"Stupendous Fabrics:" Notes on Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist No. 9


Federalist 9 begins by stating “a firm Union will be of the utmost moment to the peace and liberty of the States, as a barrier against domestic faction and insurrection.” After that opening, and an initial barrage against the “petty republics of Greece and Italy” which never had a stable peace, there are 10 more paragraphs:

Paragraph 2. “Advocates of despotism” use the “petty republics” to decry not merely “republican government,” but “the very principles of civil liberty.” However, “stupendous fabrics reared on the basis of liberty” have “refuted their gloomy sophisms.”

Paragraph 3. There truly are problems with petty republics, and the “advocates of despotism,” um, have a point. But “the science of politics… has received great improvement [!]” Thing was, the poor ancients, they understood politics “imperfectly” or didn’t know the principles that made politics work at all. So what are the improvements in the “science of politics?”

  1. “The regular distribution of power into distinct departments”
  2. “the introduction of legislative balances and checks”
  3. “the institution of courts composed of judges holding their offices during good behavior”
  4. “the representation of people in the legislature by deputies of their own election”

Hamilton says these are “wholly new discoveries,” or “have made their principal progress towards perfection in modern times,” because clearly no one could ever figure out before that voting for a representative was a good thing, and no one cared if judges were corrupt before. To his “wholly new discoveries,” he adds a fifth “discovery,” one that sounds suspiciously like something the United States is stuck with more than dependent on: “the enlargement of the orbit” (# 5), i.e. the Union is going to comprised of States (a “confederated republic”) and will be massive.

Paragraph 4. Confederacy of this sort – for the sake of “tranquility” internal and “external force and security” – isn’t new. Some people say the republic should be “contracted,” and cite Montesquieu to make this argument. But Montesquieu is not of so firm a belief as them.

Paragraph 5. If you want the republics to be as small as what Montesquieu “recommends,” you’d have to break up the States into smaller pieces.

Paragraph 6.
You could reduce the states in size, but the possibility of confederate government would not be disallowed still.

Paragraph 7. Montesquieu is quoted with an eye to “reconciling the advantages of monarchy [!] with those of republicanism.”

Paragraph 8. See? The “tendency of the Union [is] to repress domestic faction and insurrection.” The quotes by Montesquieu above, of course, talk about states ganging up on one state they don’t like in the Confederated Republic (either it is an “usurper,” or it might experience “popular insurrection”), and crushing it for the sake of “internal happiness.”

Paragraph 9. Confederacy vs. consolidation of the States. People argue that a confederacy shouldn’t care for any aspect of “internal administration,” and there should be “an exact equality of suffrage between the members.” Hamilton dismisses these notions, symbolic but not necessarily constitutive of liberty and equality generally, as “the cause of incurable disorder and imbecility in the government.”

Paragraph 10. Hamilton says that “the proposed Constitution, so far from implying an abolition of the State governments, makes them constituent parts of the national sovereignty, by allowing them a direct representation in the Senate, and leaves in their possession certain exclusive and very important portions of sovereign power,” thus completely attempting to refute the argument in the paragraph above.

Paragraph 11. An ancient example of a Confederate Republic is given, one that seems to correspond to how representatives in the House are now delegated. Popular representation is the order of the day, as the “largest” cities got the most votes.

Comments (to be changed/expanded upon later):

The center of the list – the middle paragraph – is the key. It is there the issue of Union becomes that of “confederate government” (cf. Machiavelli, Discoursi Bk. 3).

What happens is that “size” no longer is a concern for Hamilton in that paragraph. “Size” is metaphorical – in ancient discussions of politics, cf. Plato, Aristotle, Cicero – size stands for whether a city will be moderate or not, whether it will educate in virtue or not. A small city is not imperial. Empire is more than conquest: it is a rejection of the idea that there are limits in life. The city that expands is implicitly telling its citizens that the world is their playground.

So when “size” is dismissed, what is really being dismissed is any concern for the formation of moderate citizens. We are not going to teach a sense of value to our citizens; that’s the province of “freedom of conscience.” Even knowledge in this political order will be a form of acquisition – i.e. the emphasis on technology, on practical schooling.

This is the deep reason why the ancients were wrong: they were concerned to have a happy, moderate people. The concern in this paper is security exclusively – take especial note of Paragraph 4. Hence the logic of Constitutionalism does cut against “states rights,” and even against a Bill of Rights to a degree: this isn’t Hamilton being sneaky, or Thomas Paine and other people who insist on “rights” being correct. If there is no security, you can forget about rights of any sort, and do notice that under “states rights” there’s always, no matter how peacefully the argument is put in tone, the threat of secession and insurrection, even now.

The ancient concern for moderation is a stronger ground than “states rights” or “rights” generally, because it can not be refuted by the logic of the Constitution as thoroughly as an insistence on “rights” can. The ancient concern for moderation means there is a distinction between simply living and living well. The latter takes precedence. But “simply living” is all that an insistence on rights adds up to ultimately: Who is anyone to say what is the right way to live? So what ends up happening is that Hamilton’s/Madison’s/Montesquieu’s/Machiavelli’s logic wins out, and it wins out in the most subtle way.

After all, the states are preserved – they’re left intact more than they might be if a national council was formed. The only thing is, they play a new role in Union. They oppose the federal government. The federal government opposes it. The federal government is divided into three branches which oppose each other. Elections in those branches pit people voted directly by all Americans (representatives) against Senators (from state legislatures) against a Judiciary (from the President and the Senate) against the President (the Electoral College, set up so there is not one popular vote or vote by a state legislator directly).

Get the idea? The fundamental difference between ancient and modern politics is that we consign politics to mechanism. No one can truly be trusted to rule. A moderate, virtuous society, on the other hand, can theoretically allow everyone to rule and obey in the highest sense. Here, we just set people up against each other and let the system run.

What makes the mechanism “work” is the same thing that always threatens to tear it apart: factionalism, or unleashed passion. That’s why “states rights” succumbs completely to the Machiavellian logic – if the desire for empire defines every single person, and if the insistence on “right” is merely a claim to dominion by each individual over the other, then the system that works best is the system that allows all to compete against each so no one can ever win.

Of course, there are several deep problems with this logic, which we’re facing now. In short:

  1. We’re all dumb. There’s no way around this.
  2. We’re imperial even when we try to be moderate. Where is the money for all those socialist programs Obama wants going to come from? Oh yeah, that depends on us being the most powerful and wealthiest country in the history of the world, I forgot about that.
  3. How do we know when the system is working, or is threatened? Ultimately, the politics of mechanism exist to instantiate the popular will. So should I look at our cultural decline as not that important, and only focus on how Constitutional form has changed? But if I do that, how do I know exactly when Constitutional form has changed for the worse, given that the Constitution itself was made purposely malleable?


  1. I like Hamilton and Madison a lot.

    Arguments for states’ rights and rights generally are probably best constructed from Jefferson, or from the idea of moderation I’ve talked about above. I’m not saying that sort of rhetoric is wrong, just more like you don’t really want to reduce things to a power-logic if you want to get past the Constitution’s reasoning.

    Note also that there is a “moderation” of a sorts when all is said and done: we are not as volatile a people as the states were during the Articles of Confederation, it seems.

  2. You, Sir, are the next Edmund Burke or Giambattista Vico. Or at least the next Theodore Dalrymple. This post is simply amazing. Very well thought out.

    Start writing books or at least publishing to the City Journal or The Salisbury Review. Or at the very least publishing to http://culture11.com/blogs/postmodernconservative/

    Just one minor disagreement. Do empires always increase the ego of their citizens? Cannot empires be… holy? (Not in the strictly religious sense of it.)

    Alain de Benoist has some interesting arguments for the idea of an empire, as opposed to the idea of a nation: http://es.geocities.com/sucellus23/telos6.htm

    (Though it a bit smells like big-ego Evola-ist posturing to me, there could be some truths in it.)

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