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Federalist No. 1

Federalist No. 1 is among the clearest of Hamilton’s essays.  It is written as though he spent more time on it than many of his later papers (in particular, those on the judiciary).   There are no legal terms, no confusing references to events or anti-Federalist objections addressed.  In this first Federalist, Hamilton sets the stage for subsequent essays. He lays out his reasons for writing, describes the tactics opponents of ratification are likely to use (and engages in them himself!), and lists the topics to be addressed in subsequent papers.

To the People of the State of New York:

AFTER an unequivocal experience of the inefficacy of the subsisting federal government, you are called upon to deliberate on a new Constitution for the United States of America. The subject speaks its own importance; comprehending in its consequences nothing less than the existence of the UNION, the safety and welfare of the parts of which it is composed, the fate of an empire in many respects the most interesting in the world. 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. If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.

AFTER experiencing the undeniable inefficiency of the current federal government, you are called upon to deliberate on a new Constitution for the United States of America. The subject’s importance is self-evident; it entails nothing less than the very existence of the UNION, the safety and welfare of its component parts, and the fate of an empire which is perhaps the most interesting in the world.  It seems to have fallen to the people of this country to decide whether societies of men are really capable of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether mankind is forever destined to depend on accident and force for its political constitutions.  If there is any truth in this, then a wrong choice on our part might have dire consequences for all of mankind.

This idea will add the inducements of philanthropy to those of patriotism, to heighten the solicitude which all considerate and good men must feel for the event. 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. The plan offered to our deliberations affects too many particular interests, innovates upon too many local institutions, not to involve in its discussion a variety of objects foreign to its merits, and of views, passions and prejudices little favorable to the discovery of truth.

This idea joins consideration of the well-being of others with patriotism.  It should be taken seriously by all men of good will.   We will do well if our choice is governed by a fair assessment or our true interests, not biased or confused by considerations unconnected with the public good.  But this is a thing more ardently to be wished than seriously to be expected. The plan before us affects too many particular interests and alters  too many local institutions, not to result in the discussion a variety of subjects outside of the plan’s merits.  It is likely that the waters will be muddied with views, passions and prejudices little favorable to the discovery of truth.

Among the most formidable of the obstacles which the new Constitution will have to encounter may readily be distinguished the obvious interest of a certain class of men in every State to resist all changes which may hazard a diminution of the power, emolument, and consequence of the offices they hold under the State establishments; and the perverted ambition of another class of men, who will either hope to aggrandize themselves by the confusions of their country, or will flatter themselves with fairer prospects of elevation from the subdivision of the empire into several partial confederacies than from its union under one government.

There is in every State, a certain class of men who resist all changes which might result in a reduction of their power, influence, or the money they make as result of holding State offices.  There is another group of ambitious men who seek to aggrandize themselves by capitalizing on the instability of their country, or who flatter themselves by thinking that they might attain higher position if the country were subdivided into several partial confederacies instead of unified under one government.  It is these men that form the most significant obstacles to the ratification of the new Constitution.

It is not, however, my design to dwell upon observations of this nature. 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. Were there not even these inducements to moderation, 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.

I don’t intend to spend my efforts focusing on such things.  It’s risky to attribute blind ambition or avarice to a group of men (merely on the basis of their circumstances) simply because they are in opposition to the Constitution.  We must in all honesty admit that those in opposition may be motivated by the best of intentions.  Without a doubt, much of the opposition to date, and much of the opposition still to come will originate from blameless and respectable sources who are simply misled by preconceived jealousies and fears. There are so many causes that can bias judgment that wise and good men may as often be on the wrong as on the right side of important issues.  It behooves us to remember this when conducting our arguments, and exercise moderation.  It is also prudent to realize that those who advocate the truth are not necessarily motivated by purer principles than those in opposition to them.  Ambition, greed, partisanship, or personal animosity may motivate men on either side of any given question.  Those on the right side of an issue are not necessarily moral paragons.  In understanding this fact, moderation should be employed in the method and spirit of the debate, rather than resorting to politics as usual.  For in politics, as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making converts by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution.

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. An enlightened zeal for the energy and efficiency of government will be stigmatized as the offspring of a temper fond of despotic power and hostile to the principles of liberty. An over-scrupulous jealousy of danger to the rights of the people, which is more commonly the fault of the head than of the heart, will be represented as mere pretense and artifice, the stale bait for popularity at the expense of the public good. It will be forgotten, on the one hand, that jealousy is the usual concomitant of love, and that the noble enthusiasm of liberty is apt to be infected with a spirit of narrow and illiberal distrust. On the other hand, it will be equally forgotten that the vigor of government is essential to the security of liberty; that, in the contemplation of a sound and well-informed judgment, their interest can never be separated; and that a dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people than under the forbidden appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government. History will teach us that the former has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism than the latter, and that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.

In spite of our noblest intentions to the contrary, there is every indication that the present national debate will unleash a torrent of angry and malignant passions.  Judging by the conduct of those in opposition to the Constitution, it seems likely that they will seek to gain converts based on the strength of their invective and the volume of their arguments.  On the other hand, the enlightened, who argue for an efficient and energetic government, will be accused of being hostile to liberty and categorized as despots in the making.  It will be forgotten that just as love and jealousy are two sides of the same coin, so are liberty and a spirit of distrust.  And on the other side of the equation, the fact that strong government is necessary to the preservation of liberty will also be forgotten.  Frequently there is a greater danger of despotism being perpetrated under the guise of protecting people’s rights, than from efforts to secure a stable and strong government.  History shows that despotism has come from unbridled democracy more commonly than from a strong central republican government.  Most despots began their careers as demagogues who, after courting and beguiling the people, abolished their liberties.

In the course of the preceding observations, I have had an eye, my fellow-citizens, to putting you upon your guard against all attempts, from whatever quarter, to influence your decision in a matter of the utmost moment to your welfare, by any impressions other than those which may result from the evidence of truth. You will, no doubt, at the same time, have collected from the general scope of them, that they proceed from a source not unfriendly to the new Constitution. Yes, my countrymen, I own to you that, after having given it an attentive consideration, I am clearly of opinion it is your interest to adopt it. I am convinced that this is the safest course for your liberty, your dignity, and your happiness. I affect not reserves which I do not feel. I will not amuse you with an appearance of deliberation when I have decided. I frankly acknowledge to you my convictions, and I will freely lay before you the reasons on which they are founded. The consciousness of good intentions disdains ambiguity. I shall not, however, multiply professions on this head. My motives must remain in the depository of my own breast. My arguments will be open to all, and may be judged of by all. They shall at least be offered in a spirit which will not disgrace the cause of truth.

I mention these things only to put you on your guard against any effort, from whatever source, to influence you improperly on any other basis than from the evidence of truth.  This decision is of critical importance to you and your well-being.  Reading this, it should be obvious that it is my contention that the Constitution ought to be ratified.  I have spent a considerable amount of time studying the matter.  I am convinced that this is the safest course for your liberty, your dignity, and your happiness.  I have no qualms about it.  Neither will I engage in subterfuge to give the appearance of deliberating on something about which I’ve already made up my mind.  I will be clear about where I stand and the reasons for my position.  It is best to avoid ambiguity, but my motives are my own.  I will make my arguments out in the open for all to see and consider.  They will be offered thus in the spirit of honesty.

I propose, in a series of papers, to discuss the following interesting particulars: — The utility of the UNION to your political prosperity — The insufficiency of the present Confederation to preserve that Union — The necessity of a government at least equally energetic with the one proposed, to the attainment of this object — The conformity of the proposed Constitution to the true principles of republican government — Its analogy to your own state constitution — and lastly, The additional security which its adoption will afford to the preservation of that species of government, to liberty, and to property.

I propose to discuss, in a series of papers, the following topics:

  • How UNION leads to political prosperity
  • The inability of the present Confederation to hold that Union together
  • The need for a government designed with at least as much power as the one proposed to ensure the stability of the Union
  • How the proposed Constitution conforms to the principles of republican government
  • How the proposed Constitution is analogous to current State constitutions
  • How the Constitution will ensure the continuance of republican government in guaranteeing the safety of liberty and property.

In the progress of this discussion I shall endeavor to give a satisfactory answer to all the objections which shall have made their appearance, that may seem to have any claim to your attention.

As this discussion progresses, I will try to address and answer any and all objections which may arise regarding the new Constitution.

It may perhaps be thought superfluous to offer arguments to prove the utility of the UNION, a point, no doubt, deeply engraved on the hearts of the great body of the people in every State, and one, which it may be imagined, has no adversaries. But the fact is, that we already hear it whispered in the private circles of those who oppose the new Constitution, that the thirteen States are of too great extent for any general system, and that we must of necessity resort to separate confederacies of distinct portions of the whole.1 This doctrine will, in all probability, be gradually propagated, till it has votaries enough to countenance an open avowal of it. For nothing can be more evident, to those who are able to take an enlarged view of the subject, than the alternative of an adoption of the new Constitution or a dismemberment of the Union. It will therefore be of use to begin by examining the advantages of that Union, the certain evils, and the probable dangers, to which every State will be exposed from its dissolution. This shall accordingly constitute the subject of my next address.

It might seem unnecessary to argue about the importance and usefulness of the UNION.  After all, this is certainly understood by the majority of, if not all, people in every State.  Nonetheless, those who oppose the new Constitution are spreading the fiction that the thirteen States comprise too much territory to be governed by a workable republic.  They argue instead, for a set of separate confederacies formed by breaking the Union into distinct parts.  It seems likely that once this argument is propagated sufficiently behind the scenes, it will begin to be discussed openly.  The choice is clear, adoption of the new Constitution, or dissolution and dismemberment of the Union.  Without putting this evil to rest, there is no sense in going further.   Therefore, this will be the subject of the next essay.

1 – The same idea, tracing the arguments to their consequences, is held out in several of the late publications against the new Constitution.

1 comment

1 Ron S { 09.15.10 at 9:54 pm }

I love the way you take the words and put them in pratical, easy to read, terms. Thanks!


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