“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.