Essay on Federalist No. 1

Introduction

Before I get into the plain language summary of Federalist No. 1, I’d like to make it clear that I do not agree with many of the points put forth by Hamilton in Federalist No. 1.

The points that I take issue with in Federalist No. 1 are as follows.

1) Hamilton insinuates that a failure to adopt the new constitution would strike a blow against enlightenment and proper government everywhere when he writes “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.” This strikes me as over the top rhetoric. Whether the States passed the Constitution or not, good government across the entire world was not at stake.

2) Hamilton attempts to frame the debate by labeling objections to the new constitution “a variety of objects foreign to its merits, and of views, passions and prejudices little favorable to the discovery of truth.” In other words, objections will inevitablly arise from greedy motives and not genuine considerations of the  facts. In fairness he does later rectify this comment somewhat by saying “it cannot be doubted that much of the opposition which has made its appearance, or may hereafter make its appearance, will spring from sources, blameless at least, if not respectable — the honest errors of minds led astray by preconceived jealousies and fears.”

3) Hamilton states that “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 the public good.” Call me naive but I believe that in all cases “An over-scrupulous jealousy of danger to the rights of the people” is proper and necesary for a free people if they wish to continue to be free. Even when such talk is used to attempt to manipulate people, it is always good for people to hear that their rights could be endagered by government.

4) I do not believe that a vigorous government is an essential prerequisite for the liberty of the people. Hamilton says “the vigor of government is essential to the security of liberty.” In my opinion, the more vigorous the government, the less liberty the people will have.

5) I can’t help but take issue with this whole passage: “a dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people than under the forbidden appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government. History will teach us that the former has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of
despotism than the latter, and 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.” Are we to really accept that there is more danger from those who loudly proclaim the rights of the people than from those who’d like the government to be more powerful?

There is one last thing I’d like to point out before getting on to the summary. In the list of topics that Alexander Hamilton proposes to write about in succeeding articles he mentions “The Additional Security Which Its Adoption Will Afford To The Preservation Of That Species Of Government, To Liberty, And To Property.” Here Hamilton is stating that the the “Species Of Government” is liberty and property. In other words, the purpose of government is to secure liberty and property. On this, Alexander Hamilton and I agree.

Summary

In Federalist No. 1 Alexander Hamilton lays out his argument in favor a new constitution for the United States of America. Up to that point Hamilton had been dissatisfied with “the unequivocal experience of the inefficacy of the subsisting federal government”. In his opinion, failure to ratify a new constitution would risk the security and well being of the various states, not to mention the very survival of the Union.

According to Hamilton, many believed that the future of free people everywhere was dependent on whether the new constitution would be adopted. Indeed, it was the destiny of the United States of America to demonstrate whether a free people could govern themselselves through sound reasoning and enlightment as opposed to tyranny and blind chance. Therefore, a wrong choice on the issue of the new constitution could doom mankind to live at the caprice of despots for all eternity.

By understanding the true nature and seriousness of their decision, Hamilton hoped the people would be inspired to leave behind any partisanship and only focus on what was truly best for the country. But alas, it was proabably unrealistic to hope that such a scenario would actually arise. For, as Hamilton puts it, “the plan offered to our deliberations affects too many particular interests, innovates upon too many local institutions, not to involve in its discussion a variety of objects foreign to its merits, and of views, passions and prejudices little favorable to the discovery of truth.”

The main oppenents against the adoption of the new constitution would be the existing power structures in the various State political establishments and the scoundrels who profited from the confusion that reigned under the Articles of Confederation.

However, it would be an err in Hamilton’s eyes to accuse all who oppose the new constitution of selfish motives. Indeed, even those who stood to gain tremendeously from the rejection of the new constitution were still capable of making truly principled rejections. Many who chose to reject the constitution would do so because of honest mistakes in reasoning and not bad intentions. Throughout history, many smart and dignified men had come down on the wrong side of issues. For this reason it is of the utmost improtance that one temper their enthusiasm for their own position. Further, there were many people who would support the new constitution because they stood to gain from it. There are many historical cases of those who take the correct position but are motivated by greed. In the final analysis it is always better to make conversts through cool reason that by firey rhetoric.

In any event, there was sure to be those who would take the low road and resort to slinging insults and ranting. Such people would try “to increase the number of their converts by the loudness of their declamations and the bitterness of their invectives.”

Hamilton predicted that many would attempt to misconstrue the desire for an efficient and effective government as an attempt to wield power over their fellow citizens. He sensed that “an over-scrupulous jealousy of danger to the rights of the people” would be used to manipulate citizens against the new constitution. However, under such circumstances the pure love of freedom would be morphed into animosity.

Further, according to Hamilton, a strong and efficient government is a necessary prerequisite for the existence of liberty. It is more common for those who loudly cliam to be fighting for the rights of the people to become tyrants than those who calmly argure the need for an energetic government. History teaches us that most great despots started out by pandering to the people and claiming to be fighting for their rights.

The purpose of Hamilton’s presenting these objections up front is to put the people on guard against them. He did not want them to distracted in their consideration of the matter at hand. A clear mind would be needed to properly consider which path would be most beneficial to them. Of course, there was no doubt in Hamilton’s mind that the adoption of the new constitution was the correct decision. He expresses this opinion in no uncertain terms saying “I am convinced that this is the safest course for your liberty, your dignity, and your happiness.”

Hamilton assures the readers that he has given this issue the deep and serious consideration it deserves. The result of his contemplation is that he can recommended adoption of the new constitution with no reservations and no doubts as to the correctness of his recomendation. However, he will not show bias in his arguments in the following articles and papers. His “arguments will be open to all, and may be judged of by all. They shall at least be offered in a spirit which will not disgrace the cause of truth.”

The issues to be discussed in following articles inclue: The benefits of the Union, the inability of the Articles of Confederation to conserve the Union, the need for an energetic government to preserve the Union, why the proposed constitution is fit for a republic, how the proposed constitution compares with constitution of state of New York, how the adoption of the new constitution will protect liberty and property.

In addition, Hamilton vowed to attempt to answer all objections made against the new constitution as they come up during the course of the proposed articles.

Some might have considered it unnecessary to explain the benefits of the Union since everbody already knew how beneficial it was. However, there are those who argue that the thirteen states are too farflung and disconnected to be governed by a central government. According to such people, the only workable solution was a variety of smaller governmental units. Indeed, what was at stake was the break up of the Union. According to Hamilton “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.” For that reason, a discussion of the benefits of the Union, and the dangers of it’s break up, was necessary.

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