Friday, August 8, 2008

Federalist Paper 1: General Introduction

I've just put my son (2 weeks short of a year old) down for a nap, after changing the nastiest smelling diaper I think he's ever produced. Was it the avocado he didn't like last night? The garlic in the roast chicken? The peaches? What could produce a stench that bad and of that consistency? Maybe it's the super-drool from his teething. It was all mushy and got everywhere and almost required a bath. I use cloth diapers, which means the cover usually catches any excess (good), but that I then have to rinse said cover and throw it in the wash (bad).

I bet Alexander Hamilton never faced a smelly diaper. Bet he never tried to switch gears from helping a baby knock down stacks of blocks for 3 hours to bending his mind to the momentous questions that faced the educated, gentlemanly creators of a brand-new country. You need undivided attention, which meant, I'm sure, that his wife Elizabeth bore the brunt of running their household and caring for their 8 children.

It says a lot about the great men of past ages that they could, in all seriousness, write something like the following when searching for a cook, helpmeet, mother of their children, and showpiece for their drawing room--that is, a wife:

"She must be young—handsome (I lay most stress upon a good shape) Sensible (a little learning will do) —well bred... chaste and tender (I am an enthusiast in my notions of fidelity and fondness); of some good nature—a great deal of generosity (she must neither love money nor scolding, for I dislike equally a termagent and an economist)—In politics, I am indifferent what side she may be of—I think I have arguments that will safely convert her to mine—As to religion a moderate stock will satisfy me—She must believe in God and hate a saint. But as to fortune, the larger stock of that the better."

That's Alexander Hamilton (quote from Wikipedia) in1779, giving instructions to a friend who is meant to procure him a spouse from South Carolina. Hardly needs mentioning that this "enthusiast in notions of fidelity" later had an affair.

Still, that doesn't change the fact that his language in the Federalist Papers was cogent, persuasive, and intelligent, and to this day thrills both with its idealism and the weight of his argument.

His first Federalist Paper, the General Introduction, breathes the essential yin-and-yang of a democracy:

"[I]t has been reserved to the people of this country ... 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 constitution on accident and force."

One could argue that recent events prove this question has failed: America has definitively decided that force guided by those wise old guys in the White House is the only way to preserve the country.

This first Paper lays out Publius's notions of moral and ethical rightness in political choices, and hints at the practical aspects of governance that the new country's Constitution had no choice but to consider if it were to succeed. But I am attracted less by Hamilton's introduction to future arguments here than in his philosophical statements as to the movement of human nature and the nature of human governance. So much of his observation can be transported directly to issues confronting governments around the world today, now, over 200 years after they were penned. And it's not that I agree with all of them. But they open up the mind and force one to question one's own ideological assumptions.

"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. ... [N]othing could be more ill-judged than that intolerant spirit which has at all times characterized political parties."

How searingly true.

But what do you think of this:

"[T]he vigor of government is essential to the security of liberty; that, in the contemplation of a sound and well-formed judgment, their interests 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 forbidding 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 republic, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people, commencing demagogues and ending tyrants."

The danger in this beautifully written paragraph is that Hamilton doesn't seem to have envisioned power-hungry oil barons-come Bible-thumping neoconservative authoritarians. It is so easy for the Cheney-ites of the world to bite off the first section of the paragraph and throw it to the masses who, arguably, seem eager to give up their rights in favor of a specious "security."

I bet Hamilton never had to leave his masterpieces because his kid woke up screaming from a nap, either. That's why this is called Mothers with Brains--we do all the work, from the contemplation to the cuddling.

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