Federalist Number Seven

In the last paper, Hamilton had argued that republics will not be above attacking other republics, as they often have in the past, and that a United States broken up into smaller pieces will be afflicted with frequent wars between those States. From the general he passes into the specific, and enumerates the causes of these quarrels: territorial, commercial, financial, and legal.

Down through every age of history except our own, nearly everybody kept themselves alive by farming. Only a very few followed any profession besides agriculture. Despite the great numbers working the land, the rude and inefficient methods used to till the land yielded very little food. Hunger was the norm and famines came often and regularly. As there weren’t going to be any great improvements in livestock or the soil itself, nearly every strong back was already in the fields, and the science of agrinomics hadn’t advanced a step in centuries, the only means to get more food was to win more land to be sown. But farmland isn’t the only kind of territory coveted and fought over. Some land contains minerals like copper, tin, iron, and coal. The Philistine’s kept iron out of the hands of their foes and man’s lust for gold is legendary. If the land is useless and barren, it may still be desirable as a buffer any invader must cross.

The States strung out along the Atlantic seaboard knew there were vast territories to the west. Although these were barely explored and were already inhabited, they hadn’t gone unclaimed. In projecting their boundaries the States did so in lines not line segments, their borders stretched into infinity, and the reaches enclosed within these latitudes became a prize to be squabbled over by surveyors and legislatures. Until Lewis and Clark the colonists never suspected how huge these lands were, and how utterly alien they were from the east in climate and terrain. The narrow belt they’d traversed had been green woodland crossed north to south by manageable mountain ranges worn down to hillocks by the scouring of hundreds of millions of years. They had no notion of the dry, jagged lands that lay to the west of this pleasant fertile ribbon. Should they succeed in stretching to the Pacific, even New York and Pennsylvania will have to take in an area many times their own size, and these oceans of grass and expanses of towering mountain and searing desert are completely unsuitable to their way of life. They little imagined how much the territory for which they were clamoring exceeded their appetite and how little it might suit their taste, but they knew what lay over the next ridge, more green forest where trees can be felled for timber and lands cleared for farms and settlements, and they wanted it for themselves. The Crown and then Congress had formerly adjudicated these endless disputes, but in the absence of an overreaching authority the states will have to resolve these land disputes among themselves, and this must lead to violence.

As children born into the age of the airplane, railroad, and combustion engine, when gargantuan metroplexes and megalopolises sprawl over thousands of square miles of landlocked prairie connected to the wider world by skeins of interstates and intercontinental airports so huge they’d have been mighty cities in an earlier century, we can scarcely imagine how profligately geography favored the maritime states and how heartlessly it robbed their inland rivals. The greatest of the Atlantic ports, the richest and most privileged of all these heiresses was Hamilton’s own New York. Airports are the work of man, but the deep-water ocean ports upon which earlier generations depended, were entirely the whim of nature. New York owned the greatest of these deep-water ports and this harbor flowed into a mighty river plunging into the heart of the continent. There’s a joke that whether you’re going to heaven or to hell, you still have to change planes in Atlanta. Yet with enough work and money, an airport just as huge can be built anywhere, and airports nearly as large can be found in Dallas and Chicago. Yet no amount of labor or expenditure can bring New York Harbor or the Hudson River to Kentucky. This enormous and insuperable advantage was not lost on the merchants of Manhattan or the farmers of the interior. Hamilton knew his beloved New York was different from the rest of the nation and that greed on one side and envy on the other would inevitable put it into violent collision with the rest of the country.

In relation to commercial advantages, he adverts to New York by name:

The opportunities, which some States would have of rendering others tributary to them, by commercial regulations, would be impatiently submitted to by the tributary States. The relative situation of New-York, Conneticut, and New-Jersey, would afford an example of this kind. New-York, from the necessities of revenue, must lay duties on her importations. A great part of these duties must be paid by the inhabitants of these other two States in the capacity of consumers of what we import. New-York would neither be willing or able to forego this advantage. Here citizens would not consent that a duty paid by them should be remitted in favour of the citizens of her neighbours; nor would it be practicable, if there were not this impediment in the way, to distinguish the customers of our own markets. Would Conneticut and New-Jersey long consent to be taxed by New-York for her exclusive benefit?

Everything useful or fashionable that Americans can’t make for themselves, and at this stage there is very little that Americans can make for themselves, must come in from Europe. And to come in, it must come in through New York, and there tariffs, duties, imposts will be added to the price, and that price must be borne by those who buy these goods when they finally reach the markets of those places not blessed by one of the greatest natural harbors on the planet. New York cannot be duplicated and can only be seized. Such a robbery is not unthinkable. When Russia consisted only of Moscow and the wintry forests surrounding it, the tsars wanted an ocean port above all else, and this drive to the sea involved one irruption after another to the west and to the south, one war after another with Sweden and Turkey.

The disadvantaged farmers and laborers of the west and the south have one means to revenge themselves on Manhattan, the colossal national debt. Wars are expensive, especially for puny, fledgling republics and the national debt presently borne by all the states in common, is enormous. Many states shall happily repudiate this debt. This will ruin the national credit and all Americans will be considered liars and defaulters. American perfidy will be the despair of the great banks of London. The farmers of North Carolina, Georgia, and New Jersey who grow nearly everything they eat and make nearly everything they use, who bring their excess crop into town but barter as often as sell, little care what the magnates of London think of them. If defaulting on the loans taken out by all the states together ruins the merchant princes of Manhattan, all the better. These merchant princes will be naturally averse to ruin, and they will plead for the timely repayment of these obligations, trumpeting duty and honor when they are really urging their own interest. Both sides will be selfish and both sides will be partly rigth but this debt will be the source of bitter contention and these quarrels may ultimately be decided on the battlefield.

Since Appamattox, the states have more and more become administrative prefectures but when Hamilton was writing they were more like sovereign nations, proud, touchy, and bigoted sovereign nations. The inhabitants of one State frequently detested the inhabitants of the next, and the legislators of each State were made up of these same inhabitants and not always the best of them. They were not above willfully, and even gleefully, passing laws aimed at vexing, annoying, even beggaring the natives of another State. The fortunes and interests of people in what was so recently one single nation are so closely connected and intertwined that the livelihood and well-being of nearly any citizen can be blighted by malicious measures originating in a city that was formerly a town just over the state line but has now become a foreign capital. Without an overarching judiciary to strike down such mean-spirited laws in the name of constitutionality, equity, or just plain decency, there is no redress for those persecuted by the edicts of the next State over. Grievances that can’t be sorted out peaceably and sensibly usually result in wars.

Federalist Number Six

John Jay had contributed several papers in which he described how small disunited nations may fall prey to the great powers of Europe. All thirteen colonies together were puny compared with the great states across the Atlantic and the danger was very real. As his colleague had written of the menace from foreign powers, Hamilton will argue that the states by themselves, or small nations composed of only a few states will be a danger to each other.

He assumes that the government of these small nations will be democratic. If most of the North American continent is broken up into small republics, some will argue that democratic states are less warlike than monarchies or oligarchies, and that these republics will live side by side peaceably if not amicably.

Hamilton does not think so, and he appeals first to reason and then to experience. The causes for hostility among nations are general and perpetual. The lust for power, the thirst for preeminence and supremacy, the envy of those richer or more prominent, fear of an ancient enemy or possible aggressor, the desire of commercial nations to hold markets exclusively or not to be shut out of markets already held by a competitor, religious strife, unfortunate yet binding alliances, and the list goes on. These are all passions that may move a king, but they may equally move a first or foreign minister, and they may move the common body of the citizenry. Because of its greater mass and deeper passions, a leviathan may be swifter and more implacable in its anger than any solitary individual.

In the midst of enumerating the reasons democratic states may go to war, Hamilton goes into a digression in which several women figure prominently. He declares that, in compliance with the resentments of a prostitute, Pericles attacked, vanquished, and destroyed the city of the Samnians. This sent me to my Plutarch, and in his life of Pericles, Plutarch reports, several centuries later, that there was a rumor current in Athens that Pericles had proposed the war against the Samnians upon the entreaty of Aspasia.

Mesdames Maintenon and Pompadour also make his list of war-mongering women, and as for them I have nothing to say at present but I may research the matter. The Duchess of Marlborough is also mentioned. Queen Anne had loved her as a sister and perhaps more, and that favor was invaluable to the commander of her armies and the first minister of her government in waging the war against France. However, the Duchess always argued when she might have cajoled. She ceaselessly and stridently advanced the interests of a Whig party Anne abhorred. Her endless declamations and disputations cooled the royal favor, and when her place was taken by a rival whom she herself had raised up, her jealous denunciations turned Anne’s love to hatred. Her fall and the influence of the new favorite allowed certain politicians to betray the Allies and make a dishonorable peace which enriched them but disgraced their country. I’ll say no more of that but refer the reader to Churchill’s magisterial biography and conclude by observing that a female influence usually tempers rather than inflames male pugnacity.

Returning from these digressions, some will still maintain that the spirit of commerce, and the habit of peaceful transactions that accompanies it, will make men gentler, more reasonable, and less belligerent. Hamilton answers that commerce has done nothing to banish war or even make it less frequent but merely changes its motives and objects. Men will fight for wealth as readily and perhaps less creditably as for honor and glory. Citing experience as the least fallible guide to human opinions, Hamilton now turns from reason to experience.

Sparta, Rome, Athens, and Carthage were all republics, the last two commercial republics as well, and they were almost always at war. Venice was a commercial republic that continually fought not only the Turks but the other city-states of Italy. Both Holland and Great Britain became great maritime trading countries, and they fought one another and other rivals for dominion over the oceans. Merchants will clamor for war if victory will secure their shipping routes and open new markets to their goods. The sanguinary adventures of the East India Company came after Hamilton’s time but had they fallen under his eye, they would certainly be presented as further evidence.

It may be objected that the modern democracies of Europe have lived in peace for generations and that while all of this may have been true in the past; everything has changed. Such optimism must be dampened by recalling that the period, nearly a century long, between Waterloo and the guns of August was one of the most peaceful and prosperous in the entire history of that small yet turbulent continent. Unless some good reason can be furnished why these democracies are so much tamer than their predecessors, the current peace may be nothing more than a run of luck. In flipping a coin, heads may come up thirty times in a row, and induction may leap to believe that tails is no longer within the realm of possibility and that heads will turn up forever. The human mind tends to distrust and disbelieve in runs that go counter to probability but they do occur. Unless some reason can be given why the effect is necessary, the cause can be nothing but a series of accidents.

Toward the end of the paper, Hamilton remarks:

that it is from long observation of the progress of society become a sort of axiom in politics, that vicinity or nearness of situation, constitutes nations natural enemies.

Maybe it isn’t necessary that nations who share a border become enemies. The United States and Canada have shared peacefully shared a very long border for over two centuries without fighting. Yet it is possible, and if two neighboring countries grow to dislike one another, their friction will be continual and inescapable.

I will end with a quote not from one of the framers of the Constitution but from its greatest interpreter:

Physically speaking, we cannot separate. We can not remove our respective sections from each other, nor build an impassable wall between them. A husband and wife may be divorced, and go out of the presence, and beyond the reach of each other; but the different parts of our country cannot do this. They cannot but remain face to face; and intercourse, either amicable or hostile, must continue between them. Is it possible, then, to make that intercourse more advantageous or more satisfactory, after separation than before? Can aliens make treaties easier than friends can make law? Can treaties be more faithfully enforced between aliens than laws can among friends?

Of Pedantry

Pedant is a term of opprobrium but the pedant is more a figure of ridicule than of menace. Yet what is a pedant? A phony is a person who appears to respect or care for someone else only for their own advantage, and a sadist is a person who takes sensual pleasure in the pain of another. These faults seem clear and are generally agreed upon but what exactly is the fault of a pedant? By most accounts, the failing somehow pertains to knowledge.

Perhaps the pedant is someone who has acquired great knowledge and has become proud and overbearing in his erudition. There are some who are very beautiful and are supercilious and disdainful to those not as beautiful as themselves. There are also some who are very rich and they are arrogant and domineering because of that wealth. Such individuals are rightly the objects of general reprehension. The beautiful may take some pains to maintain that beauty, but its possession is an accident of birth, a drawing in the genetic lottery, and we take it very ill if those who’ve been so lucky are inconsiderate to those not so fortunate. The rich are often born already wealthy, and while some become wealthy through great talent, ingenuity, or industry, some others become wealthy through luck or nefarious dealings. Nobody is born into great erudition, and while some learn more quickly than others, the attainment of great knowledge comes only with intense and prolonged effort. We can imagine some scholar who believes that those not as learned are dolts and sluggards and while we should find such a man very disagreeable, he is haughty and scornful rather than pedantic. Furthermore, the amassing of great knowledge is usually considered ennobling and productive of humility and even wisdom.

The word pedant carries a suggestion that the knowledge is somehow flawed. Flawed doesn’t mean entirely erroneous and none of the many pedants portrayed in fiction have ever been wrong about every single fact. Their knowledge is somehow flawed but it isn’t simply mistaken on every point. Instead of being false, the stock of erudition is somehow vain or silly. A great store of information can be quite useless if it’s merely a great jumble of trivial facts. Lists of dates, genealogies, statistics, and other heaps of data compiled on a page can be useless if they don’t bear on anything and if they hold no organic unity. Yet these great assemblages of facts with no connection are daunting to memorize. Why will anyone take on such a monumental mnemonic feat with nothing to gain from it? Nevertheless, we are drawing closer. Pedantry isn’t the storing up of useless knowledge but the misuse of knowledge.

Kant enjoined that in our actions we must treat another person not only as a means but also as an end in himself. We must similarly treat our knowledge not only as an end but also as a means. People often confuse ends and means. The pedant makes knowledge an end in itself, when it should be both a means and an end, much like the miser makes money, which should be only a means to an end, into an end in itself. The purpose of money is to provide us against hunger, sickness, and discomfort. Yet the miser will starve himself to add to his treasure. He will endure any privation or indignity if he can heap up more money. He will eat bad food and live in squalor, making himself sick, and he will worsen and die before spending some of his precious wealth on medicine. The money that was the means to his health, comfort, and happiness becomes his master and destroyer.

We seek to know so we may better cope with the world around us. Great learning is a treasure, but we shouldn’t hide it away, guard it, and slumber upon it, like some avaricious dragon. Knowledge is a means as well as an end, and it is only valuable if it also useful. Grammar furnishes many notable instances of pedantry. The purpose of grammar is not to make ourselves understood but to make it impossible for us to be misunderstood. As Wittgenstein observed, the laws of language are very much like the rules of a game. Yet in a game like chess, the number and the roles of the pieces are fixed. In a living language, words sometimes die away but more frequently they are born. A language will need to contend with entirely new words and come up with rules for them.

What if new pieces emerged in the game of chess? What will be done with these new pieces? Will the board be enlarged or will the pieces be assembled in three rows rather than just two? Let’s take one of these new pieces and call it the raven. How will the raven move, straight or diagonally? Can it move many spaces until impeded? Can it overleap its own fellows like the knight? No. The raven will be limited to move one space diagonally and it will also capture in the same manner. Can it move two spaces on its very first move? Yes. If it advances to the very last row, can it become any other piece like the pawn? That will soon lead to a proliferation of queens. From now on, the raven can become a queen, and the pawns can become only a rook when reaching the last row. The introduction of the raven has changed the pawn, because some of the functions of the pawn are now redundant.

Like this example from chess, languages must adapt to use new elements. When a new word arises it sometimes reduplicates the work of an existing word, and that existing word is shifted to meet another purpose. The rules of grammar serve to use these elements to the utmost advantage. Grammar serves communication, but pedantry makes communication serve grammar. The word ‘hopefully’ is frequently used to modify a situation. The rules of grammar insist that the adverb ‘hopefully’ should pertain only to the actions of an agent who is hopeful. In English prose, the occasions when such a usage are needed are very few. The occasions when a situation needs to be characterized in this way are many, yet a strict adherence to the established rules of grammar will force the writer to resort to something like, “It is to be hoped that…”. Forbidden one useful adverb, the sentence begins with a flotsam of pointless, forgettable little words. To avoid such periphrastic nightmares, writers should break these laws and the grammar police may issue a warrant for their arrest.

Taking one more example from grammar, it is a famous, or rather infamous, rule that one should never end a sentence with a preposition. In writing prose or poetry, there is good reason for doing so whenever possible. The second most important word in a sentence is the first, and the most important is the last. Much of the immense power of Milton’s blank verse lies in the forceful and vivid words he uses to begin and end a line. Ideally, the first and last word of a sentence should be strong and memorable. Yet this is not always possible, and if obeying means dislocating the phrasing so that the meaning is unintelligible, the rule should be broken. Moreover, the injunction is given without any explanation. There is a good reason but it isn’t given, and the rule is set down as if were an arbitrary statute set down merely to be vexatious.


Not merely rules of grammar, but whole bodies of thought may become pedantic. When the scholars of the late Middle Age in Christendom and the Caliphate, rediscovered the writings of Aristotle, they were dazzled by the new vistas displayed before them. These works, the Prior and Posterior Analytics, the History of Animals, the Mechanics, even the Physiognomics posed questions they had not thought to ask. They were stimulated by his example to ask these very questions for themselves and the manner in which the Stagirite had attacked them suggested fruitful lines of inquiry. But eventually, the difficulty of these problems and the scanty progress made in their solution in comparison with their classical predecessors began to discourage them. They still followed Aristotle in his investigations but they came more and more to accept his conclusions. The thinker who had been an inspiration ultimately became an authority.

Once Aristotle was generally accepted, Thomas Aquinas made it his life’s work to combine his philosophy with the truths of Scripture. He found Aristotle to be right on a great number of matters but never took him to be inerrant. Yet this immense body of secular wisdom should be a complement to the revealed truth of religion. This critical combining was later taken, in its entirety to be the official doctrine of the Church and Thomas Aquinas was canonized as the Angelic Doctor.

Many profound thinkers have been dreamy and abstracted in their meditations, and this has led them into accidents and embarrassments. Adam Smith was sometimes lost in his musings as he walked, and on one occasion he walked a great distance as he meditated, and when coming back to himself he found that he was come to a remote area and could only get back home by another long and wearying march. Thales was another dreamy rambler and he once became so lost in contemplation that he walked himself into a large hole. A pretty serving girl happened by and rescued him, but as his rescuer felt entitled to reprove him as she pulled him back up, asking how he can know what is passing in the firmament above if he’s ignorant of what lies at his feet. The great sophist almost certainly felt somewhat sheepish about this incident and this may have lead to another of the legends told about him. Thales was a meteorologist of some skill, and it is recounted that one year his observations led him to be quite sure that the next season’s olive harvest would be stupendous. He bought up every olive press he could acquire, and his prediction turned out to be accurate. The harvest was the greatest within living memory and he made an enormous profit. This venture into agriculture was meant to show that his search for knowledge wasn’t some harmless yet also useless eccentricity. He was seeking the governing principles of the universe, and these secrets were great truths valuable in themselves, but they were also immensely powerful and could yield tremendous benefits.

Thales, and those who later took up the same quest like Leibniz, took pains to show that their recondite researches allowed them to pursue the more practical and lucrative callings of statecraft, finance, and commerce with greater success than their more experienced and worldly practitioners. They needed to show that their thought wasn’t a pointless caviling over terms and definitions with no bearing on the real world. They needed to show they weren’t pedants because pedantry isn’t the failing of a bygone age or an alien and eccentric civilization but a recurring and dangerous tendency in our species. Texts that have revealed great discoveries are rightly revered, but we must always remember that they are a conduit to truth and not its apotheosis.

The French as Allies

The French have been making war with varying fortunes for over fourteen centuries. Over that span, they have won stunning victories and suffered spectacular defeats. The names Agincourt and Waterloo are household words to the English-speaking peoples; the names Castillon and Fort Dusquesne less so. Jena and Rossbach, Rocroi and Vitoria, Tours and Crecy, the Marne and Blitzkrieg, the list of triumphs and disasters rolls on and on. While success has many fathers and failure is an orphan, the paternities of Charles Martel, Turenne, Conde, Vauban, Davout, and de Gaulle are incontestable.

Military leaders do their utmost to learn from history, but these lessons are often more than simply unhelpful, they can be deceiving. The past is our only measure of the future, and it should be consulted, but with the greatest caution, and never taken for a reliable guide. Those who fail to learn from history often overcome those who cleave to it. Technology changes. The soldiers of the Napoleonic Wars were gorgeously appareled because they blasted away at one another at close range with wildly inaccurate muskets. The splendor of their uniforms fortified them in these appalling encounters and these peacocks were less likely to break than their dowdier foes. A weapon with a rifled barrel that can be loaded quickly (by the standards of the nineteenth century musket) meant the appearance of the sharpshooter and the disappearance of these dazzling hussars, cuirassiers, and grenadiers. Fortified and entrenched positions were inexpugnable during the First World War and the Somme, Passchendaele, and Ludendorff’s final desperate offensives tore apart generations to gain only a few miles of blasted moonscape. In the next war, Eben-Emael has fallen and Panzers are roaring across these same battlefields.

Such wildly unequal results are not exclusive to French arms. The descendants of Gaius Marius and Scipio Africanus surrendered in the thousand to bemused Tommies in North Africa. In War and Peace, Prince Bolkonsky, unwilling to concede the greatness of Napoleon as a general or the might of his Grand Armee, sniffs that he won all his great victories over mere Germans. Cortes and less than seven hundred Spaniards overthrew the Aztec Empire. The Soviet juggernaut hurled itself against tiny Finland and shattered. Hitler reviewed this miserable performance and learning the lessons of the past, was confirmed in his contempt for the fighting qualities of the Russian peasant, and this gave him the confidence he needed to gamble on conquering the Soviet Union within a few months.

It can be puzzling to understand how the few can overcome the many, or how one army can slaughter another with almost no losses. The most obvious and tempting explanations are cowardice and ineptitude. Yet the members of our species are nearly identical in genotype, phenotype, neurology physiology, psychology, and temperament. For an entire nation to collapse is the result of special circumstances and wherever these pertain, in whatever age and to whatever nation, defeat is certain. To face something strange, baffling, and frightening can break a people’s will to resist. Whether it’s iron men mounted on monsters, or Heinz Guderian’s panzer divisions, shock, terror, and confusion will drive all before them.

The other main reason a people don’t fight is that they don’t want to. Soldiers who have no wish to leave their own country and plunge into a strange land will falter in the attack. These same troops may fight to the death in defense of their own soil. Subjects who feel that they are fighting for rulers who don’t care about them, and for reasons that have nothing to do with them, will flee or surrender at the first opportunity. The Czechs, Hungarians, Italians, Serbians, and Romanians conscripted into the armies of the Austrian Empire were no match for patriots fighting for their own motherland. There is a reason the Austrian Hapsburgs compiled such a dismal military record and why they gained their ends through diplomacy and marriage rather than force of arms. The poor, unheard, neglected, and disenfranchised will never be fervid to fight for oil, sugar, or empire.

The causes of crushing, humiliating defeat are baffling, and they are also fleeting. Most Americans are aware of the French collapse before Hitler’s legions in 1940. They had tanks as good as those of the Germans but didn’t group them together into strike forces. They didn’t trust their impregnable Maginot Line sufficiently to let the fortifications fend for themselves. They discounted the possibility of a German onslaught through the Ardennes forest. When the enemy was racing toward their capital, they neglected the most basic measure of blowing up their gas stations. Their mistakes were many and these led to their own conquest and occupation. France fell and moated England was left to ponder the magnitude of the disaster and the reasons for it. They, and their American allies returned to liberate France. Americans never seem to tire of reminding the French of this deliverance or sneering at their humiliation. There is no profit in this but there is great peril. You can hardly call a man a coward and then be surprised when he hates you.

From the American Revolution to the entry of the United States into the First World War, the bitterest animosity prevailed between the US and Great Britain. The English were a feared and hated enemy. They are now a trusted and treasured ally. Perhaps no such conciliation is possible between the United States and France. Perhaps the two nations are too dissimilar for there to be any real understanding or friendship between them. The two countries may never be friends, but in this world, they must be allies. They share too many enemies. The United States and France are two of the important, most powerful, and most regarded examples of modern republics. Tolerant of dissent, suffering all faiths, orientations, and beliefs, upholding the rights of all their citizens, they are a beacon in the darkness and a vision of what is possible. Government of the people, by the people, and for the people has not only rivals but inveterate and violent enemies. For now, the most obvious and dangerous are a backward, belligerent, and nuclear Russia, and the theocratic and savage Islamic State. Should these be tamed or succumb, there will be others to take their place. It is regrettable but the world is a dangerous place, and it will probably always be a dangerous place. The taunting of the French should be stopped, not only because it’s petty and ungracious, but because no nation, no matter how powerful, can afford to spurn an ally.