Fear is what terrorism aims to instill. It is also what enables a militaristic state to flourish. In his new book Broken Government, John Dean writes that neoconservatives have long had “plans in the drawers” to strengthen the executive branch, build up the military, and weaken civil liberties. In the tumult after 9/11, these plans were quickly put into place before cooler heads could prevail. It’s the drift toward despotism that many of the Founders, steeped as they were in Greek and Roman history, feared.
In The Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton argued for a strong federal government rather than a loose confederacy of states. The latter would, he predicted, disintegrate into a group of rivalrous countries, and their subsequent history would resemble that of Europe, with its frequent wars between nation-states. A failure to ratify the Constitution would eventually result, Hamilton warned, in civil war.
Hamilton’s Federalist #8 is entitled Consequences of Hostilities Between the States. Much of #8 is hypothetical, but its speculations are based upon European history.Hamilton was himself no peacenik; he had risen through the ranks, as he had hoped to do as a boy, from captain of his own artillery company to Washington’s most important aide to Inspector General of the Army.His opinions in #8 should therefore be taken seriously by true conservatives as well as the anti-war Left.
Hamilton represents war and militarism as threats to American freedoms. In a passage that seems eerily appropriate to George W. Bush’s presidency, Hamilton writes:
Safety from external danger is the most powerful director of national conduct. Even the ardent love of liberty will, after a time, give way to its dictates. The violent destruction of life and property incident to war, the continual effort and alarm attendant on a state of continual danger, will compel nations the most attached to liberty to resort for repose and security to institutions which have a tendency to destroy their civil and political rights. To be more safe, they at length become willing to run the risk of being less free.
The “institutions” Hamilton refers to are primarily “standing armies,” which, he says, would inevitably come into being if the U.S. states and its western territory broke into two or more confederacies. (We might update these “institutions” to include Blackwater, the Patriot Act, and the shadier activities of the NSA.) Note that he does not say that love of liberty should give way to the dictates of national security. As the word “destroy” makes clear, he is issuing a warning about what he obviously regards as an undesirable possibility.
Taking quotations out of their historical context is a time-honored taboo, but Hamilton’s observations in #8 have an internal logic that makes them applicable to the United States after 9/11. Here is another passage that resonates with our circumstances today:
They [these institutions] would, at the same time, be necessitated to strengthen the executive arm of government, in doing which their constitutions would acquire a progressive direction toward monarchy. It is of the nature of war to increase the executive at the expense of the legislative authority” [Italics added.]
The passage not only refutes the old libel that Hamilton was himself was a monarchist—a term the Anti-Federalists wielded much as Joseph McCarthy and the Goldwater Republicans would later use “communist” or “pinko.” It also shows—whether in or out of context—that Hamilton foresaw how a militaristic state would override the system of checks and balances and the separation of powers.
If we consider the historical context of the founding era, the strong executive or commander-in-chief that Hamilton undoubtedly imagined was George Washington. Impetuous himself, he must have admired the caution and forethought of his former boss. As Washington’s first term was coming to an end, Hamilton begged him to stay on. So did Jefferson, who also thought highly of Washington’s judgment.
George W. Bush is no George Washington. When he came to office, Washington had had a long military career that began with a spectacular error and ended with an astonishing success. That initial error in judgment, when he was a young officer during the French and Indian War, may well have been the cause of Washington’s later prudence. When Washington consulted his cabinet, he required them to defend their differing opinions in writing.
This practice resulted in the first debate over the interpretation of the Constitution. The debate opened with Jefferson’s letter in opposition to Hamilton’s proposal of a national bank. Washington read it and passed a copy on to Hamilton. Hamilton responded with a rigorous, painstaking, almost Derridean critique of Jefferson’s language, as well as his arguments, and with his own counterarguments. Thus, it was Hamilton’s argument that persuaded Washington.
President Bush lacks not only Washington’s military experience but also his interest in substantive arguments about national policies. As Ron Suskind reported in his book about another Secretary of the Treasury, Paul O'Neill (The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O'Neill) Bush was unwilling to read so much as a brief internal memo. When O’Neill reported to him in person, the president seemed distracted, restless, or bored. In all his nightmares of charismatic, manipulative demagogues, Hamilton never imagined such a president.
In Federalist #8, Hamilton develops his argument in favor of a strong federal union by imagining the dangers of multiple countries on U.S. soil:
The perpetual menacings of danger oblige the government [of a localized confederacy] to be always prepared to repel it; its armies must be numerous enough for instant defense. The continual necessity for their services enhances the importance of the soldier, and proportionally degrades the condition of the citizen. The military state becomes elevated above the civil. The inhabitants of territories, often the theatre of war, are unavoidably subjected to frequent infringements on their rights, which serve to weaken their sense of those rights; and by degrees the people are brought to consider the soldiery not only as their protectors, but as their superiors. The transition from this disposition to that of considering them masters, is neither remote nor difficult; but it is very difficult to prevail upon a people under such impressions, to make a bold or effectual resistance to usurpations supported by the military power.” [Italics added.]
Even taken out of context, this passage possesses its own internal logic, and, like the rest of #8, it resonates with contemporary political discourse. The warlike rhetoric of Republican hawks does suggest an elevation of “the military state … above the civil.” Americans are frequently encouraged to regard the military with gratitude and awe. The founding generation vividly remembered when redcoats could burst into their houses to conduct searches. They knew the old, defiant English proverb, “a man’s home is his castle.”
Whether Federalist #8 is considered in its historical context or as a series of smaller arguments, it shows that Hamilton recognized an inherent rivalry, even an innate hostility, between the military and the civil. A frightened nation might cooperate in the loss of its liberties. And indeed, since 9/11, Americans have sat by while the 4th amendment and the writ of habeas corpus have lost their force. In so doing, we have been abandoning the very ideas that inspired the founding generation in their revolution and deliberate design of the new nation.