Posted by: George | June 7, 2017

Lessons from The Federalist Papers, No. 15

We may indeed with propriety be said to have reached almost the last stage of national humiliation. . . . It is true, as has been before observed that facts, too stubborn to be resisted, have produced a species of general assent to the abstract proposition that there exist material defects in our national system; but the usefulness of the concession, on the part of the old adversaries of federal measures, is destroyed by a strenuous opposition to remedy, upon the only principles that can give it a chance of success.

Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 15

 

We tend to freeze our identities—personal, family, tribe, and nation. We talk about how things might have changed, but these seem to be passing thoughts, fleeting notions that we don’t really believe. We might say that we were naïve once upon a time, that our family went through difficulties, that our favorite baseball team fell apart in the August heat, or that our nation has a glorious history, but we don’t seem to believe such events had much of an impact on who we are essentially.

We tend to ignore flux and change and history. If we were more able to live in flux and chaos and change, we would see that it is a miracle that we won the revolution, that the nation survived long enough to adopt its constitution. Our early history was precarious, and here we are, at this moment in history, all precarious again.

In Federalist No. 15, Hamilton writes of the country being in “the last stage of national humiliation.” Sounds familiar. In 1787, he saw a new country, yet unformed, that could not repay its debts. Heard that recently. These facts were “too stubborn to be resisted,” yet too many Americans opposed remedy. Facts being ignored. Heard that on the news this morning.

America was not, in 1787, a great nation, but soon our experiment would take shape and other nations began to look to us for hope—eventually even stability. They embrace the symbol of America. When we fall short of our ideals, they express their disappointment. What we often dismiss as anti-Americanism is often complex—just as “pro” as it is “anti.”

Last week, I attended the NonfictioNow conference in Reykjavik. As I was waiting for a session to begin, I ovewaltwhitmanrheard a professor from Iceland (I didn’t catch his name or institution) talk about how his students were “having trouble dealing with what is going on in America.” That students in Iceland viscerally react to American politics was a bit surprising, especially since so many of our students seem to be oblivious.

In our isolation, speaking only English, reading American authors, watching American television and movies, watching local news, it is easy for us to forget that the rest of the world knows the welfare of America affects them—their futures and safety and dreams. They also essentiaiize America. For them as well, America is a symbol. They want it to be something good, something stable, an aspiration. They know all too well that we have not reached the promise of democracy.

In Democratic Vistas, published in 1871, almost a century after The Federalist Papers, Whitman says that we have not yet achieved democracy. That would wait on universal suffrage and the development of individuals who would be able to participate in democracy. He wrote:

I will not gloss over the appalling dangers of universal suffrage in the United States. In fact it is to admit and face these dangers I am writing. To him or her within whose thought rages the battle, advancing, retreating, between democracy’s convictions, aspirations, and the people’s crudeness, vice, caprices, I mainly write this essay.

Notice the “him or her.” Whitman is not consistent in his use of non-sexist pronouns, but he is consistent in his advocacy for the education of women and the expansion of voting rights.

We can easily forget how recent these rights are—and how fragile they remain. In “The Abortion Battlefield” (New York Review of Books, 22 June 2017), Marcia Angell writes:

     Women couldn’t vote in the United States until 1920 (fifty years after African-American men), and until 1936 they could lose their citizenship if they married a foreigner and lived abroad. As for their children, citizenship was conferred by the father, not the mother. Until 1968, job ads could specify whether men or women would be hired, and that year women were paid 58 cents for every dollar earned by men. Remarkably, women could be denied credit without a man’s signature until 1974, and until 1978 they could be fired from their jobs if they became pregnant. . . . They were expected to submit to their husbands sexually, and martial rape did not become a crime in all states until 1993.

When we hear the chant “Make American Great Again,” a desire to return to the essential American, which is somewhere in the past, we need to ask whose America we are recreating from faulty memory or our ignorance of history. The “Again” signals a turning back of the clock, but to what era? Before 2015, when gays could not marry in most states? Before 1993, when it was legal for a husband to rape his wife? Before 1978, when women could be fired for being pregnant on the job? Before 1920, when women could not vote? Before 1868, when African Americans could not vote? Before 1863, when African Americans were still slaves? Before 1787, when, according to Alexander Hamilton, things weren’t so great?

I may be wrong, but I don’t think there is a Great America back there. If Hamilton were around, I think he would agree.

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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