One of the best arguments to help us understand some of the frustrations with our current government comes from the very first Federalist Paper, Federalist No. 1, written by Alexander Hamilton. WWTFT has noted before that this essay is always a must-read in the lead-up to elections, but it should also be used by Americans at all times as a constant reminder of why it is so important to hold our federal government accountable. This is quite poignant as the 112th Congress now starts to take its turn.
The very first paragraph of the very first Federalist paper is in itself most telling:
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.
Replace the phrase “a new Constitution for” with “the Constitution of” and the modern issue will still be at hand. At the time, Hamilton was trying to convince New Yorkers that the Articles of Confederation were not sufficient and that the Constitution needed to be adopted as a total replacement. He began by stating that the existing government did not work. He didn’t need to; everyone knew it was true. There is a parallel for today, and given the historic election results of last November, most people agree that our government is not working. Our current government has largely been a failure, and the way to rectify the situation depends on how we view the Constitution.
In the emphasized section, Hamilton was trying convince the public that the way to fix such problems was through self-government by citizens, supported by choice, rather than big government over subjects, supported by force. The current government, under President Obama, has passed overreaching health care mandates and financial regulations. These are obvious examples of things that will make us “forever destined to depend for [our] political constitution on … force.” And we mustn’t forget the ‘czars’ who are not a result of the public’s “reflection and choice.” Moves such as these seem an intentional shift of power from the people to the government, whereby the former become dependent on the latter for everything from personal heath care to which forms to fill out in order to grow crops on farms. Most important is the freedom lost from what we can no longer do as a result of the regulations promulgated by these unelected ‘czars.’ Regulation, by definition, destroys choice.
Hamilton closed the paragraph by stating that if the principals of self-governance based on “reflection and choice” were refused by the people, then it would be a catastrophe on a most historic level: “the general misfortune of mankind.” This forms the crux of the Founders’ views on republican government in general, and we would do well to apply these principles not just to the current executive, but to all branches of government at any time. The pressure to keep the ultimate power in the hands of “We the People” should be maintained, even after an electoral repudiation like that of November 2010. Why? Because, as Hamilton went on to say, two factions are constantly working against those who try to stay within the bounds of republican governance:
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.
In other words, there are always those who wish to abuse their power, or barring that, to destroy the current system in order to come into power. Logically, if either of these groups is successful, the government no longer answers to the people, but the reverse is true. This is the antithesis of Liberty, with no certainty of Life, let alone the Pursuit of Happiness. These “class[es] of men” yield to the natural ambition to hold onto power for power’s sake. George Washington was not of these classes of men, stepping aside after two Presidential terms, which is even more meaningful given that prior to the Constitution, such was his popularity that some suggested he become king.
While Hamilton was careful to point out that although there might be some good-natured souls who believed in the Experiment, who would not want power for its own sake, desirable decisions do not always imply good-naturedness from those who make them. For today, we should remember that the apparent difference between the 111th and 112th Congresses does not guarantee anything.
Hamilton’s essay ends with an ominous warning:
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.
Hamilton thought that people seeking to preserve their own power in the States would claim justification for doing so by citing the limitations supposedly supported by Montesquieu in “The Spirit of the Laws”. This argument, which Hamilton thoroughly demolishes in a subsequent essay, is that republics can only function in small geographic areas. In 1787, this meant splitting up the Union into smaller governing bodies and preserving the autonomy of the States. In 2011, governance is still an issue, with a powerful faction wanting to govern through unelected czars and laws and regulations that breach Constitutional limitations. Once again, the people are called upon to keep the government in check, to draw the line between government and liberty. A free people must always be alert to threats to liberty posed by those seeking power for power’s sake, and they must be equally vigilant in the case of those claiming to do so for our sakes. To fail in this task would be “the general misfortune of mankind.”
Craig S. Glass is also known as Commodore Perry on his blog Don’t Give Up The Ship