Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Hamiltonian Wisdom

I've always favored Jefferson over Hamilton, but this Federalist Papers excerpt is making me reconsider my anti-Hamilton stance:


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, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force...

So numerous indeed and so powerful are the causes which serve to give a false bias to the judgment, that we, upon many occasions, see wise and good men on the wrong as well as on the right side of questions of the first magnitude to society. This circumstance, if duly attended to, would furnish a lesson of moderation to those who are ever so much persuaded of their being in the right in any controversy. And a further reason for caution, in this respect, might be drawn from the reflection that we are not always sure that those who advocate the truth are influenced by purer principles than their antagonists. Ambition, avarice, personal animosity, party opposition, and many other motives not more laudable than these, are apt to operate as well upon those who support as those who oppose the right side of a question. Were there not even these inducements to moderation, nothing could be more ill-judged than that intolerant spirit which has, at all times, characterized political parties. For in politics, as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution...

On the other hand, it will be equally forgotten that the vigor of government is essential to the security of liberty; that, in the contemplation of a sound and well-informed judgment, their interest can never be separated; and that a dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people than under the forbidden appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government. History will teach us that the former has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism than the latter, and that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.

Hamilton's ideas triumphed over Jefferson's. As a direct consequence of Hamilton's writing and influence, America received its foundation for modern governance and economic regulation. Could Hamilton envision, at the time he was writing, the kind of country we have today? Of course not. He had, at most, general ideas with no specifics. He could not have known that he was putting in place a framework that would eventually produce the modern car, iPhones, eBay, and other economic wonders. It just goes to show you that when you're doing something, even if you know it's historic, you can never know the full panoply of potential ramifications.

It is a shame that The Federalist Papers are not required reading at every American high school. Unfortunately, it was not until after I graduated law school that I bought a copy and read it. How can we be graduating so many Americans who have little idea of their own country's founding principles? If the test of an enduring empire is whether its citizens know and respect its history, America's longevity may be in question.

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