eBook Reflection: The Federalist 11-20

I’ve decided to call this series of pieces reflections rather than reviews; after all, The Federalist has already sold enough copies that it doesn’t need my review. I’ve edited my former post to reflect that.

The historical awareness that these papers assumes impressed me most this time through. Papers 18-20 explore the histories of the Amphyctionic and Achaean leagues of ancient Greece; the Holy Roman Empire; and the Netherlands respectively. In each case Hamilton and Madison (writing together) explore the jurisdictions of the federations’ governments compared to their components’ sovereignty, their dealings in times of warfare with common enemies; and their civil wars, and although the upshot of the papers is an argument for federal government, the history recommends itself for its own right. In each paper the point is to note that excessive sovereignty (in some cases) and federations of sovereign states rather than federal governments that dealt directly with individuals (in others) prove inadequate to the vicissitudes of history.

One quite interesting moment, intellectually speaking, is Hamilton’s (I think) assurance that the federal government, even with direct governance of individuals, will not be able to impose its will unchecked. His first reason has held up over time–for the United States Congress to amend the Constitution, state governments still must ratify the change. But the other has changed as travel and communications have changed and become more rapid. Publius (since Madison, Hamilton, and Jay all write under the pen name Publius and I can’t remember which Publius wrote this section) holds that people’s loyalties always become stronger as one moves from extended to local acquaintance. In other words, a man will always be most loyal to self, then to immediate family, then to clan, then to community, and only after all these to state and empire. (That’s another interesting thing about The Federalist–Publius never hesitates to call America an empire, a word that almost always carries unwelcome freight in 2008.) Thus citizens will naturally resist the federal government when it clashes with state government, and thus the federal government will lose the imaginations of the people if it attempts too much.

However, as I write this, I sit in a room as my wife, who was born in West Virginia and grew up in Pennsylvania, sits next to my son, who was born in Georgia, and my father-in-law, who as far as I can remember was born in Ohio, ministered in Pennsylvania, and now lives in the corner of West Virginia farthest from where his youngest daughter was born. They’re watching a movie. In five days Mary, Micah, and I will be going to Indiana, where we’ll be among people who live in Los Angeles, Tennessee, and Kentucky.

My point in that geographic catalog is that all of these people can get together, in most cases, in a matter of hours rather than days, and because of this mobility, nobody in the house really feels like we’re from different “places.” Likewise, since my wife can and does call here at a moment’s notice on her cell phone, and since all of us can, if we please, watch any of a dozen television channels in common irrespective of the hundreds of miles between us, and since I can digitally transmit photographs of Micah’s childhood to either set of grandparents in a matter of seconds, all of our families are decidedly more American than Hoosier or Virginian or Georgian. That’s not a bad thing, but it is one moment when Publius (not at all to blame him/them) simply could not anticipate the effects of technologically-augmented speed on the human imagination.

To put it another way, should someone from San Diego sit in the room with either set of people, she would likely feel about as much kinship with the folks from northern Pennsylvania as she would with my brother who lives in Los Angeles and more with either of those sets than with folks who live hundreds of miles closer but in Mexico. The local just ain’t what it used to be. Now mass media more than location forms imagination, and faces on television sets can say without smirking, “We’re all New Yorkers today.” Still retaining some sense that I’m a Hoosier, I have to insist that I am not, nor will I ever be, a New Yorker. No offense to Publius, of course.



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2 responses to “eBook Reflection: The Federalist 11-20

  1. The last half of your post aptly demonstrates why libertarians and other “let’s turn back the clock” types are misguided–conditions are not the same as they were in 1781, so why should our attitudes be the same?

  2. I think you’re right to some extent, but I also tend to agree with Postman that certain technologies carry moral weight that other technologies don’t. In other words, I think that Publius is right that local ties ought to trump national/federal identity, but I do think that such a set of priorities requires more effort in a world that homogenizes the particular.

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