Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Federalist and Human Nature

By Tony Williams

The second installment of my series of essays on The Federalist will examine the understanding of human nature presented by Publius.  This topic is profoundly important because Publius’ view of the basic nature of man logically shaped the kind of government they were advocating. 

Across the ages, examining the basic presuppositions of political philosophers about the nature of man reveals what forms of government followed from those premises.  For example, Aristotle believed that man can form habits of vice or habits of virtue.   Therefore, a rule by a single leader could assume the best form of government in a just monarchy or it can be worst form of government under a corrupt tyrant.  Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed that man was good and perfectible in his nature and corrupted only by institutions.  As a result, a unicameral legislature with no checks and balances was a logical form of government.  Finally, Thomas Hobbes posited that man was by nature evil and that life in a state of nature without law would be nasty, brutish, and short in the war of all against all.  Therefore, he advocated an unlimited sovereign, Leviathan, whose job was to enforce law and order. 

Thus, the view of human nature as presented in The Federalist is a crucial question for understanding the Constitution.  It should hardly surprise us that in an overwhelming Protestant nation of various denominations, Publius formed a generally pessimistic view of human nature based upon Original Sin.  Indeed, in Federalist #51, James Madison uses religious language to explore the basic nature of man.  Madison averred:

But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?  If men were angels, no government would be necessary.  If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.[1]

The implicit conclusions Madison draws from his conditional (if-then) logical statements are plain.  Men are not angels, and therefore government is in fact necessary.  Moreover, men are not always governable by angels or God.  The people follow their passions and leaders suffer from ambition for power.  Thus, internal and external controls on government are necessary because men are governed by men. 

            Madison continues, explaining how to frame a republican government, considering his argument regarding human nature:

In framing government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.[2] 

The writers of the Federalist were also steeped in classical philosophy and believed that man was mired by passions, self-interest, and habits of vice but also capable of self-control, reason, and habits of virtue.  They believed, with Aristotle, that each person had an ethical duty and the reason to govern himself and restrain his vices to live a happy and free life.  So too could a people govern itself justly and virtuously in a republic. 

This influence is evident in Madison’s Federalist #55, where he even uses a classical allusion to illustrate his point about human nature:

In all numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason.  Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.[3]

            At the end of the same essay, Madison further discussed the subject.  He noted the heights and depths to which humanity could rise and sink.  The existence of republican self-government posited the better angels in our nature, but since humans were still subject to their passions, checks on human nature were still necessary.  He wrote:

As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence.  Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.[4]

            Alexander Hamilton shared Madison’s sober view of human nature.  Passions and self-interest usually predominate over reason and self-control.  In Federalist #6, Hamilton asks two rhetorical questions that he believed were answered by practical experience and knowledge of human nature.   

Has it not, on the contrary, invariably been found that momentary passions, and immediate interests, have a more active and imperious control over human conduct than general  or remote considerations of policy, utility, or justice? . . . .

Is it not time to awake from the deceitful dream of a golden age and to adopt as a practical maxim for the direction of our political conduct that we, as well as the other inhabitants of the globe, are yet remote from the happy empire of perfect wisdom and perfect virtue?[5]
Madison and Hamilton had great hope that Americans, and thereby humans, were capable of governing themselves by their own consent.  They believed that republican ideals of virtue and self-government as well as institutional checks and balances would provide the means for Americans to govern themselves and enjoy their natural rights and liberties. 

Not every Founding Father agreed.  Founders such as Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson often took a more liberal view of human nature.  Paine and Franklin supported unicameral legislatures because they did not believe that human nature needed many checks.  Such ideas were considered at the Constitutional Convention and rejected.  Jefferson, for his part, was in Paris, and more favorably disposed towards the ideals of the radical French Enlightenment and the French Revolution, which believed in the basic goodness of man and the evil of institutions. 

But, the writers of the Federalist was more realistic as were the Framers of the Constitution.  The next essay in this series will explore the institutional checks and restraints upon the government given their understanding of human nature as flawed but capable of aspiring toward higher ideals. 

(Next - 3rd installment in series - "The Federalist, Human Nature, and Forms of Government":

See also: "Teaching the Federalist in Secondary Schools" --
[1] James Madison, Federalist #51, in Charles R. Kesler and Clinton Rossiter, The Federalist Papers (New York: Signet, 1999), 319. 
[2] James Madison, Federalist #51, ibid
[3] James Madison, Federalist #55, ibid., 340. 
[4] James Madison, Federalist #51, ibid., 343. 
[5] Alexander Hamilton, Federalist #6, ibid., 51, 53. 

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Origins of The Federalist

By: Tony Williams

        On September 17, 1787, at the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention in the Philadelphia statehouse, Benjamin Franklin pointed at the president’s chair which was painted with a half a sun on it.  He told his fellow delegates: “I have . . . often in the course of the session . . . looked at that behind the President without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting.  But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun.”  The delegates then retired to the City Tavern for a farewell dinner and “took a cordial leave of each other,” as George Washington wrote in his diary.[1]

            Two days later, the Pennsylvania Packet and five other Philadelphia newspapers printed the Constitution.  Within three weeks, dozens of others across the country would submit the document to the American people for their consideration.  On September 28, Congress voted to send the handiwork of the Philadelphia Convention to the state legislatures to elect representatives to popular ratifying conventions. 

The ratification of the Constitution was to be an expression of popular sovereignty as the people’s representatives would deliberate on the merits of the new government in popular conventions rather than state legislatures.  The Constitution would be accepted as fundamental law if accepted by nine of the thirteen states rather than the unanimity of the Articles of Confederation.  This method of ratification would additionally preserve the principle of federalism as several devices in the Constitution sought to preserve a balanced sovereignty between the national government and the states. 

By the end of September, Franklin’s sanguine expectations seemed to be confirmed.  But, in October, the opponents of the Constitution rallied and published their criticisms in newspapers in different states.  The Pennsylvanian Independent Gazetteer published an article by “Centinel,” who warned the new government was the “most daring attempt to establish a despotic aristocracy among freemen, that the world has ever witnessed.”  The author was also deeply concerned that the document lacked a bill of rights that would secure such essential rights as liberty of the press.[2]  “Brutus,” meanwhile, in New York, warned that the new government would have unlimited power of taxation, which would destroy state government and act as “the great engine of oppression and tyranny.”[3]  These opponents of the Constitution were labeled “Anti-Federalists” though they believed they stood for a truly federal system rather than a consolidated one and were the true federalists. 

            In mid-October, Alexander Hamilton conceived of a series of essays in defense of the Constitution from its detractors on his journey from Albany to New York as he returned home from a session of the state supreme court.  When he arrived home, Hamilton consulted several friends about joining him in his project and John Jay and James Madison, who was in New York serving in the confederation congress, accepted Hamilton’s invitation. 

On October 27, the New  York Independent Journal published Hamilton’s first Federalist essay written under the pseudonym “Publius.”  Although addressed to the people of New York, Hamilton originally intended the essays to influence the ratification of the Constitution at the New York Ratifying Convention where he expected significant opposition among Anti-Federalists.  To put it in relatively crude modern terms, it was meant to be a piece of political propaganda persuading the Anti-Federalists to ratify the Constitution. 

          The Philadelphia Convention, The Federalist, Anti-Federalist essays, and ratifying conventions, in addition to the informal debates in taverns among ordinary farmers, artisans, and merchants were all part of an unprecedented and incredible moment of reflective deliberation in world history.  The people and their representatives understood the significance of their debate on the principles of republican self-government for their country and their posterity.    

Hamilton certainly realized the import of the American debate for countries around the world.  In a statement of American exceptionalism in the tradition of John Winthrop’s “City Upon a Hill,” Hamilton wrote in the very first Federalist essay:

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 upon their political constitutions on accident and force.[4]

Hamilton thought that if creating a republican government by consent failed under such propitious conditions during the American founding, that perhaps mankind was not meant to govern itself. 

From October, 1787 to May, 1788, the triumvirate writing as Publius penned a total of eighty-five essays.  They were reprinted in other states and eventually bound in book form and shipped to states with particularly narrow support for the Constitution.  Madison himself ordered several copies to distribute to the delegates at the Virginia Ratification Convention to persuade them to support the new government.  

This essay is the first in a series of essays on The Federalist and its principles by WJMI Program Director, Tony Williams, as part of our September teacher seminar on the Constitution, celebrating its 235th anniversary.  Having laid down the historical context for its composition, subsequent essays will explore the principles of government that it espoused in the defense of the new Constitution.  Thus, the essays will answer the question why Thomas Jefferson and the University of Virginia Board of Visitors included The Federalist, along with the Declaration of Independence and George Washington’s Farewell Address, as the essential works for a proper understanding of the Constitution and an inculcation in the principles of American government in a true civic education. 

[1] Quoted in, Tony Williams, America’s Beginnings: The Dramatic Events that Shaped a Nation’s Character (Lanham, MD: Rowman Littlefield, 2010), 161.
[2] Quoted in, Pauline Maier, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010), 76. 
[4] Alexander Hamilton, Federalist #1, Charles R. Kesler and Clinton Rossiter, eds., The Federalist Papers (New York: Penguin, 1999), 27.