03 January 2019

'A torrent of angry and malignant passions will be let loose'

Part of my reading program for the new year is another go at the Federalist Papers. I've started them before but never forced my way all the way through the series. It's been a while since I tried,so the prophetic tone of the very first paper, written by Alexander Hamilton, came as something of a shock. The series, with contributions by Hamilton,Madison and John Jay, advocated ratification of the 1787 Constitution in New York State. After conceding that there were men of good will and "upright intentions" on both sides of the impending debate, Hamilton pretty much predicted the course of American politics at its worst to the present day.

"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 reclamation and by the bitterness of their invectives," he wrote, "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 public good. It will be forgotten ... that jealousy is the usual concomitant of violent love, and that the noble enthusiasm of liberty is too apt to be infected with a spirit of narrow and illiberal distrust."

But while Hamilton concedes some good intentions to the faction opposed to the stronger government mandated by the Constitution, he warns that "it will be equally forgotten that the vigor of government is essential to the security of liberty," while "a dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people [at the expense of effective government] than under the forbidding appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government. History will teach us that the former has been found a more certain road to the introduction of despotism than the latter."

That last bit may ring true for those today who see the greatest threat to democracy in those proclaiming their loyalty to limited government. It reminds me a little of the neocon drive for world domination to prevent the rise of tyrants, but others may draw different associations. Hamilton claims that republics often have fallen victim to men "who have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people," but leaves unclear whether he thinks such men sincere in their "obsequious" zeal or not. If jealousy of rights leads to suppressing the rights of others, what would that say about the preoccupation with rights among Americans in general? Perhaps Hamilton and his collaborators will clarify things a little later....

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