remain witnesses to an unfolding history? How might we position ourselves to act?

 I have been watching less cable news. I have probably gone from watching three hours of news shows a day to watching maybe thirty minutes. Instead of skimming across the surface of news, I have concentrated on going deep.

 I am reading articles that cover a topic in detail, like David Cole’s “Trump Violates the Constitution” in The New York Review of Books. I am reading books on public policy and history, like Timothy Snyder’s Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. I am reading foundational texts, like The Federalist Papers.

I also read some conservatives, like Andrew Sullivan, but I need to find more sources on the right that are doing reasonable commentary and real journalism.

 As I read print sources, I find that I am better informed and less traumatized.

 I am going to read deep. I am going to try to maintain a dialogue, even with those on the other side, even when it is uncomfortable. I am going to write some checks.

Consult for background and texts relating to The Federalist Papers.

I also invite your to read Homo Academicus, my serial novel, which is being published at

Posted by: George | January 29, 2017

Lessons from The Federalist Papers, No. 6

            A man must be far gone in Utopian speculations who can seriously doubt that, if these States should either be wholly disunited, or only untied in partial confederacies, the subdivisions into which they might be thrown would have frequent and violent contests with each other. To presume a want of motives for such contests as an argument against their existence, would be to forget that men are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious. To look for a continuation of harmony between a number of independent, unconnected sovereignties in the same neighborhood, would be to disregard the uniform course of human events, and to set at defiance the accumulated experience of ages.

            Alexander Hamilton, Federalist Papers, No. 6

In Federalist No. 6, Hamilton provides a historical catalog of human failings. He takes a little stroll throgh history. He points out the moral failings of the “celebrated Pericles,” the “ambitious cardinal” in the court of Henry VIII, the “bigotry of one female, the petulance of another, and the cabals of a third,” all of which are meant to be antidotes to our “Utopian speculations.”

As I was reading No. 6, I was thinking of the values that constitute the foundation of our national experiment. We tend to gravitate to what Kenneth Burke calls “God terms,” concepts like freedom and democracy. These are, we assume, the foundations of our enterprise. But Hamilton points in another direction. Instead of looking to “Utopian speculations,” he looks to the dark side of human history, to men who are “ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious.” Hamilton himself was a man not unlike Pericles, a man of great gifts and unfortunate limitations. Maybe, No 6 has a little self-reflection in it.

After reading No 6, here is what I want to suggest: The central foundation of our constitution is a recognition that human beings are horribly flawed creatures who are, even in their best manifestations, even with men like Hamilton, Washington, Jefferson, and Adams, a mixed bag.

They might rise to the occasion. They might be laid low by their baser instincalexander%20hamilton%20the%20musicalts. This is not a new view of humanity. It is at least as old as Plato’s Phaedrus, where Socrates describes the human psyche as a chariot with two horses: one that pulls the chariot toward the sky, toward the divine; the other that wants to plunge it toward the earth, toward an “earthly body,” toward the all too present failings of flesh, toward the “ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious.”

This is the view of humanity upon which our institutions rest—here rest is meant to convey stability and continuity.

Here is how I sense our present moment in history. The hopeful Trump supporters believe he is the new Reagan. The despondent anti-Trumpers fear he will be the next Hitler or Mussolini. I suspect that he might be the next Huey Long, who seemed to be cutting through governmental bureaucracy but was building a house of cards that did not fall until after he was out of office, long after he was a departed soul.

Whatever the course of history, we can, counter-intuitively, find solace in Hamilton’s dark view of humanity. Our institutions were shaped by the history human failings. We can likely withstand another flawed leader.

As I have said before in this series, as I will certainly say again, our institutions will be tested, our character will be tested.

Because I agree with Hamilton, because I acknowledge that human beings are horribly flawed creatures, I have hope.

Our institutions will stand because we will rise to rise to the aspirations of our forefathers, and to Walt Whitman, who believed that we would develop into the kind of citizens who would, one day, at some point in the future, deserve democracy and freedom.

Consult for background and texts relating to The Federalist Papers.

I also invite your to read Homo Academicus, my serial novel, which is being published at

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