EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the sixth 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 in Federalist #6, building on the arguments John Jay laid out in the previous four papers.
Jay first asserted that ratification of the Constitution was the only way to preserve union, and went on to focus primarily on the “dangers from foreign force and influence” inherent in disunion. Hamilton follows the same line of thinking, but turns his attention to “dissensions between the States themselves, and from domestic factions and convulsions.”
Hamilton insists that the individual states, or even several confederacies, cannot possibly peacefully coexist.
“To look for a continuation of harmony between a number of independent, unconnected sovereignties in the same neighborhood, would be to disregard the uniform course of human events, and to set at defiance the accumulated experience of ages.”
Hamilton follows with a list of factors he contends will inevitably lead to conflict between these “unconnected sovereignties.” They include love of power, jealousy of power, the desires of equality and safety, competition in commerce and the personal “private passions” of their leaders.
Hamilton goes on to cite several historical examples of these private passions, concluding with one close to home – Shays’ Rebellion.
“If Shays had not been a DESPERATE DEBTOR, it is much to be doubted whether Massachusetts would have been plunged into a civil war,” he writes.
Hamilton’s reference to Shays’ Rebellion, while seemingly made in passing, was in fact calculated. Conventional wisdom held that Daniel Shays, and other Revolutionary War vets, were debtors due to the inadequacy of the Articles of Confederation.
Most soldiers received little pay during the war, and they returned home facing mounting debts. The inability of Congress to compel states to remit tax money to the federal government made it impossible to pay these soldiers. Many lost their land.
On top of that, when the rebellion began to pick up steam, the federal government couldn’t raise an army to put it down due to lack of funding. That left state militias to deal with the rebellion. In 1787, John Jay wrote that the rebellion and the federal government’s inability to fund troops to put it down made “the inefficiency of the Federal government [become] more and more manifest.”
So, Hamilton’s reference to the Shays’ Rebellion stoked an already simmering fire in the minds’ of his readers.
Next, Hamilton sets up an Anti-Federalist argument to refute. He contends that those who favor the states remaining loosely united naively count on the interests of commerce to ensure mutual cooperation.
“The genius of republics (say they) is pacific…Commercial republics, like ours, will never be disposed to waste themselves in ruinous contentions with each other. They will be governed by mutual interest, and will cultivate a spirit of mutual amity and concord.”
Hamilton sets out to refute this idea through a series of rhetorical questions designed to lead the reader to the conclusion that the passions and moral shortcomings of political leaders will overwhelm any cooperation that mutual commercial interests might otherwise engender.
“Has it not, on the contrary, invariably been found that momentary passions, and immediate interest, have a more active and imperious control over human conduct than general or remote considerations of policy, utility or justice? Have republics in practice been less addicted to war than monarchies?”
He then rolls through a long list of historical examples, pointing out “wars of ambition,” including Sparta, Athens, Rome, Carthage, Venice and Holland.
“From this summary of what has taken place in other countries, whose situations have borne the nearest resemblance to our own, what reason can we have to confide in those reveries which would seduce us into an expectation of peace and cordiality between the members of the present confederacy, in a state of separation?”
Hamilton warns America is already on a road to ruin due to “lax and ill administration of government,” as evidenced by Shays’ Rebellion and other examples of unrest. He closes by emphasizing that lack of union will inevitably lead to more strife between neighbors. As he puts it, “vicinity or nearness of situation, constitutes nations natural enemies.”
To emphasize his point, he ends the paper by quoting French philosopher Abbe de Mably.
“An intelligent writer expresses himself on this subject to this effect: ‘NEIGHBORING NATIONS (says he) are naturally enemies of each other unless their common weakness forces them to league in a CONFEDERATE REPUBLIC, and their constitution prevents the differences that neighborhood occasions, extinguishing that secret jealousy which disposes all states to aggrandize themselves at the expense of their neighbors.’ This passage, at the same time, points out the EVIL and suggests the REMEDY.”
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