Wednesday, July 4, 2007

In honor of July 4, 2007: Blogging Federalist No. 1
(Yes, I know that July 4 honors the signing of the Declaration of Independence, but the Constitution has helped shape what this new independent entity of the USA ultimately became. And 2007 is the 220th anniversary of both the Constitutional Convention and the start of The Federalist. Besides, blogging Federalist No. 1 seemed like a good idea at the time...(how many bad ideas have started with that thought...)

Madison and Hamilton, the foremost writers of the The Federalist, were also participants of the convention that drafted the Constitution in 1787. Their arguments can help reveal some of the stakes and issues of our present form of government. Whether or not you agree with all their points, these points have been influential in the shaping of American public discourse.

Just a quick review of the The Federalist. As many of you no doubt know, these papers were mostly published between October 1787 and August 1788. The Constitutional convention released a draft of the new Constitution in 1787, and this Constitution went to the states for ratification. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay (though he wrote significantly fewer--only about 5 or so--than either Hamilton or Madison) collaborated in composing these essays under the name "Publius." With all these essays (85 in all) mainly coming out over a year's time, the two main collaborators on The Federalist, Madison and Hamilton, published at a blog-like pace, and these documents have been deeply influential in thinking about the role of the federal government and (republican) politics.

Well, is anyone interested in this sort of blogging? Or at least find this analysis mildly entertaining? If I find enough reader interest, I could try to blog some more of The Federalist...and if (if?) this is too much a muddle or seems too foolish, I can let this be a stand-alone embarrassment...)

(ahem ahem) Blogging Federalist 1

Hamilton has a lot he wants to accomplish in this kick-off essay for the Federalist. He wants to assert the importance of the current debate about ratifying the proposed Constitution and convince his readers that the political union of the 13 states is, in fact, an expedient and wise course of action.

He starts by reminding his readers of some of the difficulties of the Articles of Confederation, mentioning "unequivocal experience of the inefficiency of the subsisting federal government," and sets up the stakes for the new nation's choice:
It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.
At the very outset of the Federalist, Hamilton counters idealistic aims with practical suspicion (e.a.): "Happy will it be if our choice should be directed by a judicious estimate of our true interests, unperplexed and unbiased by considerations not connected with the public good. But this is a thing more ardently to be wished than seriously to be expected." Hamilton asserts that, due to the fact that the proposed Constitution would indeed touch upon many private and public interests, debate over it will necessarily be shaped by these interests.
And the two competing interests he mentions in the rest of this essay will be the interests of those who support wider union and the interests of those who wish to keep these states divided.

Even as Hamilton wants to advance his arguments for the Constitution, he doesn't want to burn too many bridges, either, so he's careful to admit a skepticism about the purity of motivations on both sides of the Constitution question (e.a.):
I am well aware that it would be disingenuous to resolve indiscriminately the opposition of any set of men (merely because their situations might subject them to suspicion) into interested or ambitious views. Candor will oblige us to admit that even such men may be actuated by upright intentions; and it cannot be doubted that much of the opposition which has made its appearance, or may hereafter make its appearance, will spring from sources, blameless at least, if not respectable--the honest errors of minds led astray by preconceived jealousies and fears. So numerous indeed and so powerful are the causes which serve to give a false bias to the judgment, that we, upon many occasions, see wise and good men on the wrong as well as on the right side of questions of the first magnitude to society. This circumstance, if duly attended to, would furnish a lesson of moderation to those who are ever so much persuaded of their being in the right in any controversy. And a further reason for caution, in this respect, might be drawn from the reflection that we are not always sure that those who advocate the truth are influenced by purer principles than their antagonists. Ambition, avarice, personal animosity, party opposition, and many other motives not more laudable than these, are apt to operate as well upon those who support as those who oppose the right side of a question.
Especially about controversial issues, a lot of us probably have a tendency to draw strict lines of separation between ourselves and fellow citizens with whom we disagree. Hamilton, however, here suggests that "wise and good men" may fall on both sides of a national question.
While inflaming public passions was and is a very popular thing to do amongst writers on politics and other issues, Hamilton now warns against that "intolerant spirit which has, at all times, characterized political parties" and says that it is "absurd to aim at making [political] proselytes by fire and sword." Attending to the variety of biases, Hamilton also attends to the varieties of motivations, and much of The Federalist will consider the way in which a political government can cope with/incorporate the motivations of its citizens.

In this revealing paragraph, Hamilton takes on the stakes of public discourse and the possibility of an alliance between state power and civic liberty:
To judge from the conduct of the opposite parties, we shall be led to conclude that they will mutually hope to evince the justness of their opinions, and to increase the number of their converts by the loudness of their declamations and the bitterness of their invectives. An enlightened zeal for the energy and efficiency of government will be stigmatized as the offspring of a temper fond of despotic power and hostile to the principles of liberty. An over-scrupulous jealousy of danger to the rights of the people, which is more commonly the fault of the head than of the heart, will be represented as mere pretense and artifice, the stale bait for popularity at the expense of the public good. It will be forgotten, on the one hand, that jealousy is the usual concomitant of love, and that the noble enthusiasm of liberty is apt to be infected with a spirit of narrow and illiberal distrust. On the other hand, it will be equally forgotten that the vigor of government is essential to the security of liberty; that, in the contemplation of a sound and well-informed judgment, their interest can never be separated; and that a dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people than under the forbidden appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government. History will teach us that the former has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism than the latter, and that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.
That bit about those who "hope to evince the justness of their opinions, and to increase the number of their converts by the loudness of their declamations and the bitterness of their invectives" sounds like it could almost have been written about some portions of the blogosphere--maybe?

While Hamilton does talk skeptically about certain public postures on behalf of individual civil rights, he seems to do so because, he says, he aims for a more ultimate continuation of liberty. Though a claim such as "dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people" sounds rather harsh, he ultimately condemns this "specious mask of zeal" (and specious seems an operative word here--Hamilton seems to be particularly going after those who wear a false concern for public liberty) because it may ultimately be a "much more certain road to the introduction of despotism" and to the overturning of republican liberties. In advocating for the Constitution, Hamilton also advocates for a "vigorous" government, which he thinks is "essential to the security of liberty."

In the later part of this essay, Hamilton lays out the course of the argument to follow in the Federalist:
Hamilton admits that he is a believer in the proposed Constitution and says to his readers, "I am convinced that this is the safest course for your liberty, your dignity, and your happiness." In many parts of the Federalist to follow, liberty, dignity, and happiness will be intertwined aims. By having a federal government capable of defending its national dignity, the United States can, in Publius's view, have a federal government capable of defending the liberties of its citizens, and a concern for personal motivations (which include the pursuit of happiness) can help inform the debates about public policy and, therefore, the national capacity for dignity and liberty. Publius is here straying away from explicit guarantees: the course he advises is only "the safest course." This course is not (as perhaps history has shown) without its own weaknesses and it may ultimately fall short.

The Federalist begins, then, on a note of safety and preservation, particularly the preservation of the union in the face of those (even in 1787) who spoke of the 13 states as being too various to work underneath a single government. Against those who argue for the dissolution of the federal government, Hamilton asserts the value of the union and the way in which the government of the union can lead--perhaps--to a preservation of republican liberty and moderation.