American Ghosts, Research Time, 31/05/2017

So I was reading through The Federalist Papers a while ago. It was the first time I’d read any of that volume since an undergraduate course on political theory I took back in my undergraduate years.

Now that I’ve looked back through these essays, I find it remarkable that we didn’t study Alexander Hamilton and James Madison as full-fledged political philosophers on the same level as John Locke, Adam Smith, or Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Do they focus on The Federalist Papers in the political theory and history courses of universities in the United States? I feel like they must. American friends and friends who teach in America – let me know about this. I’m interested to know.

I actually haven't seen the full show of Hamilton yet, but I have a distinct
feeling that Lin-Manuel Miranda doesn't spend a lot of time meditating
on the necessity of a legitimate government to levy domestic taxes.
There are beats to funkify.
If any text can be a foundation of US-American utopias, this is it. It lays out the structure of American politics itself. What’s more, it does so from a conceptual and an institutional perspective at the same time. Hamilton and Madison thought intimately and intricately about how each element of American institutions would safeguard the people’s freedom.

At a time like ours, when influential figures on the right wing of US politics seem to be openly advocating the creation of a one-party state under the Republicans. No matter the feelings of patriotism in the modern, paranoid Republican party, they’re out to destroy the institutions that real American patriots like Hamilton and Madison built.

The Federalist Papers were written as a (successful) attempt to lobby a popular audience into voting for a referendum result. Given the magnitude of what they were voting for, I’m kind of impressed that Hamilton and Madison’s (and John Jay too) arguments achieved what they did.

I’m sure they weren’t the only pro-federalist outreach that side of the referendum had going for it. But they were the most famous throughout the time since. Hamilton and Madison stand as the first philosophers of the North American continent to contribute to the Western tradition.*

* Reading the essays, James Madison deals most explicitly and for the longest time on distinctly philosophical concerns. You have to look for Alexander Hamilton’s thinking lying underneath his institutional language. Not far, though.

While Madison is the premier philosopher of the Federalist trio, Hamilton sometimes walks the knife edges of the toughest paradoxes. Here’s an example – his argument that a powerful federal government actually decentralizes power.

This is exactly the opposite of the so-called patriotic argument among the right that the individual states of the union should hold all real government and bureaucratic power. Hamilton writes in an era where the USA’s only federal institution of elected officials was the Continental Congress, the federal legislative assembly.

You could accurately and metaphorically call Governor Paul LePage
a Mainiac, alright. But state-level leaders like him were an example
of why Hamilton wanted a strong federal government. Where
American state-level politics seemed dominated by fraudsters,
local oligarchs, and enraged demagogues. The federal government
was intended as (if I can steal one of my own lines), a sober
second thought against the hot-headed independence of states.
Well, eventually, everything tends to fall apart.
But the Congress had very little power domestically. Each state – Virginia, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, and each of the rest – was basically its own independent country, joined in a confederation. The only institutional purpose of the Continental Congress was to represent the states. It couldn’t even levy domestic taxes – that too was just for the states.

It was completely unworkable. A federal system of mixed domestic powers was necessary for a government that could be at all useful to its people. Hamilton leaves aside the question of what such a disunified government would face internationally, and in the early papers talks mostly about the relationship of people to their government.

If your federal government just represents the provinces or states as institutions, then you aren’t really a citizen of the United States. You’re a Knickerbocker, a Sandlapper, a Nutmegger, or a Mainiac. There’s no American.

Because when you’re trying to forge a new identity from 13 (or more) separate ones, you need the unifying institution – the federal government – to be present in people’s lives. There has to be a link between the daily life of an individual with their federal government.

The line to your federal representative, the appearance of federal government workers and rules in your life, has to be alive for the national identity to set in. Being American – institutionally – has to matter to everyone across all the member states if people are going to be American in their identities.

Hamilton offers another argument for why domestic American populations needed a strong federal government. But that more Machiavellian answer will come tomorrow.

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