Because Federalist No. 1 was really only intended to introduce the series of essays that followed, it lacks much of the detailed discussion of the text of the Constitution, or the philosophical or historical reflections that characterize many of the more well-known Federalist Papers. It’s relatively brief, at only nine paragraphs, and keeps its references to individuals, groups, or scenarios rather vague. There are, for instance, no allusions to philosophers, no mentions of Greece or Rome, and no specific critiques of the people or bodies that had prospered by the weakness of the Articles of Confederation, and which would no doubt have found the proposed Constitution particularly threatening. But in spite of this overall simplicity of approach, or perhaps because of it, Federalist No. 1 stands out as both an insightful critique of the weaknesses of American government and political culture in the 1770s and 1780s, and a remarkably even-handed caution against political extremism or populism, all delivered with Hamilton’s characteristic matter-of-fact conviction.
It important to remember that Hamilton served in a number of political and military offices over the course of his adult life that combined to give him a distinct perspective on the way the American government under the Articles of Confederation functioned. During his time as an army logistics officer in the 1770s he became acquainted with how narrow-minded some state government could be when donations of money or resources were asked of them, and how difficult it was to convince them of the existence of a larger national interest that superseded their local demands. He witnessed the same conflict from the other side as a member of Congress in the 1780s, during which he was continually confronted with the inability of the federal government to enforce its decisions or fund its initiatives, however well-intention or devised. Finally, his time as a delegate to the New York Legislature showed him first-hand how easily state politics had become dominated by populists and demagogues who sought mainly to enrich themselves by catering to the most basic impulses of the population, offering to redistribute land, cancel debts, and print dangerous quantities of easily devalued paper money. While it thus stands to reason that Hamilton was speaking from a place of experience in Federalist No. 1, it’s also fair to say that his perspective on the need for a stronger central government was far from unbiased.
His partiality makes itself known first in the third paragraph of Federalist No. 1, wherein he admitted that though the proposed constitution had been carefully and thoughtfully crafted there were likely several classes of men in the states that would oppose its adoption. They would, he said, “resist all changes which may hazard a diminution of the power, emolument and consequence of the offices they hold under the State-establishments.” Though Hamilton was no friend of the state governments, and during the Philadelphia Convention he even pushed forward proposals for their virtual abolition, he knew they were too well-loved by their residents to permit significantly tampering with their authority. The new constitution, however, proposed to fundamentally alter the balance of power between the states and the federal government. Under the Articles of Confederation, the states had really been “in the driver’s seat.” They conducted most of their own commerce, possessed their own military forces, and owed taxes to Congress only in theory. While the Constitution didn't propose to take away most of the powers that the states already possessed, it created a federal government that was much stronger than under the Articles, and much more capable of collecting its taxes and enforcing its laws. By portraying the opponents to this alteration as petty, power-hungry and jealous, Hamilton no doubt hoped to shake off the distrust of strong central government that had long persisted in America and depict the proposed federal administration as the solution to runaway state power, rather than a problem in itself.
Hamilton reiterated on this theme in the fifth paragraph of Federalist No. 1, wherein he described some of what he predicted would be the objections to an increase in federal authority. Chief among them, he envisioned that, “an enlightened zeal for the energy and efficacy of government will be stigmatized, as the offspring of a temper fond of despotic power, and hostile to the principles of liberty.” Considering the historically tense relationship that had existed between the Crown and the various American colonies, punctuated by at-times violent attempts to either defy or enforce authority (particularly in the 17th century), this seems like a reasonable assumption on Hamilton’s part. Indeed, considering how fundamental to American political culture the debate over federal vs. state authority has become, his comment here seems quite prescient. In another observation that seems to blend precedent and foresight, Hamilton cautioned that, “A dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people, than under the forbidding appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficacy of Government.” Once more, without calling on specific examples, he cast aspersions on what he perceived as the parochial mindset of the petty state official who would claim to defend the liberty of the people while distrusting any attempt to limit his authority. No doubt alluding to the history of Ancient Rome, wherein men who claimed to represent the common people transformed a republic into an empire, Hamilton made the further claim 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.” That Napoleon Bonaparte, one-time defender of the people and later Emperor accomplished this same transformation in France not twenty years after Federalist No. 1 was published no doubt struck many as validation of Hamilton’s words, though he did not live to see it.
What’s so interesting about these claims, which on the surface seem all too typical of a political debate in which each side seeks to demonize the motives of the other, is the way in which their author sought to couple them with a very measured criticism of the idea of motivation in politics and the way it can often cloud discussions of policy. While taken ample space to critique the opponents of the Constitution for their greed and provincialism, Hamilton actually began Federalist No. 1 by invoking reason as the rightful principle that ought to guide the process of the document’s adoption. In the second paragraph, he first commented that it would be proper, considering the weight of the topics under discussion, if the adoption of the Constitution was, “Directed by a judicious estimate of our true interests, unperplexed and unbiased by considerations not connected with the public good.” But he then admits that, “This is a thing more ardently to be wished, than seriously to be expected,” because the proposed constitution touched on the interests of far too many people and institutions to be the subject of purely sober and reasoned debate. In many ways such an admission of weakness in the face of logic was characteristic of both Hamilton and many of his compatriots among the Founders and the Framers. One of the reasons the Constitution was adopted, and structured the way it was, was because men like Hamilton, Madison, Franklin and Adams had developed a keen sense of the imperfect nature of man, and the need to create institutional guards against that imperfection running amok.
What Hamilton did next, though, was ask his reading audience to attempt to rise above their petty impulses and see the debate surrounding the Constitution without relation to their own biases, or those of the major participants in the discussion itself. This was something most of his contemporaries likely would have acknowledged was next to impossible, and something that Hamilton approached in his characteristically meticulous, confident, and forthright manner. To begin, he admitted that wrong heads were not always motivated by wrong hearts. A person, he claimed, may come to find themselves on the “wrong” side of an argument through simple misunderstanding or by having been led astray, and that, “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.” He followed this with an acknowledgement of a perhaps even more pernicious problem, that even those that come down of the “right” side of a question were as likely motivated by personal ambition or avarice as their opponents. These ruminations on the nature of motivation as a component of political debate accomplished two things, one intended and the other likely not.
First, provided the readers of Federalist No. 1 felt themselves willing and able to rise to the challenge, they paved the way for Hamilton to contextualize the arguments surrounding the Constitution in terms of simple right and wrong. If motivations could never be counted on to always correspond to methods, there was no point in taking account of them. Regardless of who argued for or against, there was a right answer and a wrong answer. Provided people based their judgements in logic and not partiality, the right would always triumph. For Hamilton, a master of rhetoric who was certainly not above manipulating events behind closed doors in service of what he perceived to be the greater good, this was an ideal way to frame a political debate. This was surely why he chose to publish the Federalist Papers under the pseudonym Publius. In addition to it being a well-worn convention of 18th-century political authorship to publish under assumed names, it allowed Hamilton and his partners Madison and Jay to avoid having their reputations overshadow their arguments. Regardless of who was involved in the discussion or why, the best reasoned argument would emerge victorious. Being a noted purveyor of well-reasoned arguments, and a man with a great many political resources at his disposal, this no doubt suited Hamilton very well indeed.
Second, and probably without meaning to, Hamilton elevated the debate he was trying to frame. It is, after all, characteristic of the human condition that no one can every really know what anyone else is thinking. Words and actions are only a shadow of who a person really is and what they intend; a representation of their true self, or the self they are willing to show to the world. Though Hamilton acknowledged this fundamental truth as a means of setting more favourable terms for himself and his arguments, it holds weight far beyond what he likely envisioned. Ironically, in spite of his rather selfish motives, his assertion carries the ring of truth. It is the “right” answer, though Hamilton was no doubt little interested in addressing the abstract, philosophical, or existential questions that such a claim seems to address. This is, among other things, what makes Federalist No. 1 worthwhile. In the same breath that its author attempted to discount the biases surrounding the debate he was engaged in, he criticizes his opponents for their narrow-mindedness and ambition. In the same paragraph that he tried to argue, for his own purposes, that what a person said was more important than who they were or what they intended, he exposed a philosophical truth that speaks to the heart of human existence. It is a strangely contradictory series of arguments, and yet coming from the pen of Hamilton seems perfectly in keeping with his political persona and preferred methods.
Federalist No. 1 contains two further assertions that seem moderate and perceptive, though they were no doubt deployed in order to advance their author’s ambitions. The first is a criticism of political parties, made all the more significant by Hamilton’s historical reputation as an arch-partisan. At the end of the fourth paragraph of Federalist No. 1, he wrote that, “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.” Though political parties as we understand them did not exist in the United States in the 1780s they would come to be soon enough, hastened in no small part by the efforts of Hamilton himself. While he no doubt hoped that this statement would help to portray him and his cause as non-partisan, and thereby allow him to label his critics as members of a destructive party or faction, it remains sound, measured advice in any age in which partisan gridlock abounds. Once more an attempt at rhetorical manipulation carries a seed of wisdom. Also of interest is Hamilton’s use of a religious metaphor. By comparing the methods employed by political parties to religious persecution, he was implicitly relying on his audience to be at least somewhat in favour of freedom of conscience. This either speaks to Hamilton’s religious views, which were relatively moderate and coloured by the Enlightenment, or those of his intended audience in New York and the other battleground states. Likely it speaks to both.
The second assertion begins the following paragraph, and is essentially an argument in favour of reason over emotion in politics. In response to the proposed constitution, Hamilton predicts that, “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.”
Considering how closely entwined Hamilton’s fortunes were to become with the so-called Federalist Party’s, and how bitter the invective that he himself was known to hurl at his opponents, this might seem like a rather hollow declaration. Over the course of the 1790s, he did a great deal as a member of the Washington administration to defame his political rivals, and after his resignation in 1795 worked behind the scenes to solidify his faction’s hold on the executive power. Indeed, it was his loud declamation of then-President John Adams in 1800 that arguably ended his career as a political operative. For a man of moderation and patience it was an act of unforgiveable indiscretion to so forcefully criticize a sitting president, and the leader of his own party at that. But, for all that, it’s good advice. Political invective can be poisonous to good policy, in 1787 or in any time thereafter, and though his motivations were far from pure it’s a point worth making.