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?

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.