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


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