Sunday, September 11, 2005

The Federalist Papers, No.1, by Alexander Hamilton

The Federalist Papers was a series of newspaper columns published between the Fall of 1787 and the Spring of 1788. Their authors were the movers and shakers of the day. They were the best educated men of their day, the products of an educational system that placed more emphasis on discovering knowledge than on rote learning.

The first of the Federalist Papers was a preamble to the rest and an explanation of their purpose and scope. By no means, however, does it lack substance. The United States of America has often been called the "great experiment." Hamilton was aware of the experimental status of this country and its government and took it seriously:

"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."

Many of the founders subscribed to a belief called Deism. Deists believed that the world had been created by a Supreme Being, who set it in motion, then sat back and watched, without interfering further. In many ways, this is what the founders did with our government. Perhaps they believed that once we had made a conscious choice, the government we created would continue on its course carried by momentum. Surely they never foresaw the country we live in today.

It is possible that they envisioned a government that would evolve as the country matured. However it is almost certain that the trust they placed in their successors in government was predicated on their successors having a similar education to their own. Such is not and has not been the case. The founders were schooled in philosophy, logic, and mathematics; they studied Aristotle, Plato, and Euclid. Today, many students do not know these authors, and fewer have read them. If my own case is typical, they have had much more exposure to commentators than to the great thinkers themselves.

Hamilton discusses the factors that would motivate voters to accept or reject the Constitution. His words on the subject are almost prophetic:

“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.”

Hamilton hoped for public service; he anticipated self-service, and we got what he expected, in spades. Hamilton noted that the establishment of a federal government would affect people of this country in a fundamental way, but he expressed the hope that they would consider the Constitution based on its merits rather than on their fears or selfishness. He was also aware of what he called "a class of men" who were hungry for power. This class of men still exists, unfortunately many of them have satisfied their hunger, often with the aid of others much like themselves. Nevertheless, Hamilton thought that the founders' vision for this country was viable, noble and good.

“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.”

Hamilton was careful not to demonize dissenters. His was a more genteel time; his interest was in abolishing tyranny, and his education conditioned him to engage them in rational discussion to help them discover the truth for themselves. Just as the Bill of Rights would decree that a person accused of a crime is innocent until proven guilty, Hamilton generously assumes that those who disagree with him are good, if misled.

“...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.”

Again prophetically, Hamilton warns readers that those who disagree with them are not their enemies and should be tolerated. It is interesting how many political movements have completely disregarded Hamilton's advice. Names like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Tse-tung spring to mind. Sadly, this has become the dominant feature of political discussion in the United States today. Politicians play an all-or-nothing game, even if compromise is appropriate. It is not uncommon for the minority party to search relentlessly for something with which to discredit members of the other party in positions of authority. At times, this has the effect of preventing such persons from doing their jobs, from being effective, and from carrying out their own or their party's agenda, whether or not it is the perpetrators' intention.
© 2005


  1. Anonymous8:45 AM

    GREAT idea - reading the federalist papers. i liked what hamilton

    i saw an interview with a man whose last name is obama - he's a very
    eloquent legislator from some state, i don't know which - george
    stephanopolis was interviewing him. obama said that the present
    administration is more expert at public relations than governing. bam!
    that hit the problem on the button.

    this administration is concerned with 'spin'. they go ahead and do
    whatever they want to, and then assume that the lowest common
    denominator of american can be persuaded to follow whatever they spin.
    and they are right. the great majority now is like a bunch of lemmings - they'll follow any leader anywhere.

    our educational system is so pitiful that it breaks my heart. the kids
    graduating from high school know about as much as i did when i left
    grammar school back in the 40s. they have to go to college [thousands
    of dollars a semester] to learn the basics - and even then, they often
    are simply given trade training, i.e., turned into engineers,
    veterinarians, business experts, etc. they are almost never well
    rounded, never educated in ideas.

    so spin works like magic on most of the populace. like hamilton said,
    they 'assumed' an educated class of people who could continue this
    marvelous democratic ideal. we don't have that anymore. we have people
    who seek one continuous series of brief orgasmic experience of anything
    that comes down the pike, and a sound bite fits right into that.

    we are advertised out the kazoo. i'm amazed at the difference between
    the attention spans between my two oldest children [no TV in the house
    during their early years] and my youngest [we got a TV about when she
    was about 6 years old]. my two oldest children read constantly and
    think about life, my youngest reads short, happy stuff and likes to flit
    form one thing to another.

    and, we now find that the government and advertising industry work hand
    in glove together to make government-sponsored commercials. orwell's
    1984 only orwell's prediction was off about 20 years.

    enough. your article was so good it made me think! always a good

  2. Anonymous8:46 AM

    Ah, the grand experiment it was.
    My favorite, of course, is the Bill of Rights. I love the simple language, the simple but great concepts, and the altruism. The American positivist commandments: Thou shalt have freedom of speech, due process, etc.

    Pick up a Supreme Court opinion . . . any opinion. . . to study how to make the simple complex. My personal favorite is Baker v. McCollan: the innocent do not have the right not to be arrested. My second favorite is the tobacco case, where the Rehnquist court held that the FDA would not be allowed to regulate tobacco use because 1) the only health-related regulation would require banning tobacco use and 2) banning tobacco use would bankrupt the US economy. My third personal favorite was Rehnquist asking the Bush v. Gore lawyers to brief the Safe Bar and Harbor Act (1899?) prior to oral argument in 2000.

    I think those who wrote the Constitution have been spinning in their graves for a long, long time.

  3. Anonymous11:00 PM

    You go girl!!


About Me

I love my country, that is why I criticize its absurdities; I love my freedom, that is why I do it publicly.