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Quarterly Discussion Review: Federalist Papers

Quarterly Discussion Review: Federalist Papers

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


July 24, 2020

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

In the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton defends the idea that the United States must have a strong federal government. In Federalist #6, he reminds readers that:

“A man must be far gone in Utopian speculations who can seriously doubt that, if these States should either be wholly disunited, or only united in partial confederacies, the subdivisions into which they might be thrown would have frequent and violent contests with each other. To presume a want of motives for such contests as an argument against their existence, would be to forget that men are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious. To look for a continuation of harmony between a number of independent, unconnected sovereignties in the same neighborhood, would be to disregard the uniform course of human events, and to set at defiance the accumulated experience of ages.”

In other words, Hamilton views man’s nature as inherently flawed. He impresses upon the reader that the best way to curb man’s greedy nature is a strong federal government. A document such as the Constitution is just the answer that Hamilton seeks.

One of the driving questions behind the July Quarterly Discussion was why Hamilton believed that the Constitution and/or a strong federal government would act to correct man’s nature. In fact, a number of participants commented that it has not actually corrected man’s nature, but rather puts checks and balances in place to curb it. They suggested that even Hamilton realized that one cannot change man’s nature.

Hamilton spends much time describing and interpreting history. In Paper #18, he compares the Amphictyonic League with the confederated states. He sees the league of Greek nation-states as a fitting comparison because they were also united by common interest, like the young America, and they tried to maintain separate governments. In some cases, he noted that stronger entities overcame weaker ones, bullying them into agreements that were not in everyone’s best interest. Hamilton also described how other governments unraveled due to the introduction of foreign influence. He uses these examples from history to explain the reasons for a strong, united government. It seems evident, to me at least, that with regards to foreign influence, Hamilton is speaking directly to Thomas Jefferson.

My other driving question behind the Federalist Papers discussion was, if, as Hamilton proposes, history is our least fallible guide, why are these papers necessary? Why spend so much time reciting a history lesson, data that was readily available for hundreds of years? There are, perhaps, a couple of answers to this question. First, Hamilton recognized that only a handful of previous governments offer any kind of history comparable to this ambitious American experiment. He also, though, realizes that not everyone has the chance to steep themselves in history books and so, for this reason, he gives his own understanding and takeaways from authors such as Plutarch. His examples are insightful and instructive.

One continual frustration with the Federalist Papers is that they are persuasive essays. In other words, they contain bits of dialogue between top leaders who always have more data and insight than the citizens. It takes a lot of work and knowledge in order to rediscover the arguments. I think that this is another reason that Hamilton draws so heavily upon past examples, which offer concrete stories. Having said that, however, sometimes the stories are not as straightforward as he would like them to be. In fact, it makes me return to the question that if history were an infallible guide, then wouldn’t man already have arrived at the best style of government? Why must man relearn every lesson again and again, and how can a Constitution make up for the depravities in man’s nature?

On a final note, I am also quite interested in Hamilton’s language which at times is very specific and, at other times, extremely vague. For example, in Paper #23, he talks about the “OBJECTS of government,” but he doesn’t quite spell out those objects. Later, in Paper #78, he says that judges should be retained upon “good behavior” alone, but never mentions whether good behavior means moral, ethical, or another thing altogether. In our discussion, someone mentioned that leaving out specifics allows more freedom of interpretation than if these things were defined. However, it also means that each age must define things such as “good behavior” for themselves. This leaves us in a repeating quandary of struggle. Perhaps that is appropriate and necessary and just as it should be for a democratic society. I am not sure if the Founding Fathers desired it to be open-ended, or if they desired to write something definitive. Either way, this discussion felt so vital, particularly at a time when America’s patience stretches thin. Reading the Federalist Papers, however, is vital at any time and well worth the effort.

Thanks to all the participants. I look forward to October’s Quarterly Discussion. For more information on the Quarterly Discussion series, please email as****@hm*.edu.

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