Federalist #4: Peace Through Superior Firepower.

“It is too true, however disgraceful it may be to human nature, that nations in general will make war whenever they have a prospect of getting anything by it…”

Summary: Publius (Jay) continues his discussion of security against foreign aggression by suggesting that growing American success will require a unified national defense to preserve peaceful interactions with competing nations.

=====

In Federalist #4, Jay changes his tactic by turning his attention to the disposition of foreign powers toward the fledgling American republic. He proposes that a united America is less likely to invite the attack of foreign powers, even as American advancement and commercial growth begins to press into the common international market. It was already apparent that American shipping and fishing were challenging the dominance of the British and Spanish economies, and the current treaties maintained a strained peace with these nations. Jay cites the eagerness of Britain and Spain to protect and defend their territorial waters against the encroachment of American commercial vessels, and warns that individual states or confederacies in these affected regions would be more likely to succumb to the temptation of conflict with these outside entities. Jay counters than a strong centralized government would help to suppress such tension through a unified national defense (which sounds rather like Reagan’s famous policy of “peace through strength”).

Note here that Jay is not suggesting that we build a powerful military to dominate and conquer other nations. Rather, a free people with a robust defense are most likely to be left alone by aggressive rivals.

Jay summarizes his arguments for a unified central government as follows:

  • The “Top Men” argument (again)–that the best and brightest would end up in the halls of government.
  • A unified federal government would make decisions with an eye to the corporate good, not the benefit of particular states/regions.
  • A unified federal government is more capable and efficient in mustering military forces for the defense of its borders; and within that national military is a single chain of command and leadership, rather than a cooperative effort of multiple state or confederated militias.
  • There is no risk of confederacies or single states being lured into self-interested neutrality or opposition when another state is in conflict with a foreign entity–here, Jay cites the disunity and internal strife of the Greek city-states, which led to their various defeats at the hands of foreign invaders.

Notice what Jay argues will best protect the interests of America on the world stage:

But whatever may be our situation, whether firmly united under one national government, or split into a number of confederacies, certain it is, that foreign nations will know and view it exactly as it is; and they will act toward us accordingly. If they see that our national government is efficient and well administered, our trade prudently regulated, our militia properly organized and disciplined, our resources and finances discreetly managed, our credit re-established, our people free, contented, and united, they will be much more disposed to cultivate our friendship than provoke our resentment.

Jay posits that a strong and united America, with wise trade policies, strong defense, wise use of financial resources, and a free and contented populace, will be more able to maintain friendly relations with outside nations than an America that is internally divided and disparately allied with foreign powers.

In other words: America at its strongest is America at its wisest and most stable. While this seems obvious, one should consider the last several national election cycles in our era (for both president and state representatives). The growing trend in both major parties is toward division, resentment, blame-shifting, and identity-group politics. At best, the “winners” in these contests will initially pay lip-service to national unity (for example, the ever-popular “purple states of America” rhetoric), but eventually politicians on both sides revert to partisan gamesmanship, playing to their base by demonizing their opposition.

The best way, in my opinion, that the current crop of American politicians can lead this nation into a brighter and more unified future is to take a page from Hamilton and Jay as we have seen thusfar: to assume the best in each other, to propose the best policies they can for the whole of the country (rather than for party or regional gain), and to seek to promote a stronger and more secure American democracy that cannot be shaken or sold out to outside interests.

In some sense, this does require us to ask, “What is best for our own nation in this moment?”  But it also forces us to consider what we mean by “best.”

That may be the most important thing we as citizens can do right now, when it comes to our elected officials: ask them to define the terms of their rhetoric as clearly and specifically as possible.

 

Advertisements

Federalist #3: “The pride of states…”

“The pride of states, as well as of men, naturally disposes them to justify all their actions, and opposes their acknowledging, correcting, or repairing their errors and offenses.”

Summary: Publius (Jay) proposes that a unified national government is superior to individual state governments or local confederations because it provides a unified and temperate attitude toward outside provocation.

=====

Jay begins this essay by arguing that an intelligent and well-informed people (such as his enlightened audience, for example!) will not act against their best interest. This is why, Jay says, such a populace would seek to preserve its own safety and security by preserving peace and tranquility and protecting against the violence and influence of bad actors, both at home and abroad. Jay suggests that a centralized national government is the best way to protect against such hostilities, because large, unified nations are less easily provoked into foreign conflict.

The main thrust of Jay’s argument in Federalist #3 is that single states or confederacies, like solitary men, can be provoked into quarrels over relatively minor issues. On the other hand, while a single man may be insulted and provoked to violence, if he is joined by his more neutral friends, cooler heads are sure to prevail. In this way, an efficient national government is more likely to interact with foreign powers and possible provocateurs in a temperate and prudent way, for the following reasons:

  • Jay argues that the “Top Men” from the various states and regions can apply their collective wisdom and corporate impartiality to disputes that inflame regional aggression.
  • A single, united government will write and interpret treaty language and legal disputes in a consistent way.
  • Selfish ambition or regional prejudices are less likely to influence the republic’s disposition toward a foreign power. In this, Jay cites the eventual treaty with Britain after the Revolutionary War ended–cooler heads prevailed to broker the peace.
  • While factions within state or confederate territories can possibly overwhelm or at least stalemate a well-intentioned local government, a strong national government can quash such factionalism. [I am reminded here of the struggle toward integration during the Civil Rights era. While regional groups and factions could withstand local government opposition, national enforcement would prevail.]

In this essay, as in the last one, Jay puts a huge amount of faith in the collective wisdom of federal representatives. To complete the quote cited above:

The pride of states, as well as of men, naturally disposes them to justify all their actions, and opposes their acknowledging, correcting, or repairing their errors and offenses. The national government, in such cases, will not be affected by this pride, but will proceed with moderation and candor to consider and decide on the means most proper to extricate them from the difficulties which threaten them.

As discussed previously, this requires a government comprised of statesmen instead of politicians. However, the populism and crowd-sating that has (inevitably?) crept into our current political system seems to expose the factionalism and passions of the American electorate. Rather than culling the best and brightest representatives of American diplomacy, the democratic system as it currently exists often represents the meanest, basest sentiments of the mobs whom they represent.

On the other hand, perhaps I’m being too cynical. After all, it’s unsurprising that a senator or representative from Maine or Kansas or Oregon would seek to represent the interests and values of his or her particular constituency. Perhaps Jay is onto something when he suggests that each of these representatives counterbalances the others, so that the priorities of California may be moderated by the dispassionate analysis of the Georgian delegates.

Even granting this scenario, it is incumbent on the representatives themselves to seek the good of the whole, and not merely the good of their own voting bloc. This is where I fear Jay’s idealistic view of the “Top Men” of representative democracy starts to show its age. As the decades progress, and career politicians begin to pursue the practical equivalent of lifetime appointments in 2-or-6-year increments, it becomes rarer for politicians to promote ideas or policies that may be costly to their immediate interests, for the sake of long-term good. When such measures are proposed, they are too often the fruit of partisanship and personal advancement. The orthodoxy of party loyalty can often crowd out the idealistic call to unbiased statecraft.

Jay’s final plea concerns the case of Genoa, a small European nation-state that had to make obeisance to the government of France in order to broker peace. Jay argues that a united America would be taken more seriously by large foreign powers and would not be forced to humiliate itself on the international stage.

One wonders if a country that is as ideologically and politically divided as the United States currently seems to be can maintain its position of influence in the world at large.

“Wait for it, wait for it…”

Good news! I’m not giving up on this project.

Less good news: I’m bogged down with holiday festivities and commitments.

So, I beg your further indulgence for about 2 weeks. Expect new content in the first week of January. In the meantime, please subscribe below so that you will be alerted when new content is posted.

The quite-lofty goal I initially contemplated was to complete this project before President-Elect Trump’s inauguration. Obviously, that won’t be the case. But it may prove fortuitous, as we will have opportunity to consider what the Federalists believed and compare it in real time with our current political situation.

See? It’s all working out nicely.

In the meantime, have a blessed, happy, and safe Christmas, Hanukkah, and/or New Year’s Day!

The Federalist #2 (Part 2): “Top…Men.”

“They considered that the Congress was composed of many wise and experienced men…”

Some brief comments about the rest of Federalist #2:

Publius (Jay, here) shows a great deal of optimism and confidence in the continued progress and activity of the members of Congress. He describes the representatives of each state as being “possessed of the confidence of the people, and many of whom had become highly distinguished by their patriotism, virtue, and wisdom, in the times which tried the minds and hearts of men…” Indeed, his generation saw times which tried men’s souls and provided opportunities for valor and sacrifice. Jay was convinced that such high-minded idealism and civic magnanimity would continue with each successive convention of Congress.

Jay argues that these representatives are the best and brightest from across the United States, and an important benefit of continued national union was that the cream of the crop could represent the interests of each region and city, rather than forcing each state or confederation to come up with an entire governmental body on its own.

Jay suggests that if the citizens put their faith in the untried representatives of 1776, how much more should they trust the battle-tested and true patriots representing them in 1786? In other words, those who sought to represent the people of the United States could and should be judged on their deeds and character, not merely their words.

Truth be told, Jay’s lofty description of Congress here sounds almost painfully naive to the contemporary ear. It’s become commonplace to hear Congress referred to in antagonistic terms. Politicians on both sides use “Congress” as a strawman or punching bag, a foil against which they can pose as the great hero of the common man. And why not? According to Gallup polling, Congress has struggled to earn the consistent approval of at least half of the electorate since the poll was first taken in the mid-1970’s. In fact, the approval numbers for Congress haven’t hit 30% since Labor Day of 2009.

This distrust or disdain of our government isn’t that uncommon, considering the ideological divide that is deepening in our nation–a divide that is fostered by the very politicians who complain about gridlock, for what it’s worth. But isn’t it a funny thing, that we the people (or at least, we the polled) have so little regard for the very people we voted into power?

What has happened since the days of Publius that has gutted our confidence in the officials we duly elect?

…I hope you’re not waiting for me to deliver you the end-all, be-all answer to the problems of American politics. I’m not that smart.

But I have an idea that may get us on the right track: We stopped electing statesmen, and started electing politicians. (I’ll pause to let the more cynical among you guffaw behind your raised hands.)

Notice how Jay describes the members of the Continental Congress: men who have a stake in the American experiment, who sacrificed their time and resources, men who risked their lives in order to preserve this fragile union. Men who were tested and tried.

Somewhere along the way, we stopped looking for men and women who had a track-record of consistency in word and deed. We stopped looking for statesmen like Washington. We settled for politicians like Burr. (Ooooh, all the Burr fans are about to jump on the comments box! Go ahead, fam, take your shot.)

We have been suckered by fine-sounding arguments, posturing, and the politics of apocalypse. Unscrupulous and unvirtuous people have preyed upon our fears by claiming to be our defenders against the forces of darkness–untested, untried, unverified talkers whose best and only qualification is that they ain’t the other guy.

So where do we go from here? How do we get out of the morass of public distrust of Congress?  It’s actually incredibly obvious, even as it is incredibly difficult: we elect better people.

No, really. But it doesn’t start with the U.S. Presidency or even the U.S. Congress. The way you get better congressmen is by electing better state representatives. You get better state representatives by electing better city leaders. You get better city leaders by electing better community representatives.

As the saying goes, “all politics is local.” And if that’s the case, then the way we get a better class of national leadership, I think, starts with working on finding a better class of local leadership. Maybe we encourage the best and the brightest to step up and follow a calling of civic sacrifice.

Or maybe I’m incredibly naive. It’s certainly possible. But if so, at least I’m in good company.

=====

Your Turn: What do you think about Congress? Are you satisfied with the job that they do? If not, what do you think should be done to improve Congress? Sound off in the comments, citizen!

Federalist #2 (Part 1): The Ties that Bind.

“…a band of brethren, united to each other by the strongest ties…”

Summary: Publius (Jay) continues the introduction by suggesting that the concept of federal union has always been inherent to the American experiment, and that from the beginning, men of wisdom and virtue pushed for union rather than division in the colonies. The Articles of Confederation, though inadequate, provide a track-record of union over dissolution. Publius calls upon the readers to trust the wisdom and patriotism of their representatives at Congress, who carefully and soberly crafted the proposed Constitution.

===

While Hamilton appealed to the reason and fairness of the reader in considering the arguments for the Constitution, Jay leans heavily on two more arguments: the common bonds of the American public and the common trust in the American political class. Let’s start by considering the first argument.

Consider this section (emphasis mine):

With equal pleasure I have as often taken notice that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people–a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence.

This country and this people seem to have been made for each other, and it appears as if it was the design of Providence, that an inheritance so proper and convenient for a band of brethren, united to each other by the strongest ties, should never be split into a number of unsocial, jealous, and alien sovereignties.

Jay is writing to a largely homogeneous group of people (overwhelmingly, white, male landowners/taxpayers). To this group, Jay can obviously appeal to a common heritage (mostly British), a common faith (mostly Protestant), and a common language (the King’s English).

A question to consider here: Does this argument still hold up? Obviously not in 2016. We are a nation of citizens made up of all sorts of ethnic and national backgrounds, who often have little in common beyond shared humanity and shared citizenship. So how do we, the very diverse people of the United States, find common ground?

I would submit to you that we do so by going back to our founding documents: the Declaration of Independence and the very Constitution that Jay seeks to promote:

  • The self-evident truths of equality and the human right to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
  • The limits placed upon governmental power, in order to prevent the infringing of Divinely-given dignity.
  • The establishment of justice, promotion of domestic tranquility, provision of common defense, and the promotion of general welfare.
  • The security of these blessings of liberty for generations to come.

Obviously, these values and ideas haven’t always been flawlessly lived out by the people or government of the United States. We have a checkered history as a nation. But these ideals are goals for which we should nevertheless strive. These are the ties that can and should bind us as American citizens. This heritage of civic responsibility and individual liberty is our inheritance as Americans.

We the people are not bound by our ethnic heritage or our religious heritage. There are so many of us from so many places, so many religious traditions, so many perspectives. It would be impossible to try to force uniformity on these issues. However, what we can and should stand together on are these founding principles–the idea of American Liberty–enfolded in the principles of a constitutional republic that is representative and democratic.

One of the strange and troubling things in this 2016 election season has been the amplification of the voice of the “alt-right”–those who promote a form of European-style ethnic nationalism and reject the idea of the American “melting pot.”  It must be stated–it must be SHOUTED–that such ideas are antithetical to the heartbeat of the American ideal. The dehumanization and division of such rhetoric must be renounced by all Americans who believe in liberty.

I would call upon my friends on both ends of the political spectrum to consider that our common bonds as American citizens may be found in the words of our Founding Fathers, who mutually pledged to each other (and to us) their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.

Federalist #1: Ardent wishes and serious expectations.

“…the fate of an empire in many respects the most interesting in the world.”

Summary: Publius (Hamilton, here) begins by stressing the seriousness of the question before the American people, the question of whether or not to adopt the new Constitution. He suggests that it’s a question so important that outside and unrelated interests will try to infect the discussion, before (coyly) arguing against assuming wrong motives in the opposing parties. He warns of the danger of partisanship blinding the discussants, and then closes by stating that he makes no pretense of hesitancy. He holds his position in favor of the Constitution and seeks to appeal to the reason and higher ideals of his readers.

===

A couple of passages in this first essay struck me in particular, in light of recent national events. I’m going to quote large-ish blocks of text, so you get the context. (Emphasis mine)

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.

[Hamilton, Alexander; James Madison; John Jay. The Federalist Papers (Kindle Locations 72-81). Vook, Inc.. Kindle Edition.]

Note here that Hamilton cautions against attributing only negative motivations to the opposition and only positive motivations to your allies. (And let it be clear from the outset: I’m going to take these essays at face value, recognizing that I don’t know any of the ulterior motivations that may be driving them.) We in the U.S. are less than two weeks past an incredibly divisive and bitter presidential election, and the national division seems only to be worsening. People on both sides of the political spectrum are assuming the worst possible motivations of their opponents. More than a few online commentary sites have posted that there’s no such thing as a “good” ____ voter.

I would urge my friends and readers to consider Hamilton’s words here. We are quick to vilify our opponents and praise our allies, but it would be better to seek to understand those we argue against, in the hopes of appealing to their reason and better natures with the truth and rightness of our positions.  If we assume that everyone who disagrees with us is a villain, we will never be able to convince them away from their positions.

Soon after he writes the previous section, it’s as if Hamilton resigns himself to the alternative:

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.

Hamilton, Alexander; James Madison; John Jay. The Federalist Papers (p. 2). Vook, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

It’s almost as if he were predicting the rise of social media.

He then makes the argument that those who have a “zeal for the energy and efficiency of government” will be accused of seeking despotism and opposing liberty, while those who seek to zealously protect personal liberty will be accused of hypocrisy and insincerity as they seek popularity from the crowd. Hamilton here suggests that those who seek limited government action have “a spirit of narrow and illiberal distrust” and that the road to despotism is more often found in those who seek smaller government than those who seek more “energetic” government.

Here I would disagree with Hamilton, as the intervening years have succeeded in producing despotic regimes (for example, the many examples of Communism in the 20th centuries) marked by bloated bureaucracies and excessive and intrusive governance. Hamilton argues that energetic, efficient governments actually protect liberty, and this is likely true–at least at first. But when the preservation of power becomes a prevailing interest in the minds of those in the halls of government, human nature seems to win out over idealism. In recent years, those who call for energetic and efficient government are sequestered to the fringes. Those who argue for accountability and auditing are shunned even by the leadership of a Republican party that claims to believe in “smaller” government.

If government can once again be energetic and efficient without becoming bloated, self-interested, and overbearing, then Hamilton’s vision of government could be a useful one. However, decades of the opposite only seem to confirm Reagan’s famous line that the nine most dangerous words are “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”

=====

So, in this first essay, we hear from Hamilton a call for both sides to try to assume the best of each other, and a call to consider what seems to be most in the public good. In the months before a new president is inaugurated, I can think of no better way to begin.

“It’s full of contradictions” / “So is independence…”

When I was in college, I took a class in American National Goverment from Dr. Tony Litherland. A few things about Litherland: he was a lion of a man, with longish golden hair haloing his head, thin on top, and a gold and auburn beard. It wasn’t just his appearance that was leonine; he prowled around the classroom. He would growl and yell, slam books and throw chalk at snoozing students. He would make incendiary opening statements (for example, supporting a stark gender pay-gap), even statements he vehemently disagreed with personally, just to provoke responses from his students. He was an excellent debater, logical and precise. He was a lifelong, deep-blue Democrat. And he was one of my all-time favorite professors.

On the first day of class, he strode into the room, through his bag on his desk, pulled out a copy of the Federalist papers, and planted himself behind the lectern with book upraised in his right hand like a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher. “American National Government is your only class!” he thundered. “You have no other classes but American National Government!” He paused for effect, and then continued. “This book is the most important book ever written on this continent. You will study it, and you will learn to love it. You will read it every year for the rest of your lives!” And thus he continued for most of the hour, before handing out the syllabus, gathering up his things, and stomping out of the room.

I later learned that this was a traditional “winnowing” lecture. A portion of the class (as many as half sometimes, I was told) would immediately drop his course in favor of a less challenging (frightening?) professor. They were the poorer for it, I believe.

The best part of Litherland’s government class was that, above all else, he challenged us to think for ourselves, to challenge our own assumptions and wrestle with our ideological positions. Even if we disagreed with him, as long as we could logically and sensibly argue for our beliefs, we had his respect.

I probably disagree with Dr. Litherland on a majority of issues, but I can say that I wish our national discourse had more people like him in it. People who were honest about their beliefs and their assumptions, who weren’t afraid to consider and fight through new ideas, even if those ideas offend or frustrate them. People who understand the ideological victory comes through convincing the other side, not silencing them.

=====

I share that memory (a memory nearly 20 years old, I’m surprised to realize) to say this:

As I read and write about The Federalist Papers, I invite your feedback and interaction, but under a certain set of expectations:

  • My goal here is to explore the ideas expressed in The Federalist Papers, and examine how these ideas apply in 2016, if they still hold up. I’m coming at this project from a specific perspective (as a Christian who is ideologically conservative). This means my interpretation/analysis may be different from yours. And that’s okay.
  • I will be as clear-eyed as I possibly can be. I will try to recognize and acknowledge my own biases, though I may not always see them, or may not see them as a problem. I ask you to do the same.
  • I will seek to be open to discussion, even disagreement, as long as it is done with respect. This means I will not be bullied or brow-beaten, nor allow others to be. If your argument hinges on ad hominem, you will be invited to take your vehemence elsewhere.
  • I will engage in discussion as much as time permits, but may not always be able to reply. I ask you to accept this. This blog is a hobby, not my job, and must necessarily be a very low priority compared to the rest of life.

Ultimately, my hope is that this will be constructive and edifying (even if only a few people end up reading it). If you have questions or concerns about this, you may contact me on Twitter at @the4thdave.

Thanks for reading.

Why The Federalist?

Why write a blog focused on The Federalist Papers, a collections of documents over 200 years old?

The United States of America seems to be undergoing a kind of identity crisis. Politicians on both sides point to certain behaviors and ideas and argue that “that’s not who we are.” It seems to me that neither side really knows who “we” are, anymore.

In light of the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency, some friends of mine suggested taking another look at The Federalist Papers and try to recapture what this Great Experiment in Liberty was intended to be. It was written in the 1780’s to defend the new U.S. Constitution that was meant to replace the Articles of Confederation. Alongside the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, The Federalist stands as a landmark achievement of political writing and a fundamental element of our national self-understanding.

Who Am I: I’m nobody. Call me Publius.

Nevermind, just call me Dave. I’m just a regular guy. I’m not a political scholar or constitutional expert. I’ve got an English degree, for crying out loud. But I’ve also got a brain, and I love books, and I love ideas. If nothing else, I believe that the bedrock ideas of American politics aren’t solely the purview of academics and diplomats. We regular folks have just as much a right to talk about and wrestle through these matters.

The Plan: This blog will examine each of the 85 papers, whether individually or in aggregate form. More information on this will be posted soon.

Until then, please bookmark this page, and feel free to following me on Twitter (@the4thdave). I’ll be posting another introductory post tomorrow, and then will start with the analysis next week.

Thanks for reading!