In the ninth paper, Alexander Hamilton continues the theme that has been running through much of the early series of papers. Once again, Publius* seeks to celebrate the benefits of a single Union over separate confederacies. In this particular case, Hamilton anticipates the subject matter of Madison’s celebrated tenth paper.
Before getting started on the subject matter, I’d like to point out Hamilton’s rhetorical brilliance. It is simply one of the most masterfully written essays ever compiled. Hamilton lays it on a little thick at times, but it’s well worth the ride.
At any rate, Hamilton gets right to the heart of his thesis in the opening paragraph.
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 impossible to read the history of the petty republics of Greece and Italy without feeling sensations of horror and disgust at the distractions with which they were continually agitated, and at the rapid succession of revolutions by which they were kept in a state of perpetual vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy. If they exhibit occasional calms, these only serve as short-lived contrast to the furious storms that are to succeed. If now and then intervals of felicity open to view, we behold them with a mixture of regret, arising from the reflection that the pleasing scenes before us are soon to be overwhelmed by the tempestuous waves of sedition and party rage. If momentary rays of glory break forth from the gloom, while they dazzle us with a transient and fleeting brilliancy, they at the same time admonish us to lament that the vices of government should pervert the direction and tarnish the lustre of those bright talents and exalted endowments for which the favored soils that produced them have been so justly celebrated.
Again, this just beautifully written. Hamilton was a master wordsmith, and that shines through right at the outset. As for the argument itself, it is a theme that Madison will elaborate on in the next paper. Publius is going to advance the notion that an extended republic will in and of itself guard against the dangers of faction. In so doing, he sets traditional political theory on its head, as we’ll see in just a moment.
Hamilton acknowledges that the enemies of republican government can be carried to extremes by the example set forth by the ancients.
From the disorders that disfigure the annals of those republics the advocates of despotism have drawn arguments, not only against the forms of republican government, but against the very principles of civil liberty. They have decried all free government as inconsistent with the order of society, and have indulged themselves in malicious exultation over its friends and partisans. Happily for mankind, stupendous fabrics reared on the basis of liberty, which have flourished for ages, have, in a few glorious instances, refuted their gloomy sophisms. And, I trust, America will be the broad and solid foundation of other edifices, not less magnificent, which will be equally permanent monuments of their errors.
Hamilton fears that anti-republicans will seize upon the disturbances that arise in confederate governments in order to completely stifle liberty. But these enemies of liberty go too far. That being said, they do have a point.
But it is not to be denied that the portraits they have sketched of republican government were too just copies of the originals from which they were taken. If it had been found impracticable to have devised models of a more perfect structure, the enlightened friends to liberty would have been obliged to abandon the cause of that species of government as indefensible.
Taken at face value, the imperfections of republican government can be used as an argument against the very concept of republicanism. And it is at this point where Hamilton takes a somewhat radical turn.
The science of politics, however, like most other sciences, has received great improvement. The efficacy of various principles is now well understood, which were either not known at all, or imperfectly known to the ancients. The regular distribution of power into distinct departments; the introduction of legislative balances and checks; the institution of courts composed of judges holding their offices during good behavior; the representation of the people in the legislature by deputies of their own election: these are wholly new discoveries, or have made their principal progress towards perfection in modern times. They are means, and powerful means, by which the excellences of republican government may be retained and its imperfections lessened or avoided. To this catalogue of circumstances that tend to the amelioration of popular systems of civil government, I shall venture, however novel it may appear to some, to add one more, on a principle which has been made the foundation of an objection to the new Constitution; I mean the enlargement of the orbit within which such systems are to revolve, either in respect to the dimensions of a single State or to the consolidation of several smaller States into one great Confederacy. The latter is that which immediately concerns the object under consideration. It will, however, be of use to examine the principle in its application to a single State, which shall be attended to in another place.
Those who posit that the Framers were significantly influenced by Enlightenment theory can turn to this passage to buttress their cause. Hamilton speaks of a “new science of politics” that has significantly changed the way we view politics. While it is true that the petty republics of Greece and Rome fell prey to domestic faction, in the intervening years modern theorists have devised concepts that can correct the flaws of these early governments. Hamilton is perhaps guilty of slight exaggeration in suggesting that ancient theorists had no notion of the concepts he outlines – Aristotle in particular at least touches upon (though not explicitly) the idea of checks and balances and the separation of powers. But his overall point is that modern theorists have formulated ways in which republican governments can survive the tumults that have torn them asunder in the past. Like scientists in a laboratory perfecting a chemical compound, these theorists have tinkered with political theory in an effort to perfect the science of politics.
The major new advancement is the concept – as Publius puts it – of an enlarged orbit. Again, Madison will expand upon this in the next paper, but Hamilton here lays the groundwork. Traditional political theory held that a republican government only suited a small territory and was ill-suited for anything much larger than a city-state. Publius is going to explode that idea and instead advocate that only an extended territory such as a nation-state can truly maintain republican forms of government. Hamilton will then turn to a theorist that advocates of small republics had cited in efforts to refute the argument he is laying down here.
The opponents of the plan proposed have, with great assiduity, cited and circulated the observations of Montesquieu on the necessity of a contracted territory for a republican government. But they seem not to have been apprised of the sentiments of that great man expressed in another part of his work, nor to have adverted to the consequences of the principle to which they subscribe with such ready acquiescence.
When Montesquieu recommends a small extent for republics, the standards he had in view were of dimensions far short of the limits of almost every one of these States. Neither Virginia, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New York, North Carolina, nor Georgia can by any means be compared with the models from which he reasoned and to which the terms of his description apply. If we therefore take his ideas on this point as the criterion of truth, we shall be driven to the alternative either of taking refuge at once in the arms of monarchy, or of splitting ourselves into an infinity of little, jealous, clashing, tumultuous commonwealths, the wretched nurseries of unceasing discord, and the miserable objects of universal pity or contempt. Some of the writers who have come forward on the other side of the question seem to have been aware of the dilemma; and have even been bold enough to hint at the division of the larger States as a desirable thing. Such an infatuated policy, such a desperate expedient, might, by the multiplication of petty offices, answer the views of men who possess not qualifications to extend their influence beyond the narrow circles of personal intrigue, but it could never promote the greatness or happiness of the people of America.
If people are going to take Montesquieu literally, then they’d have to abandon state republics as well as nation-wide republics. And if we do take this literal approach then we’re going to wind up, as Hamilton eloquently puts it, “splitting ourselves into an infinity of little, jealous, clashing, tumultuous commonwealths, the wretched nurseries of unceasing discord, and the miserable objects of universal pity or contempt.”
Hamilton believes that Montesquieu’s theory can be used to justify extending the sphere of republican governments. Hamilton then quotes Montesquieu at some great length to suggest that he was a champion of confederate republics who believed that they could serve to quell domestic faction. Then, in an effort to derail any potential counter-thrusts to his arguments, Hamilton writes:
A distinction, more subtle than accurate, has been raised between a confederacy and a consolidation of the States. The essential characteristic of the first is said to be, the restriction of its authority to the members in their collective capacities, without reaching to the individuals of whom they are composed. It is contended that the national council ought to have no concern with any object of internal administration. An exact equality of suffrage between the members has also been insisted upon as a leading feature of a confederate government. These positions are, in the main, arbitrary; they are supported neither by principle nor precedent. It has indeed happened, that governments of this kind have generally operated in the manner which the distinction taken notice of, supposes to be inherent in their nature; but there have been in most of them extensive exceptions to the practice, which serve to prove, as far as example will go, that there is no absolute rule on the subject. And it will be clearly shown in the course of this investigation that as far as the principle contended for has prevailed, it has been the cause of incurable disorder and imbecility in the government.
It’s interesting to observe that in some ways Hamilton is almost trying to say that this radically new theory of government is in fact not all that radically new. People are making too much of a distinction that is not really all there. It’s a fascinating thrust, and another example of Hamilton’s rhetorical brilliance.
Hamilton then concludes the piece with an assurance for those who are concerned that states will lose their sovereign authority.
The definition of a confederate republic seems simply to bean assemblage of societies,or an association of two or more states into one state. The extent, modifications, and objects of the federal authority are mere matters of discretion. So long as the separate organization of the members be not abolished; so long as it exists, by a constitutional necessity, for local purposes; though it should be in perfect subordination to the general authority of the union, it would still be, in fact and in theory, an association of states, or a confederacy. The proposed Constitution, so far from implying an abolition of the State governments, makes them constituent parts of the national sovereignty, by allowing them a direct representation in the Senate, and leaves in their possession certain exclusive and very important portions of sovereign power. This fully corresponds, in every rational import of the terms, with the idea of a federal government.
Historians might argue about whether Hamilton was just whispering sweet words to appease proponents of states’ rights. I for one don’t think so. And at a minimum he is expressing the genuinely held opinion of the great majority of his contemporaries. The Constitution was not intended to abrogate state authority. The federal government was designed to promote stability and security, not to completely replace the authority of state governments.
Next time we will discuss one of the most influential essays ever written.
*: It occurs to me that I should explain here why I might use the pen name adopted by the collective of Hamilton, Madison and Jay on occasion, while at other times I refer to them by their real name. When referring to topics covered by more than one writer, or even by the same writer over several papers, I will refer to Publius. But when concentrating on the subject matter of a single paper, I will refer to the individual writer.