EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the eleventh in a series of articles giving an introduction to the Federalist Papers, a collection of 85 articles and essays written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay promoting the ratification of the United States Constitution.
Alexander Hamilton takes up the narrative again in Federalist #11 and switches the focus to a new subject – the utility of the union in respect to commercial relations and a navy.
The theme of the 11th essay revolves around power. Hamilton asserts a “vigorous national government” under the proposed Constitution will make America a powerful force in the world.
Hamilton views naval power and commercial power as intrinsically linked, and he opens with a warning, arguing that America’s commercial character and potential to develop a powerful marine “have already excited uneasy sensations in several of the maritime powers of Europe.” He accuses these countries of advancing a “policy of fostering divisions among us, and of depriving us, as far as possible, of an ACTIVE COMMERCE in our own bottoms.”
But in Hamilton’s view, union will allow America to “counteract a policy so unfriendly to our prosperity in a variety of ways.”
First, Hamilton argues that a unified America would possess the power to dictate trade on her own terms. He poses a hypothetical, asking what would happen if the American government was capable of excluding Great Britain from all its ports. With that kind of power, Hamilton insists, America could obtain commercial privileges of the “most valuable and extensive kind.”
“By prohibitory regulations, extending, at the same time, throughout the States, we may oblige foreign countries to bid against each other, for the privileges of our markets.”
Reading between the lines, it becomes clear Hamilton envisions a powerful nation capable of not only defending itself form military aggression, but also able to influence events on the world stage. In his view, military power translates to economic power. He wants America to possess both, and he asserts that a powerful navy made possible by union would serve as “a further resource for influencing the conduct of European nations toward us.”
“There can be no doubt that the continuance of the Union under an efficient government would put it in our power, at a period not very distant, to create a navy which, if it could not vie with those of the great maritime powers, would at least be of respectable weight if thrown into the scale of either of two contending parties.”
Hamilton seems especially interested in projecting power in the West Indies, and writes that a strong navy could swing the balance of power and “would enable us to bargain with great advantage for commercial privileges.”
“A price would be set not only upon our friendship, but upon our neutrality. By a steady adherence to the Union we may hope, erelong, to become the arbiter of Europe in America, and to be able to incline the balance of European competitions in this part of the world as our interest may dictate.”
Did Hamilton entertain visions of an American empire? Historian Michael P. Federici argues that he did not, although he seems to concede that his policies arguably took America down that road. But Dr. James Pontuso insists Hamilton was more calculated, entertaining a vision that combined a “prosperous economy and vigorous military” that “would make it possible for the United States to control the destiny of other nations and even of all mankind.”
Reading between the lines in Federalist #11, one can easily discern shadows of empire dancing in Hamilton’s vision of a powerful America.
Hamilton then turns his argument to the consequences of disunion, writing that it would “frustrate all the tempting advantages which nature has kindly placed within our reach.” He warns other countries would take advantage of disunion With nothing to fear from a weakened America, they would meddle in her commerce.
“The rights of neutrality will only be respected when they are defended by an adequate power. A nation, despicable by its weakness, forfeits even the privilege of being neutral.”
Union under the Constitution provides the remedy.
“Under a vigorous national government, the natural strength and resources of the country, directed to a common interest, would baffle all the combinations of European jealousy to restrain our growth.”
Hamilton next transitions into a discussion of the importance of a union in maintaining open trade within America. He contends that unrestrained commercial relations between the states will not only benefit the states themselves, but will also feed a flourishing export market, benefiting the entire country.
In conclusion, Hamilton circles back to the main theme of the essay – the importance of a unified nation to project power into the world. He appeals to his reader to consider that Europe “has by her arms and by her negotiations, by force and by fraud” extended its dominion over Africa, Asia and America.
“It belongs to us to vindicate the honor of the human race, and to teach that assuming brother, moderation. Union will enable us to do it. Disunion will add another victim to his triumphs. Let Americans disdain to be the instruments of European greatness! Let the thirteen States, bound together in a strict and indissoluble Union, concur in erecting one great American system, superior to the control of all transatlantic force or influence, and able to dictate the terms of the connection between the old and the new world!”
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