EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the eighth 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.
Hamilton opens up Federalist #8 showing a bit of rhetorical arrogance. He proceeds as if convinced he made an irrefutable case in the previous two papers when he argued that failure to ratify the Constitution would result in endless strife and conflict between the various states.
“ASSUMING it therefore as an established truth that the several States, in case of disunion, or such combinations of them as might happen to be formed out of the wreck of the general Confederacy, would be subject to those vicissitudes of peace and war, of friendship and enmity, with each other, which have fallen to the lot of all neighboring nations not united under one government, let us enter into a concise detail of some of the consequences that would attend such a situation.”
The consequences? “War between the states,” leading to standing armies and an accompanying loss of liberty.
Here, Hamilton turns an Anti-Federalist argument against them. Opponents of the Constitution feared a strong national government would ultimately establish a standing army in the absence of a constitutional provision expressly prohibiting one. Brutus addressed this issue in his tenth paper.
“The liberties of a people are in danger from a large standing army, not only because the rulers may employ them for the purposes of supporting themselves in any usurpations of power, which they may see proper to exercise, but there is great hazard, that an army will subvert the forms of the government, under whose authority, they are raised, and establish one, according to the pleasure of their leader.”
Hamilton essentially agrees with this premise, but insists disunion will lead to the establishment of standing armies, not ratification of the Constitution.
“But standing armies…must inevitably result from a dissolution of the Confederacy,” Hamilton wrote.
In an odd turn, Hamilton then credits the militarization of Europe for minimizing the impact of war.
“The disciplined armies always kept on foot on the continent of Europe, though they bear a malignant aspect to liberty and economy, have, notwithstanding, been productive of the signal advantage of rendering sudden conquests impracticable, and of preventing that rapid desolation which used to mark the progress of war prior to their introduction.”
Hamilton contends the lack of such military structure in America will magnify the ravages of war, writing that “conquests would be as easy to be made as difficult to be retained. War, therefore, would be desultory and predatory.”
That, he asserts, would lead to a loss of liberty. Here Hamilton pens a profound and eloquent warning that applies to toady’s warfare and surveillance state.
“Safety from external danger is the most powerful director of national conduct. Even the ardent love of liberty will, after a time, give way to its dictates. The violent destruction of life and property incident to war, the continual effort and alarm attendant on a state of continual danger, will compel nations the most attached to liberty to resort for repose and security to institutions which have a tendency to destroy their civil and political rights. To be more safe, they at length become willing to run the risk of being less free.”
Hamilton’s arguments in Federalist #8 carry no small amount of irony. The very things he argued would come about absent the Constitution came about under the constitutional system he advocated.
Hamilton next turns to Britain for emphasis, pointing out that its isolation from continental Europe, and its strong navy, makes a large standing army unnecessary. This situation “contributed to preserve the liberty which that country to this day enjoys.”
Of course, not everybody agreed with Hamilton’s take on history. Brutus later wrote, “The same army, that in Britain, vindicated the liberties of that people from the encroachments and despotism of a tyrant king, assisted Cromwell, their General, in wresting from the people, that liberty they had so dearly earned.”
Hamilton closes Federalist #8 with a jab at the Anti-Federalists mixed with some eloquent hyperbole. He trivializes his opponents while engaging in what could be deemed fear-mongering.
“If such men will make a firm and solemn pause, and meditate dispassionately on the importance of this interesting idea; if they will contemplate it in all its attitudes, and trace it to all its consequences, they will not hesitate to part with trivial objections to a Constitution, the rejection of which would in all probability put a final period to the Union. The airy phantoms that flit before the distempered imaginations of some of its adversaries would quickly give place to the more substantial forms of dangers, real, certain, and formidable.”
 Most scholars believe Brutus was Robert Yates, a prominent New York politician. He was a judge on the New York Supreme Court and a delegate to the Philadelphia Convention.
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