Posted by: George | December 26, 2016

Lessons from The Federalist Papers, No. 1

After an unequivocal experience of the inefficiency of the subsisting federal government, you are called upon to deliberate on a new Constitution for the United States of America. The subject speaks its own importance; comprehending in its consequences nothing less that the existence of the Union, the safety and welfare of the parts of which it is composed, the fate of an empire in many respects the most interesting in the world.

            Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 1

 Hamilton begins the Federalist Papers with a statement about American exceptionalism and the fragility of its experiment in government. A little over a decade old, the new government, one of “the most interesting in the world,” is clearly not working. The union, he writes, may not survive.

 Eugene O’Neill once said that there is not present or future, there is only past. His plays are filled with characters who are haunted by demons of their own creation, so it makes sense that he saw only the past. That’s not how we experience our institutions. We experience them in the present and only the present, as if they always existed, as if they were God created, as if they will survive and sustain us until the end of days.

 If we read history, we know better. The Revolutionary War could have easily collapsed, the South could have won the Civil War, and the Japanese could have prevailed in World War II. When Hamilton wrote Federalist No. 1, he did not know that the constitution would be adopted and that the government it established would exist for over two centuries. At stake, Hamilton believed, was not just the future of his country but the broader issue of whether or not people could establish “good government from reflection and choice.” If this experiment failed, it would contribute to “the general misfortune of mankind.”

 If we are unable to establish “good government,” Hamilton believed, the failure will lie with our pettiness, our failure to consider “the public good.” He expected a “torrent of angry and malignant passions” to “be let loose,” that some will attempt “to increase their converts by the loudness of their declamations and the bitterness of their invectives.” Rather than fight invectives with invectives, Hamilton asks us to embrace the conflict as “a lesson in moderation.” Part of the lesson is accepting, however we might be inclined to react, that the opposition may have “upright intentions” and focusing on “the evidence of truth.”

 It is the tone of No. 1 that is most interesting. I am not going to be nostalgic here for a time past. Eighteenth-century American politics were not always civil. Jefferson and Adams could be particularly nasty, even to the point of doing something like fake news about each other. And we can find nastiness in the Antifederalists, a less cohesive group that opposed adoption of the new constitution. In Brutus IX (January 17, 1788), one of the Antifederalist essays, the author argues against granting the federal government the right to establish a standing army and, more specifically, as generally assumed, against Hamilton in Federalist No. 1. Brutus writes:

From the positive, and dogmatic manner, in which this author delivers his opinions, and answers objections made to his sentiments, one would conclude, that he was some pedantic pedagogue who had been accustomed to deliver his dogmas to his pupils, who always placed implicit faith in what he delivered.

Now, you might say this is pretty nasty stuff, even if not as nasty as some of the attacks during our recent election. Brutus does not say anything about the size of  Hamilton’s hands. And, despite the ad hominem attack, Brutus writes: “I shall now proceed to examine the arguments they advance in support of their opinions.” Despite calling Hamilton a “pedantic pedagogue,” Brutus engages in a high level of argument.

Nastiness is not the most fundamental problem we have right now. It’s the lack of substance, the tendency to dismiss the opposition with adjectives.

 We certainly have journalist and essayist who are writing at a high level, who are building arguments. My concern is that the good is often lost in the ocean of the bad. Has our discourse been democratized or diluted? When the Federalist and the Antifederalist debated, we had a small number of men (yes, all white men) publishing substantial essays in a small number of newspapers. It was easier to raise the level of political discourse. Now, it seems like we are trying to lower the sea level with a teacup.

 But we should try. We should take Hamilton’s advice and learn moderation.


Consult for background and texts relating to The Federalist Papers.


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