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January 19, 2009

Genuine Wise Guys - Lincoln Allison on the enduring success of the American Republic: The Federalist Papers - Alexander Hamilton, James Madison & John Jay

Posted by Lincoln Allison

The Federalist Papers
by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, & John Jay
First published as newspaper articles, 1787 - 1788

Available in Oxford Classics, The Federalist Papers (OUP, 2008), 10.99.

There is a pedagogic trick in political theory wherein the teacher offers to buy the pupil a bet, but allows him to choose between bets at different market odds ranging from, say, evens up to 100-1. Initially the bet is for a trivial sum like a pound, but then it is increasingly raised to a hundred, then a thousand pounds and beyond. The point being that as the amounts go up, the chosen odds go down. Many of us would prefer a 100-1 flutter if we're betting a pound on the Grand National, but would be looking for the nearest thing to a certainty if the bet is the value of our house.

The general inference, betting apart, is that the higher the stakes in life the more cautious or conservative we become. This may not follow from the idea of "rationality" in a strict sense, but it is the normal, even natural pattern of human aversion to risk.

It is one of the supreme merits of The Federalist Papers that they consist of political theory written on the edge, to a purpose, with the stakes high. In this respect they compare with Locke, writing after the events he seeks to justify or Hobbes, writing as far away as possible for the events which trouble him. They were written to persuade the inhabitants of New York state to ratify the American constitution and consist of 85 essays, 175,000 words in all.

They do not invent the constitution, which already exists, but they offer a justification for it, an interpretation and a manual for its future application. Fifty eight of the essays are written by Alexander Hamilton, himself a New Yorker, and all but five of the rest by James Madison, though there remain lingering doubts about the authorship of some. Collectively, the authors call themselves "Publius".

The mood of the writing is anything but the triumphal optimism of a new nation born to fulfil high principles. It often approaches despair. These are men who believe that there is every chance that their new republic will disappear in effect before it has begun, riven by faction and inter-state rivalry and paralysed by indecision, to be picked off, manipulated and even swallowed up by the Spanish Empire to the South and the British to the North. Thus, Hamilton (No. 15, p. 106):

We may indeed with propriety be said to have reached almost the last stage of national humiliation. There is scarcely anything which can wound the pride or degrade the character of an independent nation which we do not experience. Are there engagements to the performance of which we are held by every tie respectable among men? These are the subjects of constant and unblushing violation. Do we owe debts to foreigners and to our own citizens contracted in a time of imminent peril for the preservation of our political existence? These remain without any proper or satisfactory provision for their discharge. Have we valuable territories and important posts in the possession of a foreign power which, by express stipulations, ought long since to have been surrendered? These are still retained to the prejudice of our interests, not less than of our rights.
The tone of the writing often approaches desperation; it is the tone of men who know they are right, but fear they will not be understood. Hamilton is particularly insistent on the argument that unless the federal government is strong enough to protect the USA as a whole and to eradicate any conflict or protectionism between the states, then the whole enterprise is doomed. Apart from its sense of being driven the charm of the writing is that these are eighteenth century polymaths, who have to know about history, geography, economics, the classics etc. if their argument is to be taken as valid. Thus, by accident, the Federalist Papers becomes a classic of comparative politics: the confederations of Greek city states and of contemporary Germany and the Netherlands are what they must avoid; Rome and Great Britain are what they must emulate.

The tension between states' rights and the rights of the people as a whole seems an almost insuperable problem in a circumstance in which the four largest states outnumber in population the nine smallest. But they may just have solved the problem with their 2-year house based on popular suffrage and their six-year house based on the states.

Much of the language of justification is pure republicanism, based on the absolute sovereignty of the people. But it is a people seen as no better than it ought to be and in structural need of protection from itself. Madison is keen to avoid the weakness and excess of Athenian democracy and to uphold the rights of the 6-year house not based on popular suffrage, which he must defend against its opponents' accusations of "aristocracy" (No. 63, p. 384):

As the cool and deliberate sense of the community ought, in all governments, and actually will, in all free governments, ultimately prevail over the view of its rulers; so there are particular moments in public affairs when the people, stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage, or misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn. In these critical moments how salutary will be the interference of some temperate and respectable body of citizens, in order to check the misguided career and to suspend the blow meditated by the people against themselves, until reason, justice, and truth can regain their authority over the public mind?
Thus the America envisaged by the authors is not a bastion of "democracy" and is designed with a suspicion of the people which exactly counter-balances any enthusiasm for their "rights". The ultimate value is liberty, but a liberty envisaged in terms of established "liberties" and requiring, above all, a strong and decent state for its protection.

"Publius", in fact, distrusts all generalisations and abstractions. Not for him, with an endangered republic to run, the neat, absolute and apparently logical arguments of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke - neither rates a single mention in the text. Their mentor is the Baron de Montesquieu (described by Hamilton in Paper 78 as "the celebrated Montesquieu"), the apostle of "mixed and moderate government" appropriate to its context.

Even when they disagree with him, they take him seriously and feel the need to refute him. Montesquieu says that republics only work if they are small, which is not good news for men who are determined to run a republic which is over a thousand miles long with a population of three million which is rising rapidly. So they use the Baron's own relativist and contextual methods to suggest that this does not apply to America. The Baron praises an absolute "separation of powers", but they are at pains to point out that he has misunderstood the workings of the British constitution and, indeed, what is logically possible: only a partial separation is possible - somebody must appoint the judges if they are not to become an aristocracy. Actually, the authors would have been surprised by the extent to which judicial independence and the power of judicial review have survived into the twenty-first century.

I find it remarkable the extent to which Hamilton especially wants to assert the existence of an American nation and is able to dismiss the claims of the states or of a pan-British identity (still an issue in other English-speaking countries) with contempt. In insisting on the necessity of America controlling its own trade he asserts that this issue is close to the special character of the American people (No. 11, p. 88):

[Without such control] That unequalled spirit of enterprise, which signalizes the genius of the American merchants and navigators and which is in itself an inexhaustible mine of national wealth, would be stifled and lost, and poverty and disgrace would overspread a country which with wisdom might make herself the admiration and envy of the world.
The "federalist" arguments are essentially similar to the arguments about Europe under the same name which were put by Jacques Delors, Helmut Kohl et al. in the late twentieth century and which remain on the agenda at the time of writing. They say, essentially, that unless we unite existing states under a strong central government we will not have the benefits of trade, we will not be able to resist outside competition and interference and we may not even be able to avoid war amongst ourselves.

Since Hamilton was right why do we not see the analogy and become federalists ourselves? Here we must apply the methods of the Baron: the crucial difference of context is the existence of an American nation whereas there is not and never will be a European nation. E Pluribus Unum is a remarkable and real achievement, not matched by America's neighbours nor by several dozen other post-colonial states. African-Americans, Native Americans (neither of which are seen as so great a problem by the Federalist writers as they were to be seen by De Tocqueville fifty years later) and a hundred kinds of hyphenated Americans are nevertheless Americans. Thirty seven further states have joined.

I still find an element of mystery about this and Georgian students whom I used to teach on visits to Tbilisi couldn't bring themselves to accept it. Believing themselves to be members of a nation at least 7,000 years old they couldn't accept the existence of a "nation" composed of disparate parts and only a few generations old. But there is a mysterious chemistry at work which makes many white Southern Africans respond to Die Stem of Africa while a million pieds noirs in North Africa, despite six generations of residence in some cases, never thought of themselves as anything but French.

That's not to say that America is wonderful - Canada regularly appears above it in "quality of life" indices - but just that it has been the world's greatest success story in nation-building.

I would not recommend anyone to sit down and read all 85 Federalist papers. They are highly repetitive in their determination to hammer home the meaning and benefits of the constitution; they were not intended to be read as a book.

But I would recommend reading them selectively. They have the charm of the eighteenth century essay in which knowledge is a seemless whole; in this respect, they are reminiscent of Hume's essays, to which they pay tribute. They are an immensely purposeful body of writing. But, above all, they are an insight into what is now the world's most powerful state and a reminder that that state is not based on abstract principles, but on the extremely conservative and complicated arrangements made by sensible men who, above all, wanted to survive. There may be some mystery about American success and perhaps a little luck, but there was also the wonderfully sound judgement of men like Hamilton, Madison and Jay.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career in 2004 - and again in 2008 - to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. His previous Retrospective Reviews can be read here.


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