Thursday, 14 August 2014

Federalist No. 1, Part III: Empires and Exaggerations

For all the perhaps unintended advice that peppers Hamilton’s Federalist No. 1, it contains as well some arguments that are not so well-founded in logic, and certain allusions to the nationalist ambitions of its author that are less well-considered. In an attempt to impress upon his readers the gravity of the debate surrounding the Constitution, and make them aware of what he considered were the stakes of success and failure, Hamilton argued that without a more stable, more centralized government the United States would surely drift apart into a collection of warring confederacies. Indeed, he claimed that there were men in America at that time, implied to be in service of the various state governments, who would have desire nothing more and were working to actively defeat the ratification of the Constitution. While he repeatedly referenced this scenario over the course of the essays that followed Federalist No. 1, and in truth there was a rash of separatist anxiety among the population of the United States in the late 1780s, its invocation was more than likely another attempt by Hamilton to manipulate the terms of the ratification debate in order to portray his position in a more favourable light.

As well, Federalist No. 1 contains two offhand references to the United States as an empire. Hamilton’s use of the term is casual, but telling, and in many ways presages some of his defense-centered ruminations in Federalist No. 24 & 25, and the general thrust of his careers as an ardent nationalist with military pretensions. Attempting to understand how he perceived of the United States, particularly in contrast to how his often-rival and ideological opposite number Thomas Jefferson described America as an “Empire of Liberty,” reveals a great deal about the possibilities that members of the Founding Generation imagined for their country, and the methods by which they would have seen them achieved. 

Along with the state officials that Hamilton accused in the third paragraph of Federalist No. 1 of wanting to protect their influence by defeating the Constitution, he also described a second group who would, “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.” He repeated this sentiment in the ninth paragraph, where he stated 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.” Above and beyond the threat of secession, that would plague the United States in the mid-19th century and bring about perhaps its most catastrophic national crisis, this wholesale dissolution would mean the end of the Union entirely, and by the presumed consent of its member states. Though Hamilton was surely exaggerating the extent of the threat in order to impress on his readers how urgent the need was for ratification, there was admittedly talk in America of dissolution in the late 1780s.

To what extent these were either serious discussions or anxious rumours it is difficult to say. That being said, and without necessarily validating Hamilton’s claim, there are a few points worth considering. On the one hand, it ought to be remembered that the states had thrown in their lots together in 1775 because their representatives in Philadelphia felt that, should Britain successfully violate the rights of one colony (in this case Massachusetts) there would be nothing standing against further violations aimed at any or all of the other colonies. This led to the creation of the Continental Army, the first truly America institution, and the realization that some degree of coordination was necessary for the war effort to be carried out successfully. Thus the Union that came into existence under the Articles of Confederation was a matter of expediency, a practical response to the problem of having to manage the resources, demands, and manpower of thirteen different governments during a sustained, European-style conflict. Once the war was over, the treaty signed and the peace secured, it would not have seemed unusual for some Americans to begin to question the purpose of the Congress, the Army, and the handful of other federal institutions that remained. After all, in 1785, how closely tied would a North Carolina farmer have felt to a New York merchant? What were their common interests? What would have been the point of continuing their political association?

To that I would add that many Americans, like Hamilton’s compatriot James Madison, where familiar with the works of French Enlightenment philosopher Montesquieu. Specifically, they had read and came to agree with his assertion that stable republics could only exist if they were spread over a relatively small geographic area. The core of this argument, that people that fail to share common interests, concerns or habits, and who are unable to easily communicate across large distances, would have trouble forming a government that was transparent, equitable and representative, would no doubt have seemed quite logical. Each of the colonies possessed their own political traditions, had different ethnic and religious compositions, and even engaged in different industries and trades. Though they all shared a common British heritage, in so far as government and culture were concerned, upwards of a century of separate existence had mutated and changed their societies into distinctly Virginian, Pennsylvanian, or Carolinian forms.

Furthermore, Georgia, the southernmost colony, was approximately 1500 miles away from the northern reaches of Massachusetts. By comparison, that’s about the same distance from Georgia to northern Colombia. Today, it would take about twenty-five hours to drive that distance. I've no doubt that in the late 1780s, such an expanse would have seemed all but insurmountable to some, when told that both points on the map were to be represented by the same government. How could such an administration respond to sudden emergencies if all communications had to travel by road over these kinds of distances, over mountain passes and on surfaces that were not always very level well-maintained? How could national elections be conducted? Where could the nation’s capital be placed that wouldn't disadvantage one state or another by isolating them from the centre of power?

Worthwhile questions, all, and no doubt very much on the mind of the opponents of the Constitution. Nevertheless, the certainty of Hamilton’s tone ought to be questioned, for he seemed determined to paint the threat of separation in very black and white terms. In the ninth paragraph, he started to conclude his argument by stating that, “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.” Though there were some in America who spoke of dissolution with legitimate concern, there were as many if not more that were entirely unconcerned with the state of the federal government, preferred a continuation of the status quo, or cared only about the safeguarding of their respective state governments. As to what percentage each group might have composed of the overall population, I suppose it’s impossible to say. Rest assured, however, that Hamilton was exaggerating, and that his characterization of the choice between ratification and rejection of the Constitution was ultimately intended to frighten people into seeing the wisdom of his words.

In addition to hyperbole, Hamilton also inserted into Federalist No.1 a certain amount of his own wishful thinking about the future place the United States might occupy in the world. Specifically, in the first and third paragraphs he referred to the United States as an empire. He did so casually, almost offhandedly, but the subtly of these references belie their importance. As I mentioned previously Hamilton was something of a pragmatist, and tended to view politics in terms of what was possible rather than what was ideal. While I think it fair to say that he was a man of principle, he was not someone for whom an adherence to a rigid ideology or code of conduct was of the greatest importance. That being said, he was not a man who sought power for power’s sake. He was a planner; meticulous, at times manipulative, but always with a definite aim in mind. If he believed that America was an empire, or deserved to be, it was more than likely because he thought that the best way for his adopted nation to deal with the problems it faced in the late 1780s was by adopting some of the forms and functions of the European empires that had proven themselves so historically successful. No doubt this was why he advocated for the continuation and strengthening of the Union. Together, the thirteen states possessed the size, resources and manpower to rival any number of the 18th-century’s Great Powers, and in particular Spain and Britain.

These were the nations that the United States shared the North American continent with in the late 18th century, and the powers that Hamilton singled out in Federalist No. 24 & 25 as among the greatest threats his country faced. These two later essays, published in December, 1787, sought to address the powers that the Constitution granted the Executive and the Congress for the purposes of securing the common defence of the United States. Though the Revolutionary War was over, Hamilton reasoned that America was a rising power in the world and would need to be able to defend itself against the harassment of nations who felt threatened by its republican ideals, and the energy and ingenuity of its people. To that end, he wrote in No. 24 that,  

“In proportion to our increase in strength, it is probable, nay, it may be said certain, that Britain and Spain would augment their military establishments in our neighbourhood. If we should not be willing to be exposed, in a naked and defenceless condition, to their insults and encroachments, we should find it expedient to increase our frontier garrisons, in some ratio to the force by which our Western settlements might be annoyed.”

He elaborated on this idea in No. 25, and further stated that,

“The territories of Britain, Spain, and of the Indian nations in our neighbourhood, do not border on particular States, but encircle the Union from Maine to Georgia. The danger, though in different degrees, is therefore common. And the means of guarding against it ought, in like manner, to be the objects of common councils and of a common treasury.”

When taken together, Federalist No. 1, 24 & 25 perhaps paint a clearer picture of Hamilton’s vision of an American empire than any one of them alone. Whether concerned for the integrity of the fragile Union, or ambitious that it might one day rival the world’s Great Powers, Hamilton seemed to conceive of the American Empire in distinctly orthodox terms. When discussing the need for stronger defences, he spoke of “military establishments,” and “frontier garrisons.” And to this he added the need for “common councils,” and perhaps most tellingly, “a common treasury.” This was the vocabulary of European empire, and in particular of the British Empire.

Britain had, after all, achieved a great deal of success in its diplomatic and military dealings in the 17th and 18th centuries thanks in no small part to its robust military establishments (its Army and Navy) and its strong national bank. Arguably a child of empire, who had been born in one frontier outpost and relocated to another, Hamilton was abundantly familiar with Great Power politics. Furthermore, as a member of Washington’s general staff he had become intimately acquainted with military administration, and as a member of Congress with national finance. By bringing these strands together, he sought to create a nation in the imperial model, but of a distinctly American character. It would be a republican empire, most assuredly, but far from a radical one.

Indeed, the call for a radical American Empire was taken up by Hamilton’s frequent rival, Thomas Jefferson. I’d like to end this discussion with a brief outline of his “Empire of Liberty,” for the sake of comparison.

In a 1780 letter Jefferson wrote to George Rogers Clark, a soldier and frontiersman, he said, “We shall form to the American union a barrier against the dangerous extension of the British Province of Canada and add to the Empire of liberty an extensive and fertile Country thereby converting dangerous Enemies into valuable friends.” Like Hamilton, he viewed the British presence in North America as a threat to America’s security, but his use of the term empire carried a different inflection than that of his New York rival. Rather than the mechanisms of state that Hamilton desired America to possess, such as armies, a treasury system, frontier outposts, and perhaps even colonies at some later date, Jefferson seemed to use the term empire to refer to an extensive geographic area occupied by a people sharing common goals, common sentiments, and a common ideology. It was to be an empire of ideas, of the Enlightenment, that could help roll back the scourge of “barbarism” and promote natural rights, free trade, and reason. Contrary to Hamilton’s conception the Empire of Liberty was not necessarily to be expressed as a traditional state. Indeed, rather than advocate the unity that Hamilton hoped would provide the resources and manpower necessary to protect and expand the United States, Jefferson once expressed a rather casual indifference as to whether America remained whole or not.

In an 1804 letter to English theologian and philosopher Joseph Priestly, Jefferson wrote that the Empire of Liberty was not necessarily territorially unified, and, “Whether we remain in one confederacy, or form Atlantic and Mississippi confederacies, I believe not very important to the happiness of either part.” Few things, I'm sure, would have seemed more abhorrent to Hamilton. Whether Jefferson truly believed it or not is difficult to say, as at other times in his career he seemed quite concerned with the integrity of the United States. Nevertheless he wrote the words, and for a moment, at least, must have felt them worthy enough to communicate. That Jefferson also did more to push back European encroachment and expand the territory of the United States than Hamilton was ever capable further complicates the relationship between their ostensibly opposing visions of American empire. Hamilton, the expansionist, did not add one acre to the territory of the Union he so ardently advocated. And Jefferson, the philosopher, personally signed into law the single greatest expansion of territory to the United States that it has ever seen with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. It’s something of a paradox, and one not uncommon to the early American experience.

As I've written previously, the early history of the United States is one of great uncertainty and great possibility. Opposing visions of the nation’s purpose and future created violent clashes among their respective supporters, coalesced around an issue or event, and then diverged again and resumed their adversarial relationship. The tone of government swung violently from one direction to another; from a European-style hierarchical state, to a limited, laissez faire, agricultural republic, all at the hands of the feuding founders. As one of the most central among those early and influential voices, Alexander Hamilton is eminently deserving of attention and recognition. For all his flaws he was a patriot, and his vision of America, as at least partially expressed in Federalist No. 1, is as valid as that of any of his contemporaries.

But don’t take my word for it:

And for good measure, Federalist No. 24:

And 25:   

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