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On September 19, 1796 George Washington published his Farewell Address. Best remembered now for its warning against American embroilment in European wars, the Address centers on what Washington considered a far more important and urgent question: the need to maintain the American union.
That union, he wrote, provides “a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence.” Americans’ tranquility at home, peace abroad, safety, prosperity, and liberty all require the continued union of the American states. “This is the point in your political fortress against which the batteries of internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively (though often covertly and insidiously) directed.” In a world of powerful, militarized and centralized modern states, several in command of vast empires, “no alliances, however strict, between the parts” of America “can be an adequate substitute.” Internally, factionalism, the “party spirit”—“itself a frightful despotism,” likely fanned by “the insidious wiles of foreign influence”—can eventually lead to a regime of tyranny, the last resort of a republican people desperate for protection from both domestic and international threats. Therefore, “The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations.”
As both the leading general in the Revolutionary War against just such an empire and the first president under the United States Constitution, Washington had experienced what eighteenth-century writers termed the “inconveniences” of disunion for the past twenty years. From his difficulties in recruiting and paying the Continental Army to the machinations of French ambassador Edmond Genêt on behalf of the Jacobin regime, Washington had seen how selfish interests and mutual distrust could threaten his country’s still-fragile, controversial experiment in popular self-government.
In this, he had allied with his Treasury Secretary and former Army officer Alexander Hamilton, not only on the battlefield and in his administration, but in the crucial years 1787-91 when the United States Constitution was framed, debated, and ratified. Themes Washington succinctly invoked in the Farewell Address had already been elaborated by Hamilton in The Federalist.
Hamilton begins by alerting his readers to dangers Americans face from “dissensions between the states.” Among sovereign states, God’s command to ‘Love thy neighbor’ does not predominate. Quite the opposite: Hamilton considers it “a sort of axiom in politics that vicinity, or nearness of situation, constitutes nations’ natural enemies.” This is so because human nature isn’t divine. One must never “forget that men are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious”; their unlovely passions direct themselves against those who are nearest to hand. Thus “the causes of hostility among nations are innumerable.” They include both “the love of power or the desire of pre-eminence and dominion” and “the jealousy of power, or the desire of equality and safety.” Trade wars often lead to shooting wars.
Nor do national passions limit themselves to public ambitions and grievances. Many national rivalries “take their origin entirely in private passions,” in the “attachments, enmities, interests, hopes and fears of leading individuals in the communities of which they are members”: love affairs, criminal activity, vanity, religious bigotry, even indebtedness.
More often, however, the causes of war are less petty. Sovereign states fight over territory; given America’s “vast tract of unsettled territory” in the west, this could easily become a source of conflict—as indeed it did, by the 1850s. With existing jealousies and fears of larger states by smaller states under the existing Articles, border disputes “would be likely to embroil the States with each other, if it should be their unpropitious destiny to become disunited.” The public debt of the Union, like the private debt of Shays, “would be a further cause of collision between the separate States or confederacies,” as “foreign powers would urge for the satisfaction of their just demands, and the peace of the States would be hazarded to the double contingency of external invasion in internal contention.” Finally, “incompatible alliances between the different States, or confederacies, and different foreign nation,” would cause us to “be gradually entangled in all the pernicious labyrinths of European politics and wars”—Washington’s famous future argument—as “Divide and conquer must be the motto of every nation that either hates or fears us.”
Hamilton especially needs to argue against the argument made by Montesquieu and other writers that commercial republics won’t fight each other. Applied to the United States, this would mean that the American states don’t need a more perfect union to sustain peace amongst themselves because they are all commercial republic. Here, Hamilton engages in some adroit rhetorical sleight-of-hand, although for a good purpose. He first argues by counter-example. Republics often make war, no less than monarchies. “Are not popular assemblies frequently subject to the impulses of rage, resentment, jealousy, avarice, and of other irregular and violent propensities?” No doubt they are. And “has commerce hitherto done any thing more than change the objects of war? Is not the love of wealth as domineering and enterprising a passion as that of power or glory?” Surely not, and assuredly so, respectively. He then observes that “Sparta, Athens, Rome, and Carthage were all republics; two of them, Athens and Carthage, of the commercial kind. Yet were they as often engaged in wars, offensive and defensive, as the neighboring monarchies at the same times.” And in modern times, the “haughty republic” of Venice often made war on its neighboring states, and the commercial republics of Holland and Britain fought a series of wars against each other.
These arguments are easy to disprove. The two commercial republics of antiquity, Athens and Carthage, didn’t war against each other, except when Athens became a subordinate ally of a Syracusan tyrant. As for Holland and Britain, the Dutch Republic was a republic in name only—a federation, to be sure, but one ruled by kings and trading oligarchs; even Britain, during the time of the wars with the Dutch, was at best a mixed-regime republic, with monarchs not Parliament conducting its foreign policy. Why these sophistries? What justifies them?
What Hamilton knew, as did his political ally James Madison, was that many of the Southern states were not democratic republics at all. Both men had heard Gouverneur Morris chide the representatives of those states at the Constitutional Convention. You are slaveholding, plantation oligarchs, not real republicans, Morris said, and even Madison, himself a slaveholding, plantation oligarch, understood this, while hoping for gradual abolition of slavery and consequent political reform in Virginia and throughout the South. If not all the American states are commercial republics, the republic peace theory does not apply. This is the unspoken truth behind Hamilton’s verbal legerdemain.
Having established (directly or indirectly) the several causes of disunion, were the American Union to divide, Hamilton turns to the consequences, the effects those causes would bring down upon us. Whereas in Europe the disciplined armies and fortified borders of its many sovereign states have “been productive of the signal advantage of rendering sudden conquests impracticable,” in “this country the scene would be altogether reversed,” as wars would consist, first, of the “populous States” overrunning their “less populous neighbors,” followed by guerrilla warfare which will make such conquests “difficult to be retained.” Hamilton is thinking of the many instances of exactly such warfare, on both sides, during the recently concluded Revolutionary War. Even the Civil War, decades later, saw the conquest of the South by the more populous North, only to be followed by simmering hit-and-run resistance, including terrorism, by irregular forces led by Nathan Bedford Forrest, to take only the most prominent example.
Such chronic insecurity will lead to standing armies, and then to the undermining of republicanism throughout America. Armies, after all, require executive direction; American constitutions “would acquire a progressive direction towards monarchy,” “at the expense of the legislative authority.” Not only republicanism but commerce would thereby attenuate, as “the industrious habit of the people of the present day, absorbed in the pursuits of gain and devoted to the improvements of agriculture and commerce, are incompatible with the condition of a nation of soldiers,” as such circumstances would require Americans to become. To those who would cite Great Britain as a counterexample, as a nation that has fought many wars without succumbing to military rule (except for the brief reign of Oliver Cromwell, in the previous century), Hamilton reminds them that they are thinking of the British Isles–islands, moreover, protected by the most formidable navy on earth. America, too, has long coastlines, but is largely a continental power, and will become more so as it expands westward.
In sum, history teaches that small-scale republics, clustered together, spell calamity for the peoples so divided. “It is impossible to read the history of the petty republics of Greece and Italy without feeling sensations of horror and disgust at the distractions with which they were continually agitated, and at the rapid succession of evolutions by which they were kept in a state of perpetual vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy.” The “transient and fleeting brilliancy” of the Age of Pericles and of Renaissance Italy cannot compensate for “the vices of government” that “pervert[ed] the direction and tarnish[ed] the luster of those bright talents and exalted endowments” displayed there. Further, “From the disorders that disfigure the annals of those republics the advocates of despotism have drawn arguments, not only against the forms of republican government, but against the very principles of civil liberty,” arguments enabling such advocates to condemn “all free government as inconsistent with the order of society.”
Confident that he has drawn his readers’ attention to the dangers, causes, and consequences of disunion, Hamilton defends the Framers’ solution: a republican regime and federal state with strong but limited powers. Respecting republicanism, “the science of politics… like most other sciences, has received great improvement” in modern times. Division of powers, checks and balances, judges holding office during good behavior, and perhaps above all “the representation of the people in the legislature by deputies of their own election” are “wholly new discoveries, or have made their principal progress towards perfection in modern times.” Respecting the modern state, it has replaced small, weak political communities with large and powerful ones, but more: With the invention of federalism, it has enabled Americans to combine the self-defense only possible in a large place that organizes numerous soldiers and sailors in a manner permitting coherent military operations, with sufficient revenues to keep them well-armed. Crucially, as Montesquieu argues in his magisterial work, The Spirit of the Laws, a “confederate republic” will enable Americans to extend “the sphere of popular government” at to “reconcile[e] the advantages of monarchy”—effective command of well-trained and organized troops—“with those of republicanism”—economic, political, and religious liberty. Such a state, and such a regime, will not only defend itself against foreign enemies but also against “popular insurrection” within, as a beleaguered governor of one state will be entitled to call in assistance from other states, all under the eye (and, more to the point, the authority) of the federal government.
Within that federal government itself, the states will retain representatives. The Senate, elected by the state legislators, will leave the states in possession of “certain exclusive and very important portions of sovereign power,” although not in possession of sovereign power tout court. Hamilton cites the example of the ancient Lycian confederacy, which successfully combined self-defense, representation of each of its constituent city-states, and enumerated and forceful authority within those city-states by the federal government.
Throughout this study, essayists have shown how the American federal republic has empowered its own constituent states to retain substantial self-government without sacrificing the general powers needed for national defense against enemies foreign and domestic, retaining the freedom of interstate commerce, communication, and travel that affords the American people one of the highest living standards in the world. In the past century, the centralization and bureaucratization of both the federal and state governments have weakened citizen self-government, but the words of the original Constitution as amended in the years immediately succeeding the Civil War, and the intentions of the Framers and those citizens who have remained loyal to their intentions, guided by their principles of equal, natural (and therefore unalienable rights remain as a standard for those who continue to hold certain truths to be self-evident.
Will Morrisey is William and Patricia LaMothe Professor Emeritus of Politics at Hillsdale College, and is a Constituting America Fellow; his books include Self-Government, The American Theme: Presidents of the Founding and Civil War and The Dilemma of Progressivism: How Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson Reshaped the American Regime of Self-Government.
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