Federalist Papers 6 and 7 are at first glance an odd place to go when it comes to explaining the onset of World War I. Their topic is the threat of internal war among the states absent the adoption of the unified federal republic in the Constitution. But the fundamental principles expressed, especially that the “causes of hostility among nations are innumerable,” will resonate with generations of World War I students who have tried to catalogue the many causes of the Great War.
Publius’s point is that independent states will disagree about much and eventually fight over something. That was especially true in the semi-united states, with their close proximity to one another, the unclaimed and disputed lands to the west, their uneven economic power, and their shared and unshared debts. What is worse, in order to get an advantage in these disagreements, the states might enter into smaller alliances with each other or with European powers, thus becoming “prey to the artifices and machinations of powers equally the enemies of them all.”
Even the broadly democratic and commercial nature of the states would not help, despite the claims of “visionary or designing men, who stand ready to advocate the paradox of perpetual peace between the States, though dismembered and alienated from each other. The genius of republics (say they) is pacific; the spirit of commerce has a tendency to soften the manners of men, and to extinguish those inflammable humors which have so often kindled into wars. Commercial republics, like ours, will never be disposed to waste themselves in ruinous contentions with each other. They will be governed by mutual interest, and will cultivate a spirit of mutual amity and concord.”
If true, asserts Publius, then that should be true of all states, not just republics. But it wasn’t true. “Has it not, on the contrary, invariably been found that momentary passions, and immediate interest, have a more active and imperious control over human conduct than general or remote considerations of policy, utility or justice?”
There they are in Federalists 6 and 7, the many causes of the Great War laid out in principle: security and proximity, economic competition, domestic politics, imperial rivalries, confusing alliance politics, and honor and passion (in monarchies and democracies alike). Publius even anticipated and rejected the arguments of people like Ivan Bloch and Norman Angell that rational calculations about the destructiveness of warfare, especially in the interconnected modern economic world, would or should forestall war.
Given these great truths, Publius argued that the best hope for stopping war among the American states was to unite them under the proposed federal constitution. It did not always work—rebels literally drew states into a war against the nation. But it mostly worked. The overwhelming majority of the disputes among American states have not led to war.
Which leads to another question: was the proposed solution viable for the rest of the world’s nations? Did they just need to be gathered together in some sort of “Confederative Republic” to ensure peace?
In principle, maybe, and the principle is as far as Publius goes for the wider world. The Federalist Papers focused on the principles behind the best government for the United States, and on this issue they weren’t even sure the federal republic would work, let alone for the far more divided wider world. The Constitutional system Publius proposed was exceedingly fragile. That is why the principles elucidated in the rest of the Federalist Papers went far beyond the causes of war between states.
Perhaps that truth best resolves the seeming paradox of how Woodrow Wilson, an explicit critic of the Constitutional system, came to advocate for a seemingly Publius-like worldwide “Confederative Republic” in the League of Nations. Wilson wanted lasting peace among nations, and he believed that it was only possible if nations gathered together under a cooperative worldwide government of sorts. On its face, it appears that Wilson agreed with the principles of the Federalist Papers, but only on this narrow issue. But the Founders believed that the American Constitutional Republic only had a chance of preserving peace among the states if all of the principles undergirding it, those expressed across the Federalist Papers, remained in place.
Which brings us to Federalists 74 and 75, on the treaty making power of the president under the Constitution. For reasons explained in those documents, the executive needed a strong role in making treaties. As is often the case in the Federalist Papers, Publius argued for more expansive federal, and in this case, executive, power. But that was only because the countering argument gave exclusive power to the legislature. Publius never imagined that treaty making, or any other power, would go exclusively to the executive. There must be balance, or the whole fragile experiment would collapse.
This balancing principle, so essential to the Federalist Papers and the Constitution, Wilson could never abide. He wanted the power for himself. In this instance above all others, his reach exceeded his grasp. The Senate did not approve his treaty. The United States never entered the League.
The American decision to reject the League has been treated as a missed opportunity to preserve the fragile peace earned at Versailles. But Wilson was the master of his vision’s undoing, precisely because in envisioning the League he rejected the principles of the Federalist Papers. His League was not a balanced constitutional republic, but rather an oligarchy with the trappings of democracy, requiring the enlightened leadership of a few great men. First among those men, of course, would be Woodrow Wilson himself.
The League of Nations never had a chance to maintain peace, not because the United States foolishly rejected Wilson’s new utopian vision, but because the balanced American constitutional system saw it for what it was: an unbalanced system simultaneously so offensive to sovereign states and utterly toothless as to magnify all the worst rivalries among nations. It was the Old World Order made worse, with monarchies replaced by totalitarian dictatorships. Publius, in all of the Federalist Papers, knew better than to try that. Would that Woodrow Wilson have listened.
Thomas Bruscino is Associate Professor of History in the Department of Military Strategy, Planning, and Operations at the United States Army War College. He holds a Ph.D. in military history from Ohio University and has been a historian at the US Army Center of Military History in Washington, DC and the US Army Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, and a professor at the US Army School of Advanced Military Studies. He is the author of A Nation Forged in War: How World War II Taught Americans to Get Along(University of Tennessee Press, 2010), and Out of Bounds: Transnational Sanctuary in Irregular Warfare (CSI Press, 2006), and numerous book chapters. His writings have appeared in the Claremont Review of Books, Army History, The New Criterion, Military Review, The Journal of Military History, White House Studies, War & Society, War in History, The Journal of America’s Military Past, Infinity Journal, Doublethink, Reviews in American History, Joint Force Quarterly, and Parameters.
The views and opinions presented are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.