Federalist 28 – Alexander Hamilton

In the 28th Federalist Paper, Alexander Hamilton continues to discourse on national defense and the fears of a standing army.  In this essay Hamilton seems to skirt between two extremes.  He seeks to promote the national government as the surest defender of peace and security, and yet he also wants to assuage fears that it will grow too powerful.  In other words, the government under this system will be strong enough to suppress rebellion, but it won’t be so powerful that it tyrannize the population.

Hamilton begins by observing that disruptions of the public safety are inevitable.  As he writes, “seditions and insurrections are, unhappily, maladies as inseparable from the body politic as tumors and eruptions from the natural body.”  American history is somewhat happy in this regard, though there have always been moments of extreme unrest.  But from the perspective of Alexander Hamilton writing towards the end of the 18th century, it was inconceivable to think that there would be long periods of civil content.  Hamilton suggests that the large body of the public would support the government’s attempts to put down the insurgency so long as the majority had not lost confidence in the government.

The major fear is that a significant outbreak of rebellion could occur, and this would require a different sort of force.

If, on the contrary, the insurrection should pervade a whole State, or a principal part of it, the employment of a different kind of force might become unavoidable. It appears that Massachusetts found it necessary to raise troops for repressing the disorders within that State; that Pennsylvania, from the mere apprehension of commotions among a part of her citizens, has thought proper to have recourse to the same measure. Suppose the State of New York had been inclined to re-establish her lost jurisdiction over the inhabitants of Vermont, could she have hoped for success in such an enterprise from the efforts of the militia alone? Would she not have been compelled to raise and to maintain a more regular force for the execution of her design? If it must then be admitted that the necessity of recurring to a force different from the militia, in cases of this extraordinary nature, is applicable to the State governments themselves, why should the possibility, that the national government might be under a like necessity, in similar extremities, be made an objection to its existence? Is it not surprising that men who declare an attachment to the Union in the abstract, should urge as an objection to the proposed Constitution what applies with tenfold weight to the plan for which they contend; and what, as far as it has any foundation in truth, is an inevitable consequence of civil society upon an enlarged scale? Who would not prefer that possibility to the unceasing agitations and frequent revolutions which are the continual scourges of petty republics?

As is often the case in these essays, Hamilton calls out his opponents for their hypocrisy.  How could they oppose a power for the federal government when it applies to the states?  Surely the national government should have some ability to call up regular troops in moments of extreme necessity, and indeed Abraham Lincoln would have such recourse seven decades in the future.

Hamilton states that even in a confederate form of government in which the country was divided into several parts, the respective governments would still have recourse to some kind of standing army to put down a rebellion.  He then posits that the form of government should assuage the anxieties of the proposed system’s opponents.

Independent of all other reasonings upon the subject, it is a full answer to those who require a more peremptory provision against military establishments in time of peace, to say that the whole power of the proposed government is to be in the hands of the representatives of the people. This is the essential, and, after all, only efficacious security for the rights and privileges of the people, which is attainable in civil society.

It is here where the essay shifts course and the focus transitions towards the popular point of view.  I should emphasize that in the grand scheme of things, this is not all that remarkable.   After all, the Constitution itself is an instrument designed both to grant more power to the national government while simultaneously erecting safeguards to ensure liberty.  That ideological drive manifests itself in miniature in this very paper as Hamilton spends the first half of it arguing on behalf of a governmental right while spending the second half emphasizing how the right cannot be abused.

The fascinating element of Hamilton’s argument, as we shall see, is that usurpation will be easier to carry out in small rather than large governments.

If the representatives of the people betray their constituents, there is then no resource left but in the exertion of that original right of self-defense which is paramount to all positive forms of government, and which against the usurpations of the national rulers, may be exerted with infinitely better prospect of success than against those of the rulers of an individual state. In a single state, if the persons intrusted with supreme power become usurpers, the different parcels, subdivisions, or districts of which it consists, having no distinct government in each, can take no regular measures for defense. The citizens must rush tumultuously to arms, without concert, without system, without resource; except in their courage and despair. The usurpers, clothed with the forms of legal authority, can too often crush the opposition in embryo. The smaller the extent of the territory, the more difficult will it be for the people to form a regular or systematic plan of opposition, and the more easy will it be to defeat their early efforts. Intelligence can be more speedily obtained of their preparations and movements, and the military force in the possession of the usurpers can be more rapidly directed against the part where the opposition has begun. In this situation there must be a peculiar coincidence of circumstances to insure success to the popular resistance.

At first blush, this seems somewhat counter-intuitive.  While it is true that it might be easier to consolidate power in a smaller government, wouldn’t the citizenry’s vicinity to the seat of government make it easier rather than more difficult to organize a rebellion and crush the usurpation?  Hamilton, instead, argues just the opposite.

The obstacles to usurpation and the facilities of resistance increase with the increased extent of the state, provided the citizens understand their rights and are disposed to defend them. The natural strength of the people in a large community, in proportion to the artificial strength of the government, is greater than in a small, and of course more competent to a struggle with the attempts of the government to establish a tyranny. But in a confederacy the people, without exaggeration, may be said to be entirely the masters of their own fate. Power being almost always the rival of power, the general government will at all times stand ready to check the usurpations of the state governments, and these will have the same disposition towards the general government. The people, by throwing themselves into either scale, will infallibly make it preponderate. If their rights are invaded by either, they can make use of the other as the instrument of redress. How wise will it be in them by cherishing the union to preserve to themselves an advantage which can never be too highly prized!

Under a federal system, the people will always have recourse to the government that has not usurped its power.  Either the federal government will act to control the states in rebellion, or the individual states will be able to stop a malicious national government.  Those sympathetic to the confederate cause might have some disagreements with Hamilton on this score, but that is for another day.

What’s interesting about this argument is the populist undertone that is rather strange considering the author.  Whichever side the majority of the population picks is implicitly the right one, or so it seems.  Therefore, if the majority of the people side with the national government, then it will have the resources to put down the state or states that are having trouble.  This is, as I said, an oddly majoritarian sentiment for Hamilton.  Now it could be argued that Hamilton is simply saying that a large population aggrieved could have redress by appealing to a just government, but again this presupposes that the truly aggrieved constitute a majority of the population.

In another somewhat curious turn, Hamilton proceeds to argue that the states would be able to counteract the  designs of a federal government taken over by malignant forces.  Again, this is strange coming from the pen of Hamilton.

It may safely be received as an axiom in our political system, that the State governments will, in all possible contingencies, afford complete security against invasions of the public liberty by the national authority. Projects of usurpation cannot be masked under pretenses so likely to escape the penetration of select bodies of men, as of the people at large. The legislatures will have better means of information. They can discover the danger at a distance; and possessing all the organs of civil power, and the confidence of the people, they can at once adopt a regular plan of opposition, in which they can combine all the resources of the community. They can readily communicate with each other in the different States, and unite their common forces for the protection of their common liberty.

The great extent of the country is a further security. We have already experienced its utility against the attacks of a foreign power. And it would have precisely the same effect against the enterprises of ambitious rulers in the national councils. If the federal army should be able to quell the resistance of one State, the distant States would have it in their power to make head with fresh forces. The advantages obtained in one place must be abandoned to subdue the opposition in others; and the moment the part which had been reduced to submission was left to itself, its efforts would be renewed, and its resistance revive.

I am not saying that Hamilton is being disingenuous. but it is still somewhat jarring considering the source.

Finally, Hamilton concludes by insinuating that his opponents are mentally ill.

When will the time arrive that the federal government can raise and maintain an army capable of erecting a despotism over the great body of the people of an immense empire, who are in a situation, through the medium of their State governments, to take measures for their own defense, with all the celerity, regularity, and system of independent nations? The apprehension may be considered as a disease, for which there can be found no cure in the resources of argument and reasoning.

For those who say our political discourse has degraded over time – well, while the insults are hurled less artfully nowadays, the rather sharp tone of ad homimen argumentation has a history that well predates the invention of the blog.

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Published in: on March 12, 2010 at 4:10 pm  Comments Off on Federalist 28 – Alexander Hamilton  
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