As we have discussed in brief the place of America in the World on our other outlet (the Virtue in the Wasteland podcast), it seems appropriate, on this the anniversary of the publication of the first Federalist paper to consider our own republic and the dangers that threaten our own freedom and safety as we look upon the turmoil in the Middle East and questions about self government, democracy, and freedom.
As philosophers run to Plato and Theologians to St. Paul, I find myself going to ‘Publius’ (the pseudonym for James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay and their pamphlets printed to convince the state of New York to ratify the constitution) for wisdom.
I will leave the distinction between the “Federalists” and “Anti-Federalists” for another time (you’re always welcome to sit in on my Political Thought II course at Concordia University, Irvine). Let it be enough to state that the “Federalists” and “Anti-Federalists” were assuming much of the liberty that the Constitution upheld. The question was one of constructive power, and whether or not a delineation of certain rights would be necessary.
The ideas of “checks and balances” and “separation of powers” were common to most in the early republic and written down in the Federalist Papers. A compromise with the tenth amendment settled the question for New York’s representatives and placed the Constitution as we know it with the Bill of Rights in place for the coming two centuries.
The ideas that resonate with the Federalist papers and the modern events in the Middle East come from a rub in the eighteenth century western mind. This was the conflict between the Enlightenment and political realism. We see this in the language of Federalist #1:
“It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice”
In the 84th Federalist paper, Hamilton reminded those in the debate over the place of rational thought in securing freedoms would be an enduring struggle. He wrote, “I never expect to see a perfect work from imperfect man”.
James Madison addresses this Scylla of Enlightenment optimism and Charybdis of a Western view of sin and pessimism in Federalist #10. Madison made the seemingly absurd proposal that a large republic would be most conducive to freedom. This flew in the face of most political theory and all political practice. A republic must be small, some argued, as to not let the few outweigh the many. Knowing that factions would always exist, Madison wrote:
"It is in vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm. Nor, in many cases, can such an adjustment be made at all without taking into view indirect and remote considerations, which will rarely prevail over the immediate interest which one party may find in disregarding the rights of another or the good of the whole."
The inference to which we are brought is, that the causes of faction cannot be removed, and that relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its effects.
So how does one control its effects? Madison and his ideological brethren would argue for a constant debate. A debate amongst free men as to how one might stay free. Rather than attempt to snuff the small flame of dissent, Madison writes
“Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.”
Thus, how does one produce freedom? By fostering a forum for distinct opinion and dissent. By encouraging rational disagreements concerning passionate causes one can control the effects of a species that Tennyson supposed will always be “red in tooth and claw”.
What does this mean? Perhaps we should calm the shrill voices of radicalism on either side of the political spectrum, promote passionate and vigorous debate over the uses and abuses of power, and temper it all by reminding ourselves what Madison also wrote in the Federalist #51:
“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”
While we remain less than angelic, it does us well to think on the Federalist papers sub specie aeternitatis. To think on the place for diversity of thought in a free country, and how that might or might not look in other places around the globe.
(Dr. Daniel van Voorhis is the chair of History and Political Thought at Concordia University, Irvine and co-host of the Virtue in the Wasteland podcast)