Monday, April 6, 2009

Federalist No. 5 and the Natural Propensity to Civil War

Federalist No. 5 is uniquely interesting among the Federalist Papers in its presentiment of the US civil war. Arguing from his knowledge of the history of the British empire, John Jay presents his case that a strong, central government is less likely to be prone to war and that without a strong, central government, the swarms of the ``Northern Hive'' [his emphasis] would be ``tempted to gather honey in the more blooming fields and milder air of their luxurious and more delicate neighbors.'' Not only does Jay's argument predict the US Civil War but it also explains the modern tendency toward civil war throughout the world following the breakdown of strong governments and their replacement by weak confederacies.

Jay opens up Federalist No. 5 with a quotation from a letter written by Britain's Queen Anne to the Scottish parliament on the subject of uniting of Scotland and England.
An entire and perfect union will be the solid foundation of lasting peace: it will secure your religion, liberty and property; remove the animosities amongst yourselves, and the jealousies and differences between our two kingdoms. It must increase your strength, riches, and trade; and by this union the whole island, being joined in affection and free from all apprehensions of different interests, will be enabled to resist all its enemies.
Jay sets these words of Queen Anne about the benefits of union against the long history of strife between England and Scotland while they were separate nations. While he slyly ignores the subjects of imperialism and domination that were large part of the subtext in which that strife ocurred, he does so for a legitimate reason. By the eighteenth century, Scotland and England were both functional representative democracies and the relationship being addressed by Queen Anne was not an act of imperialism or subjugation. While this does leave Jay open to the criticism the wars between England and Scotland had this no longer extant imperialism at their core, a cursory examination of English history reveals that this was not entirely the case. Jay almost certainly had in mind what modern historians refer to as the Wars of the Three Kingdoms which include the Bishops Wars, the Scottish and English Civil Wars, Cromwell's invasion of Ireland and the Irish Confederate Wars. This series of conflicts, arguably, only halted once there was a strong central government.

Jay's fear, then, was that a war of this sort would break out in America if a federal mode of government was not established. For as much as he argued in Federalist No. 2 that Americans are united by common cultural, religious, linguistic, and geographic bonds, he also maintains here in Federalist No. 5 that nation states have the most to fear from neighboring countries. He lists three factors that lead him to this conclusion. If two or three confederacies emerged from the thirteen original colonies, it would be natural that each confederacy would have distinct interests which would cause tension among the confederations. Secondly, over time a discrepancy in power and size between the confederacies would develop. Lastly, distant nations which have an interest in keeping America weak would aim to exploit the developing tensions of the confederacies in America.

While Jay did not spell out all the differences between north and south, he was currently cognizant of the increasingly industrial base of the northern states in contrast to the agrarian southern states. Further, the debates over the question of slavery that ended with the 3/5 compromise in the proposed constitution highlighted the differences between the modes of production in the north and the south. Despite all the factors that led Jay to suggest that America was naturally a united whole, there was certainly no small amount of rancor and jealousy between different blocs of states in early America. Were the states united in a confederacy with each state able to decide its own tariffs and obligated to defend its own boundaries, it is natural that trade wars and border disputes would eventually arise. Without a strong government to force the states to settle these issues through courts rather than through arms, it would be almost inevitable that war would eventually break out.

But even if a war did not break out over such differences that can only exist between independent nations that border each other, the differences between various blocs of states could eventually lead to war. This would happen as one bloc or the other grew in size and stature so as to be feared by other blocs. Once that happened, Jay holds that the states would begin working against each other's interests.
Whenever, and from whatever causes, it might happen, and happen it would, that any one of these nations or confederacies should rise on the scale of political importance much above the degree of her neighbors, that moment wouuld  would those neighbors behold her with envy and with fear. Both those passions would lead them to countenance, if not to promote, whatever might promise to diminish her importance; and would also restraint them from measures calculated to advance or even to secure her prosperity.
No longer working as a single nation, these blocs of states would be seeking for the others to fail, or at least to damage them so that the powerful ones were less of a threat. This would escalate the tensions between them, perhaps to the point of armed conflict. These tensions would also be heightened by foreign nations. Distant countries, who lose out as America grew as a commercial nation and began taking part of the sea trade and began producing finished goods in its factories, had an interest in encouraging those very tensions. For if the various confederacies in America were to go to war and weaken each other, Europe would profit. Especially, if America weakened itself to the point where it could be recolonized.

Four score years later, as various states attempted to secede from the union, war did break out. While the US Civil War is conventionally attributed to the question of slavery, that was certainly not the only question. It is not entirely revisionist, as some would claim, to say that part of the reason the war broke out was the problem of states' rights with regard to the federal government. (Although, ironically, the only significant differences between the constitution of the Confederated States of America and the US Constitution are that the former mandates newly admitted states to allow slavery and specifically disallowed secession, both of which are a weakening of states' rights rather than a strengthening of states' rights.) It is also clear that economics, specifically the differences between the needs of the industrial north and the agrarian south, had quite a bit to do with the desire for secession. 

But note that the US Civil War was only made possible because of the creation of the Confederacy as a distinct political entity from the Union. Without the creation of the Confederacy, the disputes between northern states and southern states could only have been settled through peaceful means: parliamentary maneuvers in the US Congress, law suits in federal courts, publicity campaigns, presidential contests. Whatever the tensions that existed between north and south, it was only the attempt by the south to create an independent nation that brought about actual war. And the war that came about, came about almost exactly in the fashion described by Jay.

And across the globe, this same process is playing out time and again as various strong central governments fail and are replaced by weak confederacies or even entirely independent nations. Success stories, like the division of Czechoslovakia into Slovakia and the Czech Republic, are all too rare. More frequently we have military conflicts in places where the central government was dissolved: Afghanistan, Bosnia, Georgia, Iraq, Kosovo, and Russia. On the one hand, it is true that the areas lack a good deal of the unitive factors of seventeenth century Britain and eighteenth century America. The former Soviet Union was enormously culturally, linguistically, and religiously diverse. As was Iraq under Saddam Hussein and as are Afghanistan, Kosovo and Bosnia. But these diversities are not themselves the cause of the conflict, but factors that make the conflicts worse. With the exception of Afghanistan all of these countries enjoyed periods of relative peace when united under strong governments.

Not that it is a bad thing that the governments in these particular nations failed. The repressiveness of the Ba'athist regime Iraq and the Communist Party in the former Soviet Union created enormous hardship, suffering and death for untold millions. There are few people who genuinely regret the end of these regimes. (Although, admittedly, there are an increasing number of people in those regions nostalgic for ``the good old days.'') However, as the United States and other liberal democracies demonstrate, a strong federal government is quite capable of respecting human rights. The problem presented by these regimes wass not one of a strong, centralized government per se but the problem of having an oppressive regime in charge of the state. The antidote to this is not to abandon a strong, unified government. Rather the antidote is overthrow the oppressive regime and replace it with liberally democratic strong, unified government.