Posted by: George | September 9, 2019

American Gulag: Lessons from the Federalist Papers, No. 27

Man is very much a creature of habit. A thing that rarely strikes his senses will generally have but little influence upon his mind.

Alexander Hamilton

In Federalist No. 27, Hamilton addresses the interplay of contradictory forces that are at the heart of the debate over the proposed constitution: Concerns about recreating the tyranny that the American Revolution overthrew versus the need to establish authority for a central government. Would Americans, who identified more with their states, follow federal laws? Must we have a standing army to enforce those laws? Would a standing army give too much power to the federal government?

To answer these questions, Hamilton returns, as he often does, to assumptions about human nature.

Human beings are creatures of habit. As a general rule, they behave well and follow laws and cultural norms. As Aristotle wrote, our values and ethics are embodied in our habits.

Human beings are rational. If the federal government is well managed—Hamilton argues it will likely be better managed than state governments—then, citizens will made the rational decision to follow its laws. Rationality is good, Hamilton would say, and rationality had been good at least since Plato’s Republic. This is a value important to forming and maintaining a republic.

As we read The Federalist Papers looking for the original intention behind the constitution, we might overlook that these papers, these essays, embody values that are important to our democracy. They are not, however, the only values. We also need to look beyond The Federalist Papers to other moments in our history and beyond our history.

We are a nation founded by Puritans, and we think we know what that means. We think the origin of our nation has made us judgmental, uptight, and sexually repressed. But the Puritans were far more complicated. In “A Modell of Christian Charity,” written in 1630, John Winthrop wrote: “If thy brother be in want and thou canst help him, thou needst not make doubt, what thou shouldst doe; if thou louest God thou must help him.” This is part of our history. This is one of our values. This is important to our republic.

In our zeal to protect ourselves from immigrants, we seem to have lost this compassion. Recently, the president’s men recently twisted themselves into verbal knots trying to distance themselves from the words on the Statue of Liberty. For them, too much rest of fear of immigrants. So, we have national debates that amount to Fear vs. Compassion, and we resolve nothing.

Often, habits guide us. Sometimes, they shut down thought.

If we are willing to entertain a little rationality, both sides should admit that the entire complex of problems posed by immigration is complex, beyond most of us. This historical moment is not the late nineteenth century, when we still had a frontier and vast expanses of land that need settlers. We have limited resources. At the same time, despite nativist desires for isolation, we are living in a global society. Movement of people, ideas, products is inevitable. As Hannah Arendt wrote in Men in Dark Times, “Being able to depart for where we will is the prototypical gesture of being free, as limitation of freedom of movement has from time immemorial been the precondition for enslavement.” Immigration cannot be separated from basic human rights.

We don’t study our past, and we don’t seem to want to look to the future. The future is too frightening. What we don’t talk about, now, even those who want to reach out to immigrants, is that many of the people at our southern border are fleeing early effects of climate change. As climate change progresses, as more people flee their homelands, how will we be able to maintain our compassion? When Florida begins to disappear into the ocean, when citizens of that state begin to immigrate to the Midwest, when water and food are scarce, how will we react when we cannot now show compassion for immigrants from Guatemala or Honduras?

If we look beyond our past, to the past of another country, we also find values. In Sergei Lebedev’s Oblivion, a Russian novel that looks into that country’s history, a young geologist is flying in a helicopter over the site of a Gulag:

Barely visible through the white mist, [the sites] somehow did not seem to belong to a concrete place. . . . The outlines of the barracks appeared to push the barracks themselves into the background: you couldn’t say you were seeing buildings, human dwellings. The barracks stood like plywood cargo crates in which people were stacked, unnaturally long—this correlation of length and width appears only in coffins.

How can we read this passage and not think of how we are warehousing people along our southern border? How can we read this without wanting a serious dialogue on immigration?


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