Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Federalist No. 6 - Federalist No. 10: Let's not fight with each other

I said last time that the shadow of the Civil War would loom heavily over my reading of "The Federalist Papers" -- and starting in Federalist No. 6, it really, really does. Because it's here that Alexander Hamilton starts to make the case that a strong union won't just protect the individual states from wars with external powers -- it'll also keep the states from making war on each other.

So, ummm ... how did that work out for you?

No. Wait. Snark is a little too easy here. Truth is, Hamilton's got history on his side -- but he's going to take his time getting to the most useful parts of it. Instead, he tells us in No. 6 that the problem with leaving the states to proceed forward as autonomous nations is that each small state will be more likely to see the rise of a leader who makes war on neighboring states for his own vainglorious reasons.
Men of this class, whether the favorites of a king or of a people, have in too many instances abused the confidence they possessed; and assuming the pretext of some public motive, have not scrupled to sacrifice the national tranquility to personal advantage or personal gratification.
He goes on at length about this, citing examples from Pericles and Henry VIII, and well, he's right. That's absolutely a danger -- but it's not the ONLY danger, and sometimes it's not even the most important one. (And in any case, both large nations and small ones are subject to the danger.) The Civil War came about not because (say) Robert E. Lee dreamed of a thousand monuments to his name, but because there were very real moral (slavery) and philosophical (the role of the federal government) differences between the Northern and Southern states.

To be fair, Hamilton acknowledges as much in No. 7, listing out a series of reasons individual states might make violence upon each other: territorial disputes, including claims to territories in the west; "the competitions of commerce;" the settling of debts already owed by the Union (mostly leftover from the Revolutionary War); differing approaches to settling contracts; that kind of thing.* It's notable, though, that Hamilton speaks here in generalities -- because there's a specific notable omission: SLAVERY! WHAT ABOUT SLAVERY?!?!

*I don't want to spend too much time on a tangent here, but there's been a theory advanced among (for lack of a better word) neoconservatives in recent years that America preserves its security by establishing democracies in other countries because democracies don't tend to make war on each other. After reading Federalists No. 6 and 7, I think it's safe to say that Alexander Hamilton, drawing from history, might pooh-pooh that notion.

The result of all these potential sources of conflict, Hamilton says in No. 8, would be that each state and/or small confederacy would probably end up more militarized -- and thus more injurious to personal liberties -- than if they stuck together under the proposed Constitution. This is kind of a sly argument: One of the main concerns of the Antifederalists, I gather, is that the new Constitution would allow a central government to form a standing Army. Well, Hamilton says, the raising of a standing army can only be inferred from the words of the Constitution -- but it's a dead certainty if the states go their own way. They'll be so likely to come in conflict with each other -- and here Hamilton drops a number of examples from Europe -- that they'll have to raise their guard against each other.

In making this case, he says a few words about the militarization of a society that seem to be worth considering in 21st century America.
The perpetual menacings of danger oblige the government to be always prepared to repel it; its armies must be numerous enough for instant defense. The continual necessity for their services enhances the importance of the soldier, and proportionably degrades the condition of the citizen. The military state becomes elevated above the civil. The inhabitants of territories, often the theatre of war, are unavoidably subjected to frequent infringements on their rights, which serve to weaken their sense of those rights; and by degrees the people are brought to consider the soldiery not only as their protectors, but as their superiors.
This kind of society, of course, is what the new Constitution is meant to protect against. And that's the promise Hamilton makes.
But if we should be disunited, and the integral parts should either remain separated, or, which is most probably, should be thrown together into two or three confederacies, we should be, in a short course of time, in the predicament of the continental powers of Europe -- our liberties would be a prey to the means of defending ourselves against the ambition and jealousy of each other.
Or, as he says more succinctly at the outset of No. 9:
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 in Federalist No. 10 that James Madison (finally!) makes an appearance and starts to explain why a union under the proposed Constitution will be able to tamp down -- though never eliminate -- factionalism between the states. Basically, the proposed form of government -- a republic -- will allow for democracy but not too much democracy; populist passions will be cooled by the filtration of a small group of elected men, who will thus be able to keep the passions of the day balanced against each other. Maybe one state could come under the sway of crazy men with crazy ideas, he says, but certainly not all of them at the same time. A republican form of government will "refine and enlarge the public views," he says,
by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose.
Which brings us back around to the Civil War. If the Constitution was supposed to tamp down conflicts between the states and temper their passions ... well, why didn't it?

Maybe it did. I've been reading the Federalists with the idea that the Civil War disproved some of the assertions made about the effects of unity, but maybe I'm wrong. Maybe the Civil War is just a huge, glaring, bloody exception to the rules that Madison, Hamilton and Jay are setting forth here. And it would be 70 years or so before the divisions between North and South turned bloody. We have stuck together -- despite some turbulent times -- since then. So who knows?

In any case, these first 10 Federalists have felt -- to this reader at least -- like so much throat-clearing. There's been a lot of talks about the benefits of unity and the dangers of splitting up into separate states or confederacies. There's been precious little talk about the proposed Constitution itself, as well as the deficiencies of the Articles of Confederation. We've got a few more chapters to go discussing the benefits of union, but just over the horizon we're about to get some answers to our main questions: Why do the Articles suck? And why is the Constitution so awesome?

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