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?

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