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 http://www.teachingamericanhistory.org 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 http://www.homoacademicus.us.

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