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.

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