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 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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Responses

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