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


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: