July 22, 2010

Hamilton’s Statism (Federalist #16)


The Federalist #16 reads like Alexander Hamilton’s statist manifesto. It contains dire speculations on what might happen under a loose confederacy.
After saluting the Lycian and Achaean Leagues as examples of loose confederacies which did work, Hamilton moves on to a lurid account of the death of confederacies. Having already discussed the vice of disobedience and lawlessness among the subordinate levels of a confederacy, but having left corporations out of account, he now moves to discuss the violent consequence of this disobedience.
It seems much of the violence is to come from the top down.

It remains to inquire how far so odious an engine of government, in its application to us, would even be capable of answering its end. If there should not be a large army constantly at the disposal of the national government it would either not be able to employ force at all, or, when this could be done, it would amount to a war between parts of the Confederacy concerning the infractions of a league, in which the strongest combination would be most likely to prevail, whether it consisted of those who supported or of those who resisted the general authority.

The powerful states would combine to defy the center and oppress the weaker. They’d engage in demagogy and rig elections. They’d bring in foreign powers to assist them against the center. The civil war would ensue. “The first war of this kind would probably terminate in a dissolution of the Union. This may be considered the violent death of the Confederacy.”
Hamilton considered more likely, because he considered it already at hand, the confederacy’s non-violent, “natural” death.

Its more natural death is what we now seem to be on the point of experiencing, if the federal system be not speedily renovated in a more substantial form. It is not probable, considering the genius of this country, that the complying States would often be inclined to support the authority of the Union by engaging in a war against the non-complying States. They would always be more ready to pursue the milder course of putting themselves upon an equal footing with the delinquent members by an imitation of their example. And the guilt of all would thus become the security of all. Our past experience has exhibited the operation of this spirit in its full light. There would, in fact, be an insuperable difficulty in ascertaining when force could with propriety be employed. In the article of pecuniary contribution, which would be the most usual source of delinquency, it would often be impossible to decide whether it had proceeded from disinclination or inability. The pretense of the latter would always be at hand. And the case must be very flagrant in which its fallacy could be detected with sufficient certainty to justify the harsh expedient of compulsion. It is easy to see that this problem alone, as often as it should occur, would open a wide field for the exercise of factious views, of partiality, and of oppression.

If we consider that a government’s purpose is to preserve and enhance the liberty and prosperity of the people in the face of all threats, including all forms of organized crime, then we can see how today’s government, having been hijacked by the corporations, now in most ways languishes in desuetude as Hamilton describes here, even as in other ways it menaces us with tyranny on behalf of those same criminals.
Hamilton contemplates how the central government in a loosely structured confederacy would need the dread standing army to enforce its policy upon the recalcitrant states.

It seems to require no pains to prove that the States ought not to prefer a national Constitution which could only be kept in motion by the instrumentality of a large army continually on foot to execute the ordinary requisitions or decrees of the government. And yet this is the plain alternative involved by those who wish to deny it the power of extending its operations to individuals. Such a scheme, if practicable at all, would instantly degenerate into a military despotism; but it will be found in every light impracticable. The resources of the Union would not be equal to the maintenance of an army considerable enough to confine the larger States within the limits of their duty; nor would the means ever be furnished of forming such an army in the first instance.

In American history the prospect of a standing army was rightly viewed as a stark milestone of tyranny. This healthy aversion retained some vigor well into the 20th century, and it’s a mark of abdication and enervation that in the latter half of that century America threw away this totem of freedom and embraced the militaristic taboo. Of course, at the moment Hamilton was writing the Constitution he exalted provided explicitly for a standing army, although no doubt neither he nor anyone else contemplated the monstrosity of the modern military-industrial complex, existential tyranny and corporate welfare bloat to a monumental extent. Few intuitions throughout history have been as well confirmed by bitter experience than the traditional revulsion at the very thought of a standing army. “We may indeed with propriety be said to have reached almost the last stage of national humiliation”, as Hamilton wrote in #15.
What Hamilton describes here is again what we have today. This army is implicitly oppressive. Recent years have seen the Constitution’s own posse comitatus protections under assault. And while Hamilton is correct that maintaining this military complex is impracticable physically and financially, nevertheless it is being propped up by the simple expedient of theft from the people.
(Then there’s the horror of the death and destruction these private wars wreak abroad, but I suppose the imperialist Hamilton wouldn’t care so much about that.)
So Hamilton tries to establish what a nightmare would ensue if the states continued as a loose confederacy, though as we know federalism did not spare us this same nightmare. Part of the reason why is found right in the midst of his paean to “the majesty of the national authority”.

The result of these observations to an intelligent mind must be clearly this, that if it be possible at any rate to construct a federal government capable of regulating the common concerns and preserving the general tranquillity, it must be founded, as to the objects committed to its care, upon the reverse of the principle contended for by the opponents of the proposed Constitution. It must carry its agency to the persons of the citizens. It must stand in need of no intermediate legislations; but must itself be empowered to employ the arm of the ordinary magistrate to execute its own resolutions. The majesty of the national authority must be manifested through the medium of the courts of justice. The government of the Union, like that of each State, must be able to address itself immediately to the hopes and fears of individuals; and to attract to its support those passions which have the strongest influence upon the human heart. It must, in short, possess all the means, and have aright to resort to all the methods, of executing the powers with which it is intrusted, that are possessed and exercised by the government of the particular States.

So the federal government must be empowered to directly “carry its agency to the persons of the citizens”, because in this way it can “address itself immediately to the hopes and fears or individuals”. All of this is predicated on the “common concerns” of the people. But all this rings false in the age of corporate kleptocracy because these common concerns, if they ever did exist, no longer do.
Today the federal government either itself blasts away all barriers between the naked individual citizen and the massed corporate power, as in refusing to enforce anti-monopoly policy or anti-pollution laws, or it removes any impediments to the corporations’ smashing these safeguards themselves, as in the way the activist “supreme” court has been removing impediments to the direct buying of elections by throwing out campaign finance laws. In many cases it acts as the violent thug arm, as a glorified goon, as it intends to do in the case of the health racket mandate. US history going back to the 19th century is replete with examples.
In this shooting gallery, what “common concern” could the government be said to uphold? On the contrary, the federal government is a completely corrupted agent of corporate anarchy. If Hamilton opposed all forms of “anarchy”, meaning chaos, then he’d have to lament the failure of his great project. At any rate his federalist argument is now obsolete.
But Hamilton keeps focusing on refractory state legislatures, even though he concedes these may be acting on behalf of the people. Look at this bizarre sentence:

If the people were not tainted with the spirit of their State representatives, they, as the natural guardians of the Constitution, would throw their weight into the national scale and give it a decided preponderancy in the contest.

Maybe I have an unusual view of these things, but I think if the state legislature and the people agree then it’s probably more likely it’s the legislature which is “tainted with the spirit” of the people, and not the other way around. Which may be what Hamilton really means.
He does make a concession:

Attempts of this kind would not often be made with levity or rashness, because they could seldom be made without danger to the authors, unless in cases of a tyrannical exercise of the federal authority.

So Hamilton does concede the possible tyranny of the federal government (in which case it would no longer possess authority) and the right of the people to make attempts to resist and overcome it, as indeed he must having been a revolutionary soldier himself.
So that’s what we the people must strive to do, in the form of political and economic relocalization, striving to recover economic resiliency and political self-respect, at the individual, family, group, community, movement levels. Hamilton wraps it up writing of what he once knew, when he too fought as a revolutionary against monstrous tyranny.

And as to those mortal feuds which, in certain conjunctures, spread a conflagration through a whole nation, or through a very large proportion of it, proceeding either from weighty causes of discontent given by the government or from the contagion of some violent popular paroxysm, they do not fall within any ordinary rules of calculation. When they happen, they commonly amount to revolutions and dismemberments of empire. No form of government can always either avoid or control them. It is in vain to hope to guard against events too mighty for human foresight or precaution, and it would be idle to object to a government because it could not perform impossibilities.

Revolution is a sort of political singularity where all the pre-existing “good government” arguments break down. That’s because such upheaval is forced into being by the extremes of tyranny and criminally imposed poverty. These nefarious forces corrupt and abuse every part of the life of the country, including its political forms and ideas. So the people must rise to the fray seeking their leading ideas and images elsewhere. They must look to the horizons of hopes for the future and cherished treasures of the past. At this singularity future and past no longer separate, but simply embody the ideal of the great change from the noxious present. That’s where we have to go searching with our tattered treasure maps.


  1. There is an innocent explanation for Hamilton leaving corporations out of account: the modern corporation did not exist until about a century after he wrote it.

    Yes, common stock companies did not exist, but not in their current firm of perpetual “citizen.” They were creatures of the sovereign that lived and died at the will of the sovereign (hence the death of the Second Bank of the US when Andrew Jackson refused to renew its charter).

    That, of course, does not mean that “special interests” did not exist. They were the lucky few men of property who were allowed to vote.

    Comment by Tao Jonesing — July 22, 2010 @ 12:21 pm

    • There is an innocent explanation for Hamilton leaving corporations out of account: the modern corporation did not exist until about a century after he wrote it.

      A rather disturbing interpretation of history — and incorrect, in my view. The Founding Fathers were well aware of the dangers of corporations. This is precisely the reason why corporations endured the restrictions you mention for so long.

      The Boston Tea Party was an explicit revolt against the East India Company’s purchase of favorable tariffs from the British Parliament. Many of the original colonies were, literally, ruled by corporations such as the Massachusetts Bay Company. Americans were intimately familiar with corporate abuses.

      Among many other restrictions, corporations were forbidden from making political contributions. And the corporate liability shield flat out did not exist. This was in direct contradiction to the practice in Great Britain and the Netherlands. The Founding Fathers arguably viewed corporations as an extension of monarchist tyranny. They would certainly not rush to reconstitute such once their own independence was secured, and in fact the laws in place ensured that corporations existed only under limited circumstances.

      It was the Supreme Court, as ever the worm in the apple, which began to undermine this foundation three decades after independence.

      Unequal Protection by Thom Hartmann covers this topic in more detail. I found the abuses and inversions of freedom described in this book to be more stomach turning than any modern crime novel or serial killer true crime story.

      You may be interested and amused to see the flag of the East India Company during the Revolutionary period: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/East_India_Company

      Comment by reslez — July 22, 2010 @ 6:58 pm

  2. Yes, I’m not (necessarily) saying he had a consciously malevolent intent. In fact I stipulated in one of the earlier Federalist pieces that I was basically going to say, not “these guys lied”, but simply “they’ve been proven wrong.”

    And so, if Hamilton failed to anticipate the rise of modern corporations and how they would hijack the federal government, that’s simply a strong demerit, in my view a decisive one, vs. his ideology of government.

    Therefore I’m trying to revive the old anti-federalist spirit.

    (I’m not going to write one of these for all 85 papers, just some selected ones, primarily those which focused most on federalism itself.)

    Comment by Russ — July 22, 2010 @ 3:38 pm

  3. Great stuff, Russ. I enjoyed this, and I like reslez’ comment addition too.

    Comment by Bloodgroove — July 22, 2010 @ 8:07 pm

    • Thanks, JD, and reslez too.

      Regarding the “modern” corporation vs. how the Founders viewed it, the whole point is that corporations have metastasized and aggressed vastly beyond any role the Constitution envisioned for them.

      From the point of view even of original federalism, modern corporations are an anti-constitutional abomination.

      Comment by Russ — July 23, 2010 @ 2:25 am

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