Monday, March 30, 2009

Federalists Nos. 2 through 4: the Argument for a Strong, Centralized Government in America

In the first three Federalists after the introductory essay by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay argued that the combination of unity and plurality of a nation, being both one and many, provides for not only a safer and stronger nation, but also for a more temperate and pacific nation. In Federalist No. 2, the argument is presented that America is a natural union and that the shared experience of bleeding together through the Revolutionary War and coming together to voluntarily adopt a constitution has cemented in fact what nature had implied. This argument is extended in Federalist No. 3, where Jay suggests that this unity will make wars far less likely by both reducing the number of just causes for war and by tempering hastily made decisions of individual states by needing to convince all states that war is necessary. This argument is then completed in Federalist No. 4 where Jay notes that just cause for war is most often an excuse rather than a true just cause and that a strongly united nation offers less of a target to other nations looking for an excuse to go to war in order to unjustly enrich themselves.

While John Jay does not explicitly state e. pluribus unum in Federalist No. 2, the idea that ``out of the many, one'' is certainly its dominant theme. He starts with geography, how America is contiguous. From there he lists the numerous things that bound together the Revolutionary era citizens of America: common descent from European ancestors, a shared language, unity in religion, widespread belief in democratic government, common manners and culture. These geographic and cultural ties were then strengthened by the bonds of fighting and bleeding together in a war for independence. This culmination of union brought about by nature, convention, and history leads Jay to offer up an argument that one does not hear very much in our modern era, that what God has united together, man should not pull asunder. 
This country and this people seem to have been made for each other, and it appears as if it was the design of Providence than an inheritance so proper and convenient for a band of brethren, united to each other by the strongest ties, should never be split into a number unsocial, jealous, and alien sovereignties.
Notice here, Jay's Aristotelian notion of why government arises. He argues that that the American system of government emerges naturally out of the strong unity of Americans as a people and should reflect the same unity he claims its citizenry so providentially enjoys. This is especially notable given that a large part of the climate in the Revolutionary era favored distrust as any government. Thomas Paine famously opened his pamphlet Common Sense with the observation that society arises because man is good but that government arises because man is evil. 
Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes out happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. ... Society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best state is a necessary evil.
Jay's notion of why government arises stands in stark opposition to Paine's. Where Paine, taking after Hobbes, thinks that government only serves to restrain human depravity, Jay holds that government can echo a natural reflection of humanity's goodness. While Jay would certainly admit that government can be warped and tyrannical, and he does just that in some of his reflections on certain foreign regimes in the very Federalists under consideration, his argument in No. 2 implies that he does not think that such wickedness is a necessary part of government. Rather a liberal, representative democracy like the Constitution proposed by Jay and the other federalists does do is show what lies in the hearts of its people when they come together as a unitive whole.

The coming together as a single people, Jay argues, led to the immediate establishment of a government, albeit one with defects due to the rushed nature of its construction. The strong unity of the people implies the necessity of a strong federal government and, contrary to what the anti-federalists argue, the solution is not to abandon a strong federal government, but to correct the flaws in the hastily constructed Articles of Confederation by replacing them with the proposed new Constitution. In doing so, Jay would have America avoid the sin of destroying the national unity that God has bestowed on the American people and prolong the peace and prosperity to be enjoyed by the American people. For, as Jay details in Federalists Nos. 3 and 4, without a strong federal government, America will face a far greater likelihood of entering into war.

Federalist No. 2 lays out the case from a consideration of two aspects of wars with just causes. On the one hand, Jay argues that if America were divided into several confederacies, the individual confederacies would be more likely drawn into wars through allegiances and treaties with other nations. Were one confederacy to make a defense pact with one European power and another to make the same with another European power, the two confederacies might find themselves justly at war with each other even though there is no real dispute. On the other hand, Jay argues that the united nature of America as a whole will temper the passions of single states that might otherwise be motivated to go to war. Noting that pride frequently causes States to justify their own actions and arguing that a federal government would less given to such pride of post hoc justification, Jay offers up some of the abuses of the native peoples of America as an example of the sorts of wars more likely to be fought without a strong national government.
Such violences are more frequently occasioned by the passions and interests of a part than of the whole, of one or two States than of the Union. Not a single Indian war has yet been produced by aggressions of the present federal government, feeble as it is; but there are several instances of Indian hostilities having been provoked by the improper conduct of individual States, who, either unable or unwilling  to restrain or punish offenses, have given occasion to the slaughter of many innocent inhabitants.
In retrospect, it is clear that a strong national government at best only delayed US participation in a prolonged series of wars under false pretenses against the native tribes of America and most likely did not even accomplish that much. By the time that the Federalists were being composed in late 1787, the Northwest Ordinance had already been passed earlier that same year and American troops were already engaged combat to drive native American tribes out of areas that were attractive to settlers. A nation, no less than a state and an individual, is clearly subject to being overwhelmed by the passions in pursuing a given policy or even in prosecuting a war. Yet, there is some amount of truth in Jay's argument. An entire nation is harder to rile up than a single state. But what Jay does not consider here is that once riled up, an entire nation has much more vast means by which to impose its will through a state of war. Of course, to be fair, this is not Jay's concern. His rhetoric does not concern the safety of those whom America may face in battle but the safety of Americans.

Jay's point about the Indian Wars, while unsuccessful at proving his point about an entire nation being roused to war by irrational passions, does illustrate the truth of the topic he considers in Federalist No. 4, that human nature is such that nations are willing to go to war for any reason so long as the ruling powers perceive that there is something to be gained by such an engagement. While Jay does not point out how handsomely America profited from acquiring the territory of its native peoples, he does argue nations have been going to war for such unjust personal enrichment since time immemorial. Sometimes, he goes so far to say, that the personal enrichment even harms the nation as a whole and only benefits the monarch or other ruling party. A strongly united nation offers two chief advantages in such a world as the one we live in, it appears to be a more daunting foe which other nations are less likely to attack, and if it is attacked it can marshal far more resources with which to defend itself.

Jay suggests we perform a though experiment. Imagine what the history of Britain would have been if the Britain consisted of a loose confederation of Scots, Welsh and English rather than consisting of a strong union under a monarch. Likewise, he invites us to imagine a state of affairs where America consists of thirteen sovereign states each with their own militia, their own border disputes and their own trade conflicts. Such a state of affairs would be very similar, he argues, to the city-states of ancient Greece, a loose confederation, prone to internecine disputes. If attacked, such a regime faces a daunting logistical problem of orchestrating thirteen independent supply trains for thirteen independent militias and negotiating a chain of command among the members of loose confederation. Foreign nations, he points out, will see this disordered state of affairs and act accordingly to take advantage of the situation to further their own interests.

Historically, Jays argument about strong nations being less likely to be attacked appears to have panned out well for the United States. Admirial Yamamoto's infamous words about Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor serving only to awaken a slumbering giant and to instill within it a ``terrible resolve'' seems to accurately represent the attitude of would-be belligerent nations for much of American history. During the twentieth century when two world wars were fought, much of Africa has entered into war the United States only suffered one attack by another hostile nation. All other assaults on America have been at the hands of non-state actors with little to lose by having their homelands invaded. (In fact, one can argue that the goal of al Qaida's assault on September 11, 2001 was an attempt to get the United States to invade the middle east and provide the impetus for Islamic countries to unite in the face of a common foe. Fortunately, the expected Islamic revolution and united front against The West did not materialize.) The unity and the strong central government of the United States certainly seems to serve the safety of its citizenry very well.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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