City-states, Demagogues, and Confederate Republics

City-states, Demagogues, and Confederate Republics

 

 

Hamilton shifts his attention from the enemies without to those within:

A Firm Union will be of the utmost moment to the peace and liberty of the States as a barrier against domestic faction and insurrection. It is impossible to read the history of the petty Republics of Greece and Italy, without feeling sensations of horror and disgust at the distractions with which they were continually agitated, and at the rapid succession of revolutions, by which they were kept in a state of perpetual vibration, between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy. If they exhibit occasional calms, these only serve as short-lived contrasts to the furious storms that are to succeed. If now and then intervals of felicity open themselves to view, we behold them with a mixture of regret arising from the reflection that the pleasing scenes before us are soon to be overwhelmed by the tempestuous waves of sedition and party-rage.

The petty Republics of Greece and Italy Hamilton is referring to are Athens and Rome. The reference is clear but the adjective ‘petty’ is noteworthy. Hamilton admits his own feelings of horror and disgust at the perpetual assassinations, conspiracies, and riots that tore and shook both Athens and Rome, and while the casual reader of history may find these chronicles of blood and treachery lively reading, the student who wanted to use these republics as a model, however imperfect, for a republic founded in the present age will be brought to despair.

If the Greeks and Romans had learned something from the past, if they’d hit upon some measure to curb the violence and heal the state, if some improvement, some progress had been made, there would be grounds for hope. We’d feel pity for the victims, the brothers Gracchi, Aristides, Coriolanus, Cimon, Sertorius, and all those who perished anonymously in the strife never to be immortalized by Plutarch, but we could take solace that they hadn’t died in vain. But neither the Greeks nor the Romans found a remedy for the distemper, and in the end they were doomed by their folly, ingratitude, and feuding.

When Hamilton describes Athens and Rome as petty, he is moved to scorn by frustration and regret, but he also means petty as synonymous with tiny. Neither of these ancient republics were much larger than the Philadelphia of Hamilton’s day and their small size made them vulnerable to much larger enemies. The Athenians were faced with the enormous Persian Empire, a colossus they never hesitated to antagonize, and the Romans fought the Carthaginians, a nation far greater and more powerful than they, in war after war. Against all odds, Athens and Rome prevailed through courage, superb leadership, and luck, and their victories brought spoils. The Athenians formed the Delian Confederacy and siphoned the moneys contributed to defend against the Persians into erecting magnificent but hugely expensive temples and buildings like the Parthenon. With Carthage destroyed, the Romans were free to plunder the entire Mediterranean world. The laws and institutions set down to administer a large town were far too frail to withstand this flood of treasure and when Athens and Rome acceded to empire they doomed themselves as republics.

These disheartening examples have led many to despair of free government, and they conclude that as tantalizing as civil liberty might seem, it always proves fatal to the order and peace of society. Recent developments, however, give cause for hope. Don’t despond because the science of government has taken great strides forward. ‘Stupendous fabrics reared on the basis of liberty’ have come to flourish, stumbled upon by Englishmen, pondered and praised by a Frenchman. England’s system of checks and balances, its separation of executive, legislative, and judicial powers in king, parliament, and the courts, showed a way forward.

Yet England was a limited monarchy, and after the Civil War the victors had tried again and again to found a republic upon English common law and constitutional precedent and again and again their creations had broken down. But that was an England distraught and furious after nearly a decade of civil war, and rent by religious discord. To establish a republic in that torn and bleeding nation was like building a house during an earthquake in a thunderstorm.

The Americans are mild and forgiving observers of a faith shared by nearly all, compared to the wild Puritans, Presbyterians, and Fifth Monarchists of the Protectorate. They enjoy one more advantage. In surveying the history and constitution of England, the ingenious Frenchman Montesquieu has come up with the expedient of a Confederate Republic.

A confederate republic is a number of small republics like Rome and Athens assembled into one much larger republic. Each of these member republics will be responsible for its own local administration and they will be left to enact and enforce their own peculiar laws. A confederate republic will enjoy the signal advantage of size, many puny republics bound together to raise a Leviathan formidable enough to stand against huge menacing empires or mighty kingdoms like France. The story of the survival of Athens and the rise of Rome are thrilling because they’re improbably, and no statesman should trust to a repeat of such stupendous luck. Huge expanses of territory, deep pools of manpower, and enormous resources are much surer safeguards than the exploits of Miltiades or Scipio.

Hamilton goes on to enumerate further advantages:

If a single member should attempt to usurp the supreme authority, he could not be supposed to have an equal authority and credit, in all the confederate states. Were he to have too great an influence in one, that would alarm the rest. Were he to subdue a part, that which would still remain free would oppose him with forces, independent of those which he had usurped, and overpower him before he could be settled in his usurpation.

The present or the future may be fundamentally different from the past. With the means of communication available to the late eighteenth century, Hamilton’s aspiring demagogue will find it impossible to reach a wide audience. However thrilling his oratory, his voice can carry only so far, and to hear him the masses must shoulder their way into a public square. If he should cry out through a newspaper as his mouthpiece, his propaganda will reach only as far as the paper can be carried. If he appeals to the grievances, the interests, the biases of his own canton, these will be of little interest, and may rather dismay the citizens of neighboring and rival cantons.

The legacy of Thomas Edison launches us into a new world. The same demagogue will no longer need bellow from a platform to a standing crowd, but chatting from some cramped booth in a basement, his voice and his messge will pipe into every living room across the globe. His face, his fears, his demands, his answers will carry across the planet in an instant. As soon as he speaks he’s heard, as soon as he postures he’s observed, as soon as he pleases he’s cheered. In our age, the peoples across the world hear the same songs, buy or covet the same clothes, and hang on the same spectacles. They will come to speak the same tongue in the accent favored by talent, dress their bodies, style their hair, and adorn their bodies as favored by a common fashion, waste their money on the same follies, share the same dreads, and hold onto the same hopes. The demagogue is no longer a parochial agitator and when he mounts the platform, the eyes of the whole world are upon him.

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