Sunday, May 16, 2010

Federalist No. 7 and Alexander Hamilton's Practical Argument for a Strong Union

Whereas in Federalist No. 6, Alexander Hamilton based his argument for a strong federal government on philosophical anthropology, in Federalist No. 7 he gives an argument almost entirely based on facts particular to the situation of the fledgling United States of America. He does open with a nod to the Hobbesian anthropology of Federalist No. 6, asserting that a "full answer" to the question is merely to observe human nature and consider that the people of the United States are no different than other people throughout history (¶1). Nevertheless, Hamilton is willing to humor those of his readers who hold that humanity is capable of nobility in addition to reprobation. Hamilton targets that audience with practical considerations over handling four different types of conflict that could lead to war between the states were there not a strong federal government to be the final arbiter: disputes over territory, disputes over commerce, disputes over public debt and disputes over conflicting laws. Left unchecked, these conflicts would embroil the United States into a war between the states. So, as a practical matter, the United States should retain a strong federal government so that its citizenry might live in peace.

The first of the conflicts over common assets, territorial disputes, Hamilton suggests is "one of the most fertile sources of hostility among the nations" (¶2) and, given the vast unsettled territory held by the United States collectively, would present a rather poignant and immediate problem to the states if there were no federal government which would control that unsettled territory. He points out that were the federal government to be dissolved that there would be immediate dissent between the states over the proper division of unclaimed land because each of the states would have equally good claim to title for the land once held by the (now dissolved) federal government. In fact, he points out that when independence was initially acquired, exactly this problem cropped up and it was solved only by granting disputed lands once belonging to the crown of England to the federal government rather than to individual states.

But unclaimed lands are not the only type of land involved in territory disputes. Hamilton points out the very real boundary disputes between Pennsylvania and Connecticut and between New York and Vermont in order to question how those disputes could possibly have been settled peacefully without a federal government to adjudicate. Without the coercive force of a strong federal government to require that the individual states accept a resolution, why would the states involve not resort to force of arms to decide the question if they cannot come to an agreement? Or if a third party arbitrator stepped in to help resolve the dispute, if either (or both) of the parties were not satisfied with the outcome, there would be nothing to prevent either side from rejecting the results of arbitration and, further, nothing to prevent one or both sides from turning to force of arms to settle the dispute.

Just as Hamilton saw assets such as land presenting a cause for friction between the states, he also saw problems with the liability of the national debt. Debt acquired by the fledgling United States during the war for independence presented a unique problem because there was simply no fair way to apportion the debt between the states. For any scheme that might be suggested, Hamilton notes that there are real and honest objections and that these objections are magnified by diverse interests among the various states (¶7). For, as Hamilton observes, some states felt morally obligated to pay off the war-time debt and other states had no interest in making any payment whatsoever. This situation, in Hamilton's view would lead to "hesitation" in payment which, in turn, would invite foreign powers to initiate war as a means to recover the money they loaned to the fledgling republic. Disputes over the handling of libabilities, then, lead not only to conflict between individual states but also potentially lead to war with foreign powers.

The real heart of the problem, Hamilton argues, consists of two distinct motivating factors. One the one hand there is a very real fear and jealousy on the part of each state of the possibility that other states will increase in size and power and, thus, relatively decrease their own size and power. On the other, within each state are "individuals of influence" (¶4) who have their own private agendas and seek territorial growth in order to satisfy those interests. In each of these cases, the proposed US Constitution provides a damper. Not only does the US Constitution create a form of equality between the states which reduces the concern over the growth of neighboring states, but it creates an unique environment where private interests can pursue their commercial agendas without the need to push individual states toward territorial expansion.

This point of Hamilton's, that one of reasons that a federal government is necessary is to prevent disputes between individual states from escalating into war, also applies to what Hamilton refers to as "the competitions of commerce" (¶5). Starting from the observation that the states are unequal with regards to natural resources and engines of commerce, Hamilton argues that states which have less would be keenly interested in sharing in the success of nations that have more. The implication he draws from this is that each state would effect its own system of commerce designed to maximize taking advantage of the success of neighboring states (presumably through tariffs, protectionist laws, and etcetera). If this were to happen, something exceedingly interesting would follow. These differing systems of commerce would lead to discontent between the states and end in each state calling "injuries" those things which are the perfectly reasonable acts of sovereign nations.

The rise of these perceived injuries might begin with individuals within some states pursuing private commercial interests in other states and ignoring large portions of the various commercial laws of those other states. This leads to direct infractions against the commercial laws of those other states. Those states then respond with efforts to halt such infractions. These efforts to enforce the law lead to even greater disparities in the systems of commerce between the states. These disparities would only serve to strengthen the larger states. As an example, Hamilton looks to New York. Left unchecked, New York could (and would) levy import taxes not only on international goods but on the goods of the various neighboring states that desired to use the ports of New York. States like Vermont and Connecticut would end up paying taxes to New York. Over time, this would essentially lead to a tributary relationship with the weaker states paying taxes to the larger states. This, in turn, would lead to competitions for spheres of influence between larger states with smaller states jockeying between this state or that state against other large states. Such relations, in Hamilton's view, would eventually lead to the sort of tensions that lead to war.

Moreover, these separate systems of commercial law lead to the violation of the rights of citizens in one state by the government of other states. A private contract between two parties might be legal in one state but not in another. If one of these parties is a citizen of a state where the contract is legally void, he or she might appeal to that state to strike down the contract. The violation of such private contracts between the citizens of various states amount to various affronts to the rights of those individuals. Hamilton points out that his readers need to do no more than to consider the various retaliatory laws between Connecticut and Rhode Island as an example of exactly this type of behavior and observes that, `we do not expect a liberal and equitable spirit to preside over the legislators of individual states in absence of Federal checks' (¶9). In Hamilton's view, it is only the threat of the overwhelming force of a federal government that prevents states from trade wars and retaliatory legislation against each other. Absent that threat, he implies that the various states would engage in a patter of trade wars and retaliatory legislation that would eventually culminate into hostile action by force of arms.

This chain of events, of course, would be entirely avoidable under a strong federal government where a federal court system could address grievances between the state and provide the coercive force necessary to ascertain that the "losing" state both complies with the ruling of the judge and does not seek to redress perceived wrongs through force of arms. The most intriguing element of this argument is that it suggests that natural rights of nations necessarily lead to conflict. It is the suggestion that the particular interests of a given nation will at some point necessarily conflict with the particular interests of other nations. While Hamilton does not develop this argument, the specter of Hobbes is hanging in the background. The Hobbesian state of nature, the war of all against all, may be rectified within a state by the abrogation of some rights (and by `some,' Hobbes would understand "all save for the right to self defense in the face of a direct threat to one's life") from the individual in exchange for the protection of the state (the Leviathan). Yet, in Hobbesian thinking, this state of nature remains at the level of international relations. Hobbes does not provide a mechanism by which various nations can cede their rights to a larger international body in the same way that he presents a mechanism for individuals to cede their rights to the state within a nation. Without explicitly saying so, Hamilton is effectively taking Hobbes to the next level by putting the federal government into the position of the Leviathan with relation to the individual states.

Further, Hamilton argues that history shows that this is the proper solution to the problem. Prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the various colonies of North America ceded many of their rights as sovereign bodies to the Crown of England (and the other various colonial powers). During and immediately after the Revolutionary War, the newly sovereign states did the same with the fledgling national government. Giving up these rights halted many of the behaviors between the states which would have led to war had they occurred between fully sovereign nations. Consequently, if the federal government were to be dissolved and replaced by a weaker confederation of states, America would find itself engaged in the Hobbesian war of all against all.

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