I know it’s been about five months since I promised to start reading The Federalist, but comps, you know? Anyway, I’ve finished the first ten papers on my Sony Reader, and I think I’m going to start a series of reflections on them.
First, having read Gore and Postman recently, it’s almost inevitable, I think, that I should start reading some American Enlightenment pieces, and since the Federalist is one of those series of texts that both cultural conservatives and American leftists cite as their inspiration, I figured I’d start digging in. First, I can see whence both draw their inspiration. On one hand the Federalist calls for measures that, in our age of the military-industrial complex and an executive branch that seems to want to grab absolute power, seem quite radical. On the other hand, it assumes certain things about powerful people’s capacity for noblesse oblige that strike me as naive.
The aim of the papers was to convince the American people to ratify the federal Constitution that, historically, they did in fact ratify. Against Hamilton, Madison, and Jay was a faction dedicated to making three or four confederacies rather than one nation of the former British colonies.
One of the most interesting assumptions the papers make is that a standing army will necessarily become a tool of tyranny. Hamilton especially is wary of powerful executives who will do everything in their power to turn the citizens’ attention away from governmental abuses by means of invoking fear of a foreign enemy. In other words, if a king wants to abuse his subjects, all he needs to do is tell them to support the troops. One of the primary arguments for a strong union of states is that it will make standing armies less necessary and thus allow the citizens to retain the military power to resist the government. As I’ve mentioned in conversations in person and online before, it’s an interesting and (to a fan of Jefferson such as myself) troubling development that, in the last hundred fifty years or so, the rhetoric of those who would invoke the second amendment has shifted starkly away from resistance of civil government and towards putting the power in citizens’ hands to kill other citizens. The way the Federalist seems to imagine things, an officer corps should be the only career military around, keeping the balance of power firmly in the hands of the populace (who possess most of the weapons) against the government (who must convince the populace that a war is worth fighting). I can only imagine how things might have been different had an army not been standing ready to station on the Kuwaiti border–if the government couldn’t have maintained the charade of “last resort” even as they amassed two hundred thousand troops for a land invasion. And as I’ve said in digital conversation with Jeff Wright, the day that the Senate disbands the standing armed forces of the United States, I’ll be the first one to report for militia drill for the Barrow County guard. But I’m not holding my breath.
The other thing I noticed as I read over the first ten papers over the last couple days is that these are genuinely educated papers. That they exerted such popular sway makes me believe Postman and Gore that an era has passed. These things never would have flown on TV or radio, mainly because they take time and quiet to digest. Once again I feel like I’m doing something worthwhile teaching eighteen-year-olds to read books like Republic and Job that, although they are not deliberately obscurantist like much Continental philosophy, nonetheless require some effort to read. I’m not sure that the world of the seventeen eighties, where some estimate that sixty percent of the citizens of America read these wonderful papers, is coming back while I’m alive, but I do feel like the folks who come through my classroom learn, in some way, to participate in that world.