Moderation and Justice in Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist No. 1

I’m looking at Federalist No. 1 right now to see how Hamilton elaborates on the following:

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.

I really do need to make notes at some point on the whole of the Federalist; there’s obviously a lot that comes after this which must be read back into this paper. Still, the invoking of “reflection and choice” in this paper becomes almost immediately a listing of everyone who is far too self-interested to properly exercise either. Unsurprisingly, those people tend to oppose ratification of the Constitution.

It’s a bit stunning, then, to see two paragraphs in the midst of this paper – the 4th and 5th – devoted to moderation and justice. Those are two of four primary classical virtues: courage, moderation, justice, wisdom. They show up an enormous amount in nearly all political philosophy prior to Machiavelli; there are entire Platonic dialogues devoted to each virtue separately; Thomas Aquinas argues in his commenatry on Aristotle’s Ethics that all of that work can be deduced from them. If all prior “political constitutions” were nothing but products of “accident and force,” how exactly does the American project incorporate these older notions, which do not seem to have ever produced a stable, lasting government?

Let’s look carefully at some of the paragraph seemingly devoted to moderation:

…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…

Is moderation really predicated on the skepticism that one could be wrong, and that one’s allies could be crooks? That’s not moderation at all in a sense. Moderation is actually quite principled; it’s about discipline, self-control. There is a degree that yes, one does not go overboard with one’s opinions or positions, but the moderate person can definitely spy those who are immoderate and unjust and is rightly suspicious of them. The moderate person may display righteous anger. What Hamilton is calling moderation is really self-doubt that may convince others only because one is not foaming at the mouth. To some degree, it is moderation of which he speaks, but it certainly is not the whole of the virtue.

Justice is also treated strangely:

To judge from the conduct of the opposite parties, we shall be led to conclude that they will mutually hope to evince the justness of their opinions, and to increase the number of their converts by the loudness of their declamations and the bitterness of their invectives. An enlightened zeal for the energy and efficiency of government will be stigmatized as the offspring of a temper fond of despotic power and hostile to the principles of liberty. An over-scrupulous jealousy of danger to the rights of the people, which is more commonly the fault of the head than of the heart, will be represented as mere pretense and artifice, the stale bait for popularity at the expense of the public good…

Justice has been reduced to the question of “efficiency” or “liberty.” Strictly speaking, this means no one cares for justice, and it is curious that while moderation was passive (“I suck, and so do my allies, waaah”) justice is on the other hand angry. It looks like it is really difficult to distinguish virtue from passion here; one wonders how familiar the Founders were with Descartes’ idea that classical virtues were just “splendid vices.” Going back to the list of four, it doesn’t take a lot to see that “moderation” and “justice” might have something to do with “wisdom.”

In any case, the Federalist comes down more on the side of “efficiency” than “liberty:”

It will be forgotten, on the one hand, that jealousy is the usual concomitant of love, and that the noble enthusiasm of liberty is apt to be infected with a spirit of narrow and illiberal distrust. 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.

The desire for liberty is “jealous” and itself illiberal; if you want any sort of security, you need “vigor of government;” demagogues come to power by talking about rights (“liberties”) all the time. The overarching argument, for the whole of the papers, is that “reflection and  choice” doesn’t start with airy dreams about virtue or freedom. It starts with essential considerations about how things are going to get done, how we’re even going to be safe. In this day and age, this seems to be a lesson almost wholly lost among all friends and advocates of liberal democracy.

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