Federalist Nine

 

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.

Federalist Eight

Having treated of the likelihood and the causes of wars between the States, Hamilton treats of the effects these wars will have on the condition and constitution of the disunited States. Before enumerating the dangers disciplined professional armies pose to liberty, Hamilton feels it only fair to concede some of the benefits they confer to the general peace:

The disciplined armies always kept on foot on the continent of Europe, though they bear a malignant aspect to libertyt and oeconomy, have notwithstanding been productive of the signal advantage, of rendering sudden conquests impracticable, and of preventing that rapid desolation, which used to mark the progress of war, prior to their introduction. The art of fortification has contributed to the same ends. The nations of Europe are incircled with chains of fortified places, which mutually obstruct invasion. Campaigns are wasted in reducing two or three frontier garrisons, to obtain admittance into an enemy’s country. Similar impediments occur at every step, to exhaust the strength and delay the progress of an invader. Formerly an invading army would penetrate into the very heart of a neighbouring country, almost as soon as intelligence of its approach could be received; but now a comparatively small force of disciplined troops, acting on the defensive with the aid of posts, is able to impede and finally to frustrate the enterprises of one far more considerable. The history of war, in that quarter of the globe, is no longer a history of nations subdued and empires overturned, but of towns taken and retaken, of battles that decide nothing, of retreats more beneficial than victories, of much effort and little acquisition.

The description Hamilton gives of European warfare in the late eighteenth century is quite accurate. The states of Europe had made their wars smaller in scope, limited in objective, and far less costly in loss of life and damage to property. Hamilton believes these conditions came about because these nations fight with tightly disciplined and superbly trained professional armies, rather than mercenaries, irregulars, or volunteer militias. The inefficiencies and eccentricities of the firearms available to those armies encouraged the use of drilled full-time soldiers.

How and why the continental powers managed to leash the hounds of war will be taken up elsewhere. But these limitations were the result of convention, ultimately achieved and precariously maintained by the common agreement of these same powers. These powers regarded one another as neighbors, equals, and in that they were similarly constituted and governed, nearly as kin. Their alliances and enmities were passing things, and none of them ever imagined themselves as fundamentally different from the rest. This self-imposed restraint was soon to be shook off. In the wars to come nations will be subdued and empires overturned. The battles to come will come with much effort, much acquisition and even more carnage.

Hamilton never imagined Jena, Friedland, Leipzig, or any of the other ghastly battles that lay in the future. If he was too sanguine in assuming that European warfare had been tamed, he made up for this with dire forebodings of the likely savagery of North American warfare. He laments the lack of fortresses and assumes that inroads will be easily made, but Edward Braddock, could he be summoned from the grave as Saul summoned Samuel, might point out that the vast, primeval forests could prove as impassible as the fortress lines of the Low Countries. Hamilton predicts that conquest will be easy to be made but difficult to be retained but the redcoats tramped up and down the wilderness, if this can be construed as ‘conquest’, and were little disposed to retain these lonely stretches of bog and wood.

Ultimately State fought State in a civil war, yet despite Sherman’s exaggerated and dangerously inflammatory pronouncements, it was not pure hell, at least not to civilians. Sherman’s marches wrought destruction on crops, livestock, barns, and railroad ties, but the persons and lives of the civilian population were almost universally respected. By contrast, in the pacification Vendee, the Peninsular War, the 1812 and 1941 invasions of Russia, standing European armies, not bloodthirsty fanatics handed weapons, not predatory mecenaries, but clerks, gardeners, seminary students, and young men called out of every one of the gentle callings of peace, raped women, slaughtered prisoners, and perpetrated atrocities Europe hadn’t witnessed since the Wars of Religion.

Bodiam Castle, East Sussex, UK

Yet all this lay in the future and not even a gaze as perspicacious and insightful as Hamilton’s can see what lies ahead. It is easy to mistake a temporary state of affairs for a necessary and permanent one, and it is just as easy to mistake a local condition, grown and nurtured exclusively in its native soil, for a universal one. Having made the first sort of error, Hamilton now makes the second. Continental powers sharing long borders with powerful, irascible, greedy neighbors, needed to maintain large standing armies to defend themselves. The kings of the European continent held a direct and personal control over large bodies of men, unlike their ancestors who relied on inconstant and dangerous feudal intermediaries. It was the cannon that allowed kings to break the independent power of counts, barons, and dukes. Cannon could batter down the high, thick walls of their fastnesses and the King of France need no longer suffer the Duke of Burgundy as his equal. The king retains the services of these nobles but they now grace his court rather than curb his power or trouble his rule. They yet command armies, but as the king’s marshals, entrusted with the king’s troops. Because of these armies and their artillery, the great lords were still exalted but no longer mighty. The condition of the smallfolk changed little. They were no freer nor more servile than they had been before, but the lives of those fortunate enough to live away from contested borders or channels of invasion may have been rendered far more peaceful. No more were they to be swept away or crushed when caught in the path of what Will Durant called ‘lordly strife’.

The most fragmented of all these potent kingdoms in geography, and the scantiest in territory was Prussia, and to counter these disabilities she fielded the proudest, most brutally disciplined, and overweening of all the standing armies. England was free of these porous Continental borders; she barely fielded an army at all, and the English neither loved nor feared the soldiery. She did maintain the world’s greatest navy but a navy, no matter how fearsome, must keep to deep water and is of no use in subduing a contumacious populace. The English were certain of two great truths: they were much freer than the abject nations of the Continent, and their King had a much smaller army than any of the Continental monarchs. These two truths were indissolubly and forever linked in their minds. They could not rightly say if the power of the Louis of the hour reigning across the Channel was absolute because he commanded a mighty host, or whether he commanded a mighty host by dint of his absolute power, but to bother considering the question was as fruitless as pondering the priority of the chicken and the egg. The freedom of the English people and a puny and despised standing army went hand in hand.

Hamilton was born and bred in this assumption, and he asserts that war increases the executive authority at the expense of the legislative. More recent history has offered the instructive examples of states that have maintained considerable standing armies and yet retained their constitutional balance and held on to their freedoms. Moreover, some executives have taken on powers traditionally and constitutionally reserved to the legislature during times of peace. It is perhaps not war but the apprehension of danger and the fear and uncertainty that follow, which allow the executive to grow more powerful than it has been or should be. We must remember that war is only one of the Horsemen, and that in the face of famine, pestilence, poverty, revolution, natural disasters, or any of the innumerable calamities that afflict this world, people will give up their liberties for their lives. It would be wise to accept and provide against these inevitable executive encroachments and perhaps come up with some periodic and regular mechanism to roll them back.

Federalist 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 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?