Saturday, May 15, 2010

Federalist No. 1: America's Founding D-Bag

Alexander Hamilton has always seemed to me to be America's Founding Douchebag. That's probably unfair, but there's something about duelling -- Hamilton's involvement in an act that conferred "civilized" rules on a savage, life-taking act -- that struck me as ur-fratty. And though he's now celebrated for helping bring about the Constitution's ratification as one of the co-authors of "The Federalist Papers," his apparent monarchist streak still strikes me as at odds with the democratic nature of the government he actually helped launch.

Plus, there's the whole $10 bill thing.

So I'm not surprised, just a page into Federalist No. 1 -- written by Hamilton -- to discover that he was also possible America's Founding Negative Campaigner. Writing under the "Publius" name, he tells New Yorkers that backers of a new Constitution just want candy and kitties and charity for their fellow Americans. Opponents, he suggests, are merely motivated by selfish interests:
Among the most formidable of the obstacles which the new Constitution will have to encounter, may readily be distinguished the obvious interest of a certain class of men in every State to resist all changes which may hazard a diminuition of the power, emolument and consequence of the offices they now hold under the State-establishments -- and the perverted ambition of another class of men, who will either hope to aggrandise themselves with fairer prospects of elevation fromt he subdivision of the empire into several partial confederacies, than from its union under one government.
Let's step back a second: The purpose of the new Constitution was to centralize authority in the United States under a federal government. It was, in some respects, a power grab -- and Hamilton, as one of the framers and campaigners for the new Constitution, might reasonably be expected to be one of the chief beneficiaries of that grab. But Hamilton starts his campaign by criticizing the Constitution's critics -- they're the power grabbers, petty men who'd rather rule over several small fiefdoms than one big empire. At a vantage point of 200 years, at least, it's kind of hard to take Hamilton seriously when his approach is so naked and, well, unsubtle.

But Hamilton is smart, though, because he acknowledges as much in the next paragraph:
Ambition, avarice, personal animosity, party opposition, and many other motives, not more laudable than these, are apt to operate as well upon those who support as upon those who oppose the right side of a question.
This is the 18th century equivalent of sending Sarah Palin out to proclaim that "Barack Obama pals around with terrorists," only to back down a few days later with "He's an honorable man" utterances. The damage is done. We have, however, already learned a valuable lesson: Our Founding Fathers weren't demigods residing on Mount Olympus; they were politicians, with the willingness to roll up their sleeves and start hurling muck if needed. Folks fed up with the "tone" of our politics today should realize it was ever thus.

We're moving quickly, though, and Hamilton -- while he's probably not thinking about a 21st century audience for his words -- is quickly demonstrating not only that the tone of American politics has always been fractious, but the substance of the debates can be unchanging as well. At issue? The authority of a central government versus the rights and liberties of people under that government.  Conservatives these days argue that more centralized government means less freedom for citizens, but Hamilton goes out of his way to pooh-pooh that idea.
An overscrupulous jealous of danger to the rights of the people, which is more commonly the fault of the head than of the heart, will be represented as mere pertence and artifice; the bait for popularity at the expense of the public good. It will be forgotten, on the one hand, that jealously is the usual concomitant of violent love--
Get that? If you're too worried about the rights of the people, you're just like an abusive husband!
--and that the noble enthusiasm of liberty is too apt to be infected with a spirit of narrow and illiberal distrust. On the other hand, it will be equally forgotten that that the vigour of government is essential to the security of liberty; that, in the conteplation of a sound and well informed judgment, their interest can never be separated; and that a dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people, than under the forbidding appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government. History will teach us, that the former has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism, than the latter, and that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics the greatest number have begun their career, by paying an obsequious court to the people, commencing Demagogues and ending Tyrants.
Get that? If you're too worried about the rights of the people, you're probably a tyrant in waiting! Real liberty is to be found under the protection of a "firm" government. Sorry, folks, but I'm not losing the "douchebag" vibe from Hamilton here.*

*Don't get me wrong: Revolutions in "the name of the people" have given us tyrannies in Russia, China and a whole bunch of other places. Seeing as how Hamilton had somewhat recently participated in a Revolution aimed at throwing off a tyranny in the name of the proposition that "all men are created equal" his assertion here seems ... convenient.

Hamilton is winding down at this point. But he's also getting started. Yes, he says, he favors the new Constitution -- and the aim of the coming series of articles is to convince New Yorkers to ratify it, as well. Otherwise, he says, the United States will disappear.
For nothing can be more evident, to those who are able to take an enlarged view of the subject, than the alternative of an adoption of the new Constitution, or a dismemberment of the Union. It will therefore be of use to begin by examining the advantages of that Union, the certain evils and the probable dangers, to which every State will be exposed from its dissolution. This shall accordingly constitute the subject of my next address.
NEXT TIME: What's so great about the Union, anyway?


Joel said...

Let me step back a second and offer a word about my tone here. I'm approaching this project with a skeptical mindset.

It's NOT that I'm skeptical that the processes put in place and set in motion by the Constitution (and Declaration of Independence) worked out pretty well for Americans: They have. But remember: the Federalists were written with the aim of persuading a skeptical New York public to ratify the Constitution. They were in the business of persuading.

So I want to be persuaded. Yes, I have a couple of centuries of hindsight in my pocket here, so the persuasion is going to work a bit differently. I can test whether the claims Hamilton, Jay and Madison made on behalf of the Constitution ended up being ... true. Or if they oversold the project.

Glomarization said...

Keep in mind what they were persuading against: the Articles of Confederation, which were broken in a few very serious ways. Not saying that you are, but one can't take the Federalist Papers out of that context.

Joel said...

Glomar: Good point, and thanks for keeping me honest. Or, at least, less stupid than I'd be on my own.

I suspect we'll get into the meat of the Articles vs. the Constitution as we move into the papers themselves. Federalist No. 1 seems to be a palate-cleanser of sorts. It spends 20 seconds telling us what the goal of the Federalist Papers will be, though, and lots more time discussing the corruption and ill intent of Hamilton's opponents. So that's my focus here.