Posted by: George | May 4, 2018

Lessons from The Federalist Papers, No. 24

If he happened to be a man of calm and dispassionate feelings, he would indulge a sigh for the frailty of human nature, and would lament, that in a matter so interesting to the happinesss of millions, the true merits of the question should be perplexed and entangled by expedients so unfriendly to an impartial and right determination. Even such a man could hardly forebear remarking, that a conduct of this kind has too much the appearance of an intention to mislead the people by alarming their passions, rather than to convince them by arguments addressed to their understandings.

Alexander Hamilton

On the surface, Federalist No. 24 repeats a common theme: To protect the country and improve commerce, the new constitution needs to grant the power to support a standing army and navy. Here, however, Hamilton focuses on what Cicero called refutatio, the part of the argument where you present the opposition’s arguments and explain them away.

From another angle, Hamilton is giving a reading lesson, maybe even practicing dialectical thinking. He imagines a “stranger to our politics” and how this person would read the proposed constitution. After saying that this person might assume that the power to raise and maintain an army would rest with the president, Hamilton writes: “If he came afterwards to pursue the plan [the proposed constitution] itself, he would be surprised to discover, that neither the one nor the other was the case; that the whole power of raising armies was lodged in the legislature, not in the executive.”

Most of Hamilton’s readers would not have read “the plan,” and they would have assumed, being familiar with a monarchy,that “the plan” gave the president enormous, unchecked power. Not true, Hamilton says.

In the quote at the beginning of this post, a section that is almost an aside, Hamilton imagines the ideal citizen. This person would acknowledge “the frailty of human nature,” yet possess “calm and dispassionate feelings.” He or she would be able to find the “true merits of the question,” even when someone is trying “to mislead the people by alarming their passions.” While Hamilton and Madison held a deep distrust in human nature, Hamilton here seems to acknowledge that separation of powers might not be enough to preserve our experiment. We also need good citizens.

In Democratic Vistas, Walt Whitman also called for a new kind of citizen, a “democratic personality,” who would act both as individuals and a collective, men and women, who would develop themselves, develop democracy, protect our fragile experiment. Whitman felt we could develop citizens through exposure to a new American literature, which he was trying to help create. His work embraced difference and diversity.

In Reverence, Paul Woodruff argues that we need to pay attention to an ancient, almost universal, virtue: “To forget that you are only human, to think you can act like a god—that is the opposite of reverence. Ancient Greeks thought that tyranny was the height of irreverence, and they gave the famous name of hubris to the crimes of tyrants. An irreverent soul is arrogant and shameless, unable to feel awe in the face of things higher than itself.” You can have reverence for god or nature or other people. You can even have reverence for the constitution. We need to remember that moment when Khizr Khan, an immigrant to our country, pulled a copy of our constitution from his coat pocket at the Democratic National Convention.


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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