Federalist Number One: a Prologue and Caution

The Federalist Papers begin with the remark that the subsisting Articles of Confederation had shown themselves to be unsatisfactory. Hamilton alludes to an unequivocal experience and goes on to condemn the present constitution. The inadequacy isn’t put forth as an axiom but it is tendered as an obvious premise. Next, he expatiates on the importance of the deliberations underway and in this he was perfectly correct:

It has been frequently remarked, that it has 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 destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force.

By good government established by reflection and choice he clearly means a republican government, and the alternative, government by accident and force can be any form of government that isn’t a republic, but more particularly a hereditary monarchy. Reflection and choice should not be taken to mean that a republic can derive its constitution or its policies from pure reason alone. Politics is not deducible from the laws of logic by themselves. Constitutions will be established and decisions made in a certain time and place.

Is the nation agricultural, mercantile, or industrial? Is one tongue spoken by nearly all or are there many different languages? Is the country broken up into spheres by great swamps, bays, lakes, mountain ranges, or is it relatively contiguous? Are nearly all the people of one faith, or is the nation riven into differing and sometimes contending religions? The unique character of the Swiss constitution is perfectly adapted for a country broken into cantons by the Alps and speaking several different tongues. A small, flat country where nearly all speak the same language, like the Netherlands, may not need to be so loosely confederated. And although Hamilton and the other founders were intent on a separation of church and state, even the mild mentions they made to God might be dangerous in a nation where even a benign remark can be the occasion for a civil war of religion.

And not only in the setting down of the form of government but in the quotidian task of governing itself, chance and situation will play their part. It is undeniable that in a hereditary monarchy operating by primogeniture, it is often the virtues, vices, and capacities of a mere boy that will decide whether the realm has a good king or a bad king. In the selection of a ruler, a republic will have a far wider field of choice, but that does’t ensure that the choice will be a good one. There may be a great many middling men on offer with a few bad ones sprinkled among them, and the best that can be hoped for is that a fool or charlatan doesn’t get himself elected. A republic is just as susceptible to floods, earthquakes, droughts, and pandemics as a monarchy, and in a state where the people have not only a clamant but a decisive voice, these tragedies can enflame feelings and lead to blunders that a sovereign, left alone to let his passions abate and ponder at his leisure, might well avoid.

In both monarchies and republics, decisions are made by deciding among alternatives that are set before us by forces beyond our control. Among these alternatives, we may choose well or poorly, but the options themselves arise from the course of events not our chain or reasoning. As to force, every course adopted, no matter how kindly meant or how generally beneficial, will help some and harm others. A good policy will help more than it harms. And while any measure will the welfare or interests of some, a good measure may cost certain citizens but not impoverish them, it may inconvenience some but it shouldn’t ruin them. Yet no one likes to lose money or be caused trouble, and every measure decided upon by the government, whether a legislature, a king, or an emperor, must be imposed by force. In a republic, the force may be applied more gently, softened with condolence, and lubricated with sound explanations and promises of future considerations, yet the force must be applied all the same. Hamilton himself knew this well. In the very beginnings of the United States, he had to head out west to deal with whiskey distillers who refused to pay their taxes. Yet despite these quibbles and caveats, a democratic government may not be categorically different from other forms of government but it will be different.

Having touched on the importance of the issues at hand, Hamilton moved on to the strong feelings that these momentous issues were certain to evoke. He was expecting that the debate was going to be passionate and even vehement, and this was natural and probably laudable. He was also expecting that the debate was going to be often angry and venomous, and he was anxious to forestall such animosities. Our reasoning frequently leads us astray, and while our opponents may be pushing for something we are sure is wrong or harmful, they may be honestly mistaken and working from the noblest of intentions. Conversely, those who are aligned with us on what we take to be the right side of the question may be actuated not by a sincere conviction that this is for the best, but rather by enmity, avarice, envy, or some other base passion.

And if we must allow that our opponents may be mistaken, we ourselves are not infallible, and we must entertain the possibility that we ourselves have erred. In concluding his attempts to temper the coming argument and calm the approaching storm, Hamiloton mentions the violent and intolerant spirit that often animates political parties. He speaks of making proselytes by fire and sword and curing heresies by persecution. The French Revolution was not far off but it had not yet arrived, and these warnings carry notes of prophecy.

Having urged good sense and understanding, Hamilton proposes to heed his own advice and offer the public a series of papers on the subject of the proposed constitution. In cool and reasoned argument, he will point out the utility of the Union, the insufficiency of the present Confederation, the necessity of an energetic government, the conformity of the proposed Constitution with the true principles of republican government, the analogy of the proposed federal with existing state constitutions, and finally the additional security the Constitution will afford.

The subsequent papers will each treat of a specific questions, while this first paper is much more general, serving as an appeal to civility in debate and to reason as the ultimate arbiter of the tremendous issues under consideration. This prologue was meant to embody the very principles it exhorts. Hamilton is hoping for fervor without the taint of malice, earnest argument without recrimination.

Dreadnoughts and Death Stars

When HMS Dreadnought slid off the dock and slipped into Portsmouth Harbor, she was the mightiest and most terrifying weapon mankind had ever created. Admiral Fisher had pushed for the design and construction of a battleship capable of sailing at twenty one knots and armed exclusively with heavy twelve inch guns. This technological terror was intended to make it clear to the world that British supremacy at sea was to be perpetual and unchallenged. The navies of friend, ally, and foe were to look upon her huge guns, gigantic size, and tremendous cost, despair, and relinquish control of the oceans to Great Britain.

The idea for this huge new battleship had been born at the naval review for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. Inventor and industrialist Charles Algernon Parsons had invented the steam turbine and to demonstrate its superiority to every other form of propulsion he sent the Turbinia, a ship powered by steam turbines, to crash the greatest massing of sea power the world had ever seen. In celebration of the sixtieth anniversary of Queen Victoria’s reign, the combined might of the Royal Navy was brought together before the eyes of princes, lords, journalists, and foreign dignitaries. The Admiralty meant to awe them all with the stunning spectacle of the planet’s greatest fleet. The Turbinia appeared uninvited and unwanted, racing between, around, and in front of the battleships. As she flew by, she was seen by all the watching luminaries to be far swifter than the proudest vessels of the Royal Navy. A picket boat was sent out to catch her but she easily danced away. To humiliate the admirals in front of the Prince of Wales was a dangerous expedient, but while they may have wanted to throttle Parsons it was obvious that existing ships couldn’t contend with one powered by steam turbines, and they had no alternative but to take his point.

The Dreadnought was designed to be powered by the new engines and she was laid down in thirteen months, faster than any battleship before. Yet as impressive as this feat was, it turned out to be an Ozymandian effort. Her speed and long range allowed her to keep her distance from any enemy ship and tear it apart without taking so much as a scratch and her launching made every other battleship afloat obsolete.  But the other navies of the world didn’t throw up their hands, give up, and concede the seas to Great Britain as the Admiralty had hoped.   Instead they rushed to build and launch their own Dreadnoughts. The introduction of Great Britain’s awesome new weapon touched off an arms race and the governments and navies of the world cast their wealth into the building of Dreadnoughts. Rather than awing other nations into meek submission, the new ships heightened tensions between the great powers. Feeling themselves compelled to match and then to outdo the British leviathan, they all had to give up on the battleships they already possessed and come up with the money to construct brand new and catastrophically expensive ships. Rather than peace and the supremacy of the Royal Navy, exorbitance and belligerence followed in the Dreadnought’s wake.

This outcome should hardly be surprising since every weapon introduced down through the ages has been quickly copied and adopted. Iron, stirrups, chariots, cannon, the Monitor and the Merrimack, and every other technological advance in killing have spread from nation to nation, from army to army. The Philistines managed to keep iron out of the hands of their enemies but such control has always proved to be difficult. The Admiralty had gambled that the ruinous cost of building such a monster might deter the other navies of the world, but in the choice between guns and butter, even the poorest of nations will arm themselves no matter what the consequences. North Korea has demonstrated that even a poor country and a minor power can acquire the most powerful and terrifying weaponry if they are ruthless enough to condemn their own citizens to indigence, famine, and pestilence.

A gigantic floating weapon that will fill any opponent with terror and allow a government to impose its will appears in the movie Star Wars. The Empire built the Death Star to be the ultimate weapon but no weapon is ever really ultimate. The gargantuan battles station turned out to be vulnerable to small fighters and was destroyed by X Wings at the Battle of Yavin. During the Second World War, the mightiest ship in the Royal Navy, HMS Prince of Wales, was sunk in much the same fashion by Japanese torpedo bombers.

Sumptuary Laws and Civic Virtue



In his Utopia, Thomas More wrote that in his perfect society, gold and silver were to be put to ignoble uses like chamber pots so that these precious would be despised by all citizens. Montaigne advocates similar measures for engendering a contempt for luxuries. A sympathy for sumptuary laws runs throughout the Renaissance and beyond. Not all writers believed that these laws could ever work but considered the intended effects salutary. From their reading of Plato, Livy, Plutarch and other authors, and their own understanding of ancient history, Machiavelli, Gibbon, and many more believed luxury and extravagance were the undoing of republics and empires alike.


The laws of Lycurgus were the most thorough and rigorous of all codes in curbing luxury. The Spartans used money minted of iron, on the rare occasions they handled money at all. The Spartans wore the simplest clothes, ate the coarsest food, and lived lives of hardship and privation, in order to make themselves peerless warriors. They were great fighters and Plato, Xenophon, and many more Athenian authors credited this abstemious lifestyle for their prowess on the battlefield.


Later writers like Livy and Plutarch made a natural comparison between the early Romans and the Spartans. Those Romans from the early days of the Republic, Cincinnatus, the Horatii, and Camillus, lead lives of rude simplicity, scratching out their daily bread from the soil, strengthened by hard manual labor and inured against every privation. These sturdy forefathers conquered an empire, and this accession of wealth corrupted their descendants. The Romans became gluttonous, lazy, effeminate in manner, accustomed to lives of ease and pleasure that rendered them unfit for the legions. The fall of Rome is a story of moral degeneracy.


Although remembered as the supreme exponent of unscrupulous measures, Machiavelli was a very moral author and he thought any republic corrupted in its manners incapable of surviving. What exactly is corruption. Everything Lycurgus and Cato the Elder would despise and denounce: riding in litters, wearing silk, eating off gold plate, sleeping in soft beds. Some like Gibbon and Montesquieu have a peculiar fixation with climate. Throughout his history, Gibbon contrasts the legions hardened by the winters of northern provinces like Dacia and Britannia with those legions enervated by their heat and torpor of Syria and Egypt. Against all counterexamples, he considers shivering somehow a fortifying exercise and insists that balmy climes are fatal to martial vigor. This bias persists into modern times and Toynbee deems the town of Capua particularly emasculating.


Augustus was so alarmed by the moral decay of the Roman state that he became one of the most prolific legislators of sumptuary laws. Over the next centuries, the legions, once manned by the citizen farmers of the nearby countryside, came to depend on contingents of German mercenaries and his fears seem to be well founded. The lecheries and debaucheries of Tiberius, Nero, and Caligula, so sensationally depicted by Suetonius provide an antipode to the heroes of Livy. We picture Cincinnatus at his plow alongside his degenerate descendants writhing in their orgies or hunched over their vomitorium. Such Mediterranean sybarites can never stand up to the burly giants sweeping down from the north.


Discomfort and privation do not make good soldiers. Men accustomed to riding horses (when it was still a skill useful in war), hunting, rifles, and trained to arms since childhood will at first be better fighters than their counterparts who may be equally robust and strong in body but lack this early training. They will keep this ascendancy for some while, but their adversaries will be seasoned by training and experience and soon match if not surpass them. The Southerners were convinced that one man in butternut was worth ten in blue but in the end the factory workers of the North beat the Southern cavaliers facing them. As Sam Houston had predicted, the descendants of the heroes of Lexington and Bunker Hill were found the equals with the descendants of the heroes of Cowpens and Yorktown. The Thebans learned the art of the phalanx from the Spartans and at Leuctra although outnumbered they defeated them.


Men don’t fight well because they’re poor, or hungry, or ill-clad. They fight because they believe they have a reason to fight. They fight because they think their actions matter. Citizens believe that the state is an enterprise in which they have a share. They must be sure that they have a voice in the decisions taken and a stake in the outcome of those decisions. With this assurance they can accomplish anything, without it they’re good for nothing. The Romans were no longer willing to serve under the eagles because they didn’t believe they had a voice or a stake and they were right. The Empire was the rule of one man, whether benevolent and despotic. There were many emperors over the next centuries, so wide in their extraction, so various in their circumstance and character, that any man might aspire to become emperor. If a gigantic Thracian peasant like Maximin, or a Syrian zealot like Elagabalus might rise to become emperor, the way seems clear for anybody bold or lucky enough to attempt that dangerous climb. Yet for the ordinary citizen to take a hand in the management of the state was quite impossible.


The Roman Empire held some of the fairest portions of the earth, and this wide and fertile expanse yielded much wealth that was channeled into the recruitment and maintaining of the legions. Yet while the citizens of the Roman Empire enjoyed its benefits, they took no part in its direction. The ordinary people kept their heads down and endured whichever adventurer had risen to the purple. In the general prosperity, very few young men were compelled by poverty to enlist in the legions. There were easier and safer ways to make a living. The natives of Italy no longer aspired to become centurions, and so the empire turned to the barbarian tribesmen, trained to arms since childhood and already grouped into their warrior bands.


The Russian peasants conscripted into the armies of the Czar in the First World War were no match for the Germans. The Germans were raised in comfort and plenty in comparison to their Russian foes, and they were the recipients of a public education which furnished them with the skills to fight a modern war and inculcated the nobility of service to the state. Growing up, the Germans had been better nourished, better educated, and more thoroughly indoctrinated. The Germans had imbibed a fervid and bellicose nationalism from the cradle, and the illiterate, confused, often unhealthy Russian serfs facing them stood little chance. The Battle of Tannenberg showed the immense might of a modern, industrial state. Schoolboys taught reading, arithmetic, and love for the Kaiser and the Fatherland throughout childhood, made terrible soldiers once grown to manhood.


It is upbringing, education, and above all, unity of purpose that makes for a citizen soldier. The Spartan fought for his companions in the mess, the Goths for a chieftain preeminent for his leadership and courage, the private in the Army of the Potomac for the union, the Roman legionary for the senate and people of Rome, and the German private in the Imperial Army for kaiser and fatherland. They fought alongside comrades and for a country or a cause that will stand and fall upon the outcome of their arms. If they become estranged from their leaders, if they consider themselves inhabitants only and not citizens, that courage will vanish.

Xenophon, the Ten Thousand, and the Myth of Er

The Anabasis is indisputably one of the greatest adventure stories of all time. A party of Greek hoplites, betrayed, leaderless, surrounded by enemies, and stranded thousands of miles from home, fight through all obstacles to reach freedom. This all begins when an ambitious satrap poured lies into the ear of the king of the Persian Empire, accusing his younger brother Cyrus of plotting against him. The King of Kings arrested him and was about to put him to death but Cyrus was freed by the intercession of their mother. Although he was released and restored to his position, he knew that Tisaphernes was never going to stop maligning him and that his brother was sooner or later going to believe his lies. His mother could not protect him forever, and his only salvation was to take the crown for himself. He began to gather an army. The lessons of Marathon, Thermopylae, and Plataea had been learned and Cyrus wanted Greek hoplites in his army.

He began recruiting in Ionia, offering generous pay to any Greeks who would fight under his banners and he soon accumulated a sizable band. He didn’t want to tell them how far into the interior he was about to take them, nor that he was leading them into battle against the King of Kings. He lied, claiming that they were going to fight one much smaller, weaker enemy, then another, and all the while he led them farther and farther away from the sea and into the heart of the Persian Empire. The army could be deceived only so often, and eventually realizing who their enemy truly was, they grew angry, fearful, and mutinous. Their generals, who were close to Cyrus, called them together and spoke to them. They pointed out to the men how far that they’d come and how much more difficult it would be for them to turn back and return the whole way by themselves rather than to go forward as part of a mighty host. They reminded them how good Cyrus had been to them up to now, and how much more he could do for them once, with their help, he became the richest and most powerful man on earth. They also conveyed Cyrus’ promise of a great sum in silver to every man who marched with him.

The Greeks saw that they could turn and go back through many dangers with nothing or push forward and perhaps win great glory and riches. Cyrus had treated them well, and his consideration and his generosity won them over and they stayed with him. The armies of the great king and the aspiring usurper came together and clashed at a place named Cunaxa, between the Tigris and Euphrates not far from the ancient site of Babylon in the very cradle of civilization. The Greeks advanced and they drove their enemies before them. Cyrus and Artaxerxes lined up opposite on another, and if the stories are to be believed, brother fought brother hand to hand. Cyrus wounded Artaxerxes, but he himself was struck down and killed. The Greeks had gone off in pursuit of their foes and they knew nothing of the fate that had befallen their benefactor and master. Convinced that they had shared in a great victory, they returned to their own camp only to find it plundered and learn that their benefactor and master was slain. The rest of Cyrus army had been scattered and the Greeks alone were left to face the wrath of the victorious King of Kings.

The Greeks were still intact as a fighting force and very formidable and Artaxerxes had no wish to needlessly maul his own army after it had already suffered through a great battle. He offered the Greeks safe passage back to their homes, sealing his word with solemn oaths to the gods. The Greek army and a host of Persians then began marching back along parallel tracks. There was great suspicion and animosity between the two sides, and the Greeks saw that the Persians observed them closely, as if waiting for some moment of weakness when the parts of their force became separated on the march or during some river crossing, or grown complacent and inattentive they neglected to post watch or conduct proper reconnaissance. The two camps were always sited miles apart, but foragers collecting firewood, water, and food ran afoul of one another and there were clashes between small parties.

The generals of the Greeks feared that one of these small brawls might embroil both armies into a full battle, and so their supreme leader had an interview with Tisaphernes who commanded the Persians. He explained the fears of the Greeks to the satrap. Tisaphernes answered by reminding Clearchus of the huge numbers of the Persian host. The Persians had cavalry and could strike the Greeks and ride away untouched as they, encumbered with their heavy helmets, cuirasses, and shields, could only lumber after them only making themselves more tired and thirsty than they already were. There were mountains after mountains, and if the Persians should ascend these heights they could never be dislodged. There was river after river and the Greeks could ford these only by their sufferance, and sometimes had to be ferried across. He could wipe the Greeks out whenever he wished, but rather than doing so he had sworn to the gods to conduct them back home. Why would he now bring on himself the retribution of the gods and the contempt of all mankind, simply to do what he could have done all along? Clearchus was convinced and he agreed that he and the other Greek generals would meet Tisaphernes for a formal parley. When they heard of this proposal, the other leaders of the Greeks were mistrustful but Clearchus reassured them. They entered Tisaphernes’ tent under the inviolable terms of parley, but he betrayed them, slaughtering the retinue that had accompanied them, seizing them, and later putting them to death.


After this treachery, there was an open state of war. The Greeks elected new leaders and they fought the Persians off as they marched for home. Horses before used as pack animals were mounted for cavalry, and some islanders among them skilled in the use of the sling, fashioned some of these weapons and outdistanced the slingers and archers of the Persians. Tisaphernes suffered so much in these encounters that he left off his pursuit. The Greeks pushed on into the high country and here they had to fight through one tribe after another. Day after day, mile after mile, they marched and fought, climbing over mountains, stumbling through snows, swimming across rivers. Clambering up yet another mountain, the Greeks heard their scouts shouting about something. Certain they were under attack, they rushed forward to their aid until they could hear their cries more clearly. The sea, the sea! The cry was taken up and passed down the column. From the vanguard to the rearguard, all began to run until reaching the summit they saw the waters glistening on the horizon. Their faces glistening with tears, they fell into one another’s arms, jumping and sobbing for joy. They erect a cairn to forever mark the spot where they sighted their salvation, and then descended to the Greek town that waited to welcome them.

A touching end to a moving story, but the Ten Thousand reach the sea only two thirds of the way through the story. In a five-act plot, the climax comes just before the end, but many tales have leisurely endings. The final act may be drawn out. Companions on the adventure will say their affectionate goodbyes. The long-lost son will be sighted from the front porch. Wives, children, and parents will run out to meet him. The one given up for lost, mourned, remembered, and cherished is now come back from the grave. He is embraced, hugged, kissed. The fatted calf is slain for the feast and there is joy all around. There is no such reunion. The Greeks keep heading for home but then they waver and ultimately turn back. The rulers of the cities they enter see them as pests if not as invaders. Some wish to recruit them, some to expel them. In the end, they enter the service of a brutal Thracian king, deposed but determined to retake his throne. The Greeks fight for him, and raise him to greater power, glory, and riches than ever before, and in so doing they butcher the Thracian peasantry, burn their villages, and take the youngest, strongest, and fairest among them for slaves. Seuthes proves ungrateful in his power and his pride, and he withholds their pay. The Greeks abandon his service and leave Europe going back to Asia to fight against their old enemy Tisaphernes.

This seems a disappointing and disgraceful ending to the story of men who only wished to go home in peace. Yet these Greeks only really longed for home when they despaired of life. They were few who fought against many, and we feel for them; we root for them; we forget that they are mercenaries. They fought their own way to freedom. They don’t owe anything to anyone. It is through their own strength and their own courage that they survived. We the readers might deplore their crimes but we the readers did nothing for them. If it is we who delivered them, we may have grounds to reproach them. These men never stopped being what they are. We forgot who they are as we were caught up in the story. And yet there is a story. Why?

Xenophon wrote his tale decades later. He told it because others were telling the same story, but he wanted his version to prevail, a version in which he and his comrades are heroes. Then, as now, the mercenary, a man who fights and kills for money and not for anger or conviction was regarded as a figure of odium. Xenophon tries to explain his presence in an army of mercenaries, and to make clear that he was neither a general, a captain, nor an ordinary soldier. He speaks of his camaraderie and solidarity with one Proxenus who was already involved in the enterprise and who persuaded him to come along. He expounds on the great qualities of Cyrus, his virtues, his magnanimity, his charms of character. He would have us believe that he took this Persian prince as a friend, and was personally loyal to him, that he was so dazzled by a claimant to a throne that he and every other Greek reviled that he journeyed to the ends of the earth in his service. These ten thousand Greek mercenaries had stolen food from peasants who were already starving, had seized captives as slaves, had put innocents to the sword all along their journey long before Seuthes, but Xenophon glides over these actions or tries to excuse them. He stresses that the army must find food to survive. This is true, but they’d come to these lands as paid combatants, greedy, rapacious, violent men lured by the prospect of slaves, booty and glory.

When the ten thousand saw the sea, they knew they’d survived their ordeal. But they were the same men as they were before. They’d taken nothing away from their sufferings, their misfortunes, or their remarkable escape. In The Republic, Plato recounts the story of Er, a man who came back from the dead to tell the living about what lay beyond. In his description, every soul comes back to this world, and these souls may pick the fate they wish in an order fixed by lottery. Every soul takes his turn and selects the life that seems best. Some pick beauty, some fame, some power, some wealth, some children and snug domesticity, some adventure and renown. The soul who fared worst of all in the lottery and who was made to wait and draw last was Odysseus. There were many souls, but far more destinies, and Odysseus sorted through many still left over and neglected by all the rest before he chose. The hero who had won the greatest war ever fought, who had outwitted monsters, who had been favored by gods and goddesses, who’d survived epic voyages, wanted nothing more than the quietest, most ordinary, and most unremarkable of lives. He’d learned from everything he’d gone through, and that wisdom taught him to eschew all human vanity. The saddest part of The Anabasis is that the Ten Thousand learned nothing.