Wednesday, October 21, 2020

THE FEDERALIST PAPERS PROJECT - A Commitment to Deep Thinking About our Political Origins in the Presence of Noise (Paper No. 6)


A link to Project Gutenberg's free source edition of The Federalist Papers.

Alexander Hamilton takes up the pen again in the sixth paper. He writes:

A man must be far gone in Utopian speculations who can seriously doubt, that if these States should either be wholly disunited, or only united in partial confederacies, the subdivisions into which they might be thrown would have frequent and violent contests with each other.  To presume a want of motives for such contests, as an argument against their existence, would be to forget that men are ambitious, vindictive and rapacious. To look for a continuation of harmony between a number of independent unconnected sovereignties, situated in the same neighbourhood, would be to disregard the uniform course of human events and to set at defiance the accumulated experience of ages.

The causes of hostility among nations are innumerable. There are some which have a general and almost constant operation upon the collective bodies of society: Of this description are the love of power or the desire of preeminence and dominion - the jealousy of power, or the desire of equality and safety. 

Masha Gessen reminds us in her recent book Surviving Autocracy of Barack Obama's speech upon the election victory of Trump in 2016.  Obama praised the democratic hallmark of a peaceful transition of power, adding:

The point, though, is that we all go forward with a presumption of good faith in our fellow citizens, because that presumption of good faith is essential to a vibrant and functioning democracy.

Yes it is the point.  That our democracy was dependent upon good faith is abundantly clear, now that so many in power no longer practice it.  One must assume from what Hamilton writes, that he sees the Constitution as imposing enough good faith among us, including those elected to office, to counter that ambitiousness, vindictivness, rapaciousness, and love of power of which he writes.  He saw our formation as a union as binding us to act in good faith towards our laws and one another. Many executives and legislators have pushed the boundaries through history, but love for the law has always superseded the love of power. Until now. 

We the people,... in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common Defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty" do ordain and establish this Constitution...

We ordained it.  We invested it with a kind of holiness.  Our founders chose their words seriously. So seriously that three men argued for 85 days to convince the citizens of New York of the value of its passage.

Those who argue that discrete states can be united through mutual interest in commerce, writes Hamilton, are not supported by examples, either from ancient history or more recent events. In fact, advantages of trade and navigation for trade can often be seen as the justification for war. Hamilton is clear eyed about the promise of our better natures motivating us to work together in harmony without being compelled to do so. 

...what reason can we have to confide in those reveries, which would seduce us into an expectation of peace and cordiality between the members of the present confederacy, in a state of separation? Have we not already seen enough of the fallacy and extravagance of those idle theories which have amused us with promises of an exemption from the imperfections, weaknesses and evils incident to society in every shape? Is it not time to awake from the deceitful dream of a golden age, and to adopt as a practical maxim for the direction of our political conduct, that we, as well as the other inhabitants of the globe, are yet remote from the happy empire of perfect wisdom and perfect virtue?

"Neighbouring nations are natural enemies...", Hamilton quotes Vide Principes des Negotiations by L'Abbe de Mably, "unless their... constitution prevents the differences that neighbourhood occasions, extinguishing that secret jealousy, which disposes all States to aggrandise themselves at the expense of their neighbour."  It is the written rule of law, and its proper administration, that guides human nature away from its natural tendency towards selfish ambition.

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