Before delving into Hamilton’s first essay, I suppose just a bit of background is in order. After the Constitution was signed on September 17, 1787, it was moved to the states for the ratification. Several states ratified quickly, but there was much dispute in several key states, especially Virginia and New York. The opponents of the Constitution came to be called the Anti-Federalists (a separate essay could be written about why the Anti-Federalists should have been called Federalists, and vice versa), and they wrote a number of critical essays published in newspapers across the country. Alexander Hamilton hoped to sway public opinion in New York towards ratification, and so he enlisted John Jay’s help in order to write a series of essays in defense of the Constitution. Jay wrote a few essays, but soon fell ill and was replaced by James Madison.
Madison and Hamilton’s collaboration lasted from October 1787 to August 1788, although a bulk of the essays were published in New York papers by March 1788. It was a remarkable achievement, though it is an open question as to whether or not they in fact persuaded the voters and delegates through their essays.
It is of course noteworthy that Hamilton and Madison would go on to lead rival parties shortly after the beginning of the first Washington administration. Despite their collaboration, it is apparent even in these essays that they had slightly divergent political philosophies. But both men strongly believed that the Constitution – despite its imperfections – needed to be ratified. Both men believed that the government under the Articles of Confederation was too weak. A stronger centralized government was necessary for America to achieve greatness, and this Constitution – again, though imperfect and far from either man’s ideal – achieved that end.
The first essay served as an introduction to the series. At the outset, Hamilton explains why the Constitution was necessary.
AFTER an unequivocal experience of the inefficacy of the subsisting federal government, you are called upon to deliberate on a new Constitution for the United States of America. The subject speaks its own importance; comprehending in its consequences nothing less than the existence of the UNION, the safety and welfare of the parts of which it is composed, the fate of an empire in many respects the most interesting in the world. It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have 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 forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.
No hyperbole here. Hamilton, and by extension no doubt Jay, Madison, and most of the Framers, truly believed that the country could not long suffice without a stronger and more effective central government. The very survival of the country depended upon ratification. We here in the 21st century might also fail to appreciate the significant ideological point being made. The creation of the American republic was a unique moment in human history. Here Hamilton is at his – dare I say it – most Enlightenment sounding, emphasizing the action of choice in the creation of the American polity.
From here Hamilton moves to a theme that is a recurring one for both he and James Madison. Both men are attuned to the fact that the passions will overcome reason. In this vein, Hamilton urges his readers to set aside their passions and to make a reasonable decision about the future of the country.
This idea will add the inducements of philanthropy to those of patriotism, to heighten the solicitude which all considerate and good men must feel for the event. Happy will it be if our choice should be directed by a judicious estimate of our true interests, unperplexed and unbiased by considerations not connected with the public good. But this is a thing more ardently to be wished than seriously to be expected. The plan offered to our deliberations affects too many particular interests, innovates upon too many local institutions, not to involve in its discussion a variety of objects foreign to its merits, and of views, passions and prejudices little favorable to the discovery of truth.
Hamilton is too much of a realist to expect people to dismiss their own self-interest. Again, this reflects a broader view shared by Hamilton and Madison, and that is their mutual distrust of human nature. Man is a fallen animal prone to giving in to his passions. The Constitution is specifically designed to mitigate this propensity. In the context of the constitutional debate, Hamilton merely wants his readers to rise above local interests in order to consider the national good.
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 diminution of the power, emolument, and consequence of the offices they hold under the State establishments; and the perverted ambition of another class of men, who will either hope to aggrandize themselves by the confusions of their country, or will flatter themselves with fairer prospects of elevation from the subdivision of the empire into several partial confederacies than from its union under one government.
Again, Hamilton is making what is in his estimate a reasonable judgment of what motivates the opponents of the Constitution. Hamilton impugns their motives and accuses them of being on the lookout for their own self-interest. You see, impugning your opponents’ motives is an American tradition, and Hamilton was not one who was too shy to engage in the sort of rhetoric that we think was invented by radio talk show hosts. But Hamilton quickly shifts tone, less he be seen as perhaps too partisan.
It is not, however, my design to dwell upon observations of this nature. I am well aware that it would be disingenuous to resolve indiscriminately the opposition of any set of men (merely because their situations might subject them to suspicion) into interested or ambitious views. Candor will oblige us to admit that even such men may be actuated by upright intentions; and it cannot be doubted that much of the opposition which has made its appearance, or may hereafter make its appearance, will spring from sources, blameless at least, if not respectable–the honest errors of minds led astray by preconceived jealousies and fears. So numerous indeed and so powerful are the causes which serve to give a false bias to the judgment, that we, upon many occasions, see wise and good men on the wrong as well as on the right side of questions of the first magnitude to society. This circumstance, if duly attended to, would furnish a lesson of moderation to those who are ever so much persuaded of their being in the right in any controversy. And a further reason for caution, in this respect, might be drawn from the reflection that we are not always sure that those who advocate the truth are influenced by purer principles than their antagonists. 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 those who oppose the right side of a question. Were there not even these inducements to moderation, nothing could be more ill-judged than that intolerant spirit which has, at all times, characterized political parties. For in politics, as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution.
Here’s yet another theme that will be repeated. It would actually be too easy to say that one’s political opponents are motivated solely by base desires. It might comfort us to think of our opponents as mustache-twirling villains, but in point of fact people who earnestly desire the good can support bad ideas. This is precisely why we need a Constitution that tempers the majoritarian sentiment. People may not be evil, but their good intentions can go awry. In a way Hamilton is preparing for that argument by not automatically assigning evil intent on the people who oppose the Constitution.
But even as he moderates his characterization of the Anti-Federalists, he again drops hints that they are perhaps not so pure of heart.
And yet, however just these sentiments will be allowed to be, we have already sufficient indications that it will happen in this as in all former cases of great national discussion. A torrent of angry and malignant passions will be let loose. To judge from the conduct of the opposite parties, we shall be led to conclude that they will mutually hope to evince the justness of their opinions, and to increase the number of their converts by the loudness of their declamations and the bitterness of their invectives. An enlightened zeal for the energy and efficiency of government will be stigmatized as the offspring of a temper fond of despotic power and hostile to the principles of liberty. An over-scrupulous jealousy 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 pretense and artifice, the stale bait for popularity at the expense of the public good. It will be forgotten, on the one hand, that jealousy is the usual concomitant of love, and that the noble enthusiasm of liberty is apt to be infected with a spirit of narrow and illiberal distrust. On the other hand, it will be equally forgotten that the vigor of government is essential to the security of liberty; that, in the contemplation 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 forbidden 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.
This is probably the most significant paragraph in the number, and it needs a little unpacking.
First of all, Hamilton is anticipating the arguments of the Anti-Federalists: that the Federalists, in proposing a Constitution that advances an energetic government were would-be monarchs who were going to betray the principles of 1776. Indeed the Anti-Federalists did employ this line of attack frequently, connecting the Federalists to the despised King George III. Here is one example of Anti-Federalist thought, expressed by a writer styling himself “Brutus,” who wrote of the taxing power:
Exercised without limitation, will introduce itself into every corner of the city and country. It [the national government] will wait upon the ladies at their toilett, and will not leave them in any of their domestic concerns; it will accompany them to the ball, the play, and the assembly; it will go with them when they visit, and will, on all occasions, sit beside them in their carriages, nor will it desert them even at church; it will enter the house of every gentleman, watch over his cellar, wait upon his cook in the kitchen, follow the servants into the parlour, preside over the table, and note down all he eats or drinks; it will attend him to his bed-chamber, and watch him while he sleeps; it will take the cognizance of the professional man in his office or his study; it will watch the merchant in the counting-house or in his store; it will follow the mechanic to his shop and in his work, and will haunt him in his family and in his bed; it will be a constant companion of the industrious farmer in all his labour, it will be with him in the house and in the field, observe the toil of his hands and the sweat of his brow; it will penetrate into the most obscure cottage; and finally, it will light upon the head of every person in the United States.
Another Anti-Federalist, Philadelphiensis, wrote:
[W]ho can deny but the president general will be a king to all intents and purposes, and one of the most dangerous kinds too; a king elected to command a standing army? Thus our laws are to be administered by this tyrant; for the whole, or at least the most important part of the executive department is put in his hands.”
Hamilton was trying to turn the Anti-Federalists’ argument against them. In a sense he was employing Hamlet’s mother’s line of argumentation: me doth think they protest too much.
But Hamilton is also defending the concept of an energetic government. Remember, the Framers were very much influenced by life under the Articles of Confederation. Events like the uprising of Daniel Shays’s rebels certainly were important, but they also believed that the rule of law was virtually non-existent. They looked at the laws of states like New York which trampled upon the rights of those who had been Loyalists to the British government. Acts like the Trespass Act virtually abolished property rights for former Tories. The Framers looked with trepidation upon these developments and formed a government that would have more teeth.
Keep in mind they did not favor an overly strong government that invaded every sphere of life. They wanted to create a government that was strong and efficient in carrying out its limited powers. In other words, the Anti-Federalists’ fears were overwrought. In point of fact what the citizens of the United States ought to fear was a continuation of the status quo under the Articles of Confederation.
Not to go off on too much of a tangent as this post is long enough already, but this points to one common theme of both sides of the debate: fear. Both sides were in part motivated by fear. The Anti-Federalists were motivated by fear of an over-active and tyrannical government, while the Federalists were motivated by fear of anarchy, disorder, and democratic excess. Judging by 200 plus years of American history, perhaps both sides were in the right.
At any rate, Hamilton posits that the real road to tyranny lay with the Anti-Federalists. Without a government strong enough and energetic enough to act decisively in certain situations, the end result would be sheer chaos. As Socrates through Plato describes in the Republic, democracy leads to anarchy, which leads to despotism. Hamilton seems to be making the same argument.
The remainder of the paper is an outline of what is to come. Hamilton has already laid out some of the central tenets of the Federalist philosophy, tenets that his co-authors would also keep returning to in later papers.
*Note: I am using as my primary text the Benjamin Wright edition of the Federalist. Several papers have a disputed authorship, so I am going by Wright’s authorship labels.