12/05/2014 02:26 pm ET Updated Feb 03, 2015

Revisiting the Fabric of American Empire

Does anyone out there remember the Federalist Papers? If you do, the last time you heard or saw of it was sometime maybe in high school or late middle school, in a civics or social studies class. The teacher probably handed a few fragments for you to read and that was that. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton were two of the "Founding Fathers" who wrote nearly all of what were basically newspaper editorials, arguing in favor of the new constitution that was going for ratification. The articles supporting what would be the Law of the Land were more or less op-eds, all penned under the codename Publius.

After the Revolution, the thirteen former colonies had tried a confederacy where each state was a sovereign entity, and things weren't working out. You may also recall Shay's Rebellion, which was essentially an insurrection by indebted folks. Most of debt-saddled students today could take note, except for the fact that Shay's and several other unrecorded uprisings were brutally crushed. America needed a new system and a new foundational document, and the Federalist was the justification for a new social contract in the former British colonies that we now call the eastern seaboard -- except for Florida, which was at the time a Spanish possession.

Well, that's probably enough, right? Madison and Hamilton helped to found a new republic, united and indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. In the past few weeks, I have read the Federalist Papers -- all 85 of them -- from front to back. The story is not so simple, and it is more fascinating than you might have imagined. Here are the three most illuminating points: the nascent United States was conceived from the very beginning as an empire where the concept of democracy was totally distrusted and feared, a qualified tolerance of slavery and the roots of the coming civil war were woven in the very fabric of the new nation, and the balancing act between liberty and security is by no means a contemporary concern.

Alexander Hamilton, the first secretary of state and the guy on the $10 bill, and James Madison, the fourth president and "the father of the constitution," both repeatedly refer approvingly to the new United States as an "empire." That jars our eyes nowadays, but the words are right there: "The fabric of American Empire ought to rest on the solid basis of THE CONSENT OF THE PEOPLE," as Hamilton wrote.1 The opening words spell out that what is at stake is "the fate of an empire." He wrote that only "an energetic government" could possibly "preserve the Union of so large an empire." Further mentions -- "the people of an immense empire," "one great, respectable, and flourishing empire" -- make it clear that the US was never intended to be a republic only.2

The framers of the American constitution feared and distrusted pure democracy, believing that if the people ruled themselves there inevitably would be chaos, leading the country to eventual ruin. In any case, a land of our size of population (at the time, roughly three million free people) was far too large because, as Madison explained, "a Society, consisting of a small number of persons, who assemble and administer the Government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction." And besides, "Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm."3 A democracy is not what was created, since such a system "will be confined to a small spot. A republic may be extended over a large region."4 Hamilton believed that "[t]he idea of an actual representation of all classes of the people by persons of each class is altogether visionary," by which he meant fanciful. The nascent United States of America should vest its power with the mercantile class, Hamilton argued, since

artisans and manufacturers will commonly be disposed to bestow their votes upon merchants and those whom they recommend. We must therefore consider merchants as the natural representative of all these classes of the community. ... [T]he representative body, with too few exceptions to have any influence on the spirit of the government, will be composed of land-holders, merchants, and men of the learned professions. But where is the danger that the interests and feelings of the different classes of citizens will not be understood or attended to by three descriptions of men?5

Obviously there's no danger of that at all. Hamilton lamented at the end of the papers, reflecting a universal credo of elites of all times and places: "The perpetual charges which have been rung upon the wealthy, the well-born and the great, have been such as to inspire the disgust of all sensible men." Indeed so. And since "men are ambitious, vindictive and rapacious," that is all the more reason to keep them in check, especially when people "are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community," Madison added.6 Even if every citizen of Athens were "a Socrates," he demurred, "every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob."7

Back in America, "Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs, may by intrigue, by corruption or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests of the people," Madison feared.8 There would be "little avail to the people... if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood." Such a situation would lead to instability, one "effect" of which "is the unreasonable advantage it gives to the sagacious, the enterprising and the moneyed few, over the industrious and uninformed mass of the people."9

The place of slavery, and the looming civil war, is an undercurrent of the papers. Hamilton, who was born in the British West Indies (which is why he couldn't become president), castigated Europe which, "by force and by fraud ... extended her dominion over" Africa, Asia, and America, whose peoples "have successively felt her domination." Europe thinks "herself as the Mistress of the World, and to consider the rest of mankind as created for her benefit."10 It is uncontroversial that the institution of slavery, which has had long-lasting systemic effects to this day, was merely reformed by the constitution, not abolished: the slave trade was to end no later than 1808, a huge compromise. James Madison was a Virginian and a third-generation slave owner. He believed setting that date for the end of "the unnatural traffic" "ought to be considered as a great point gained in favor of humanity, that a period of twenty years may terminate for ever within these States ... the barbarism of modern policy." Indeed, "Happy would it be for the unfortunate Africans," he exclaimed, "if a ... prospect lay before them, of being redeemed from the oppressions of their European brethren!"11

Enslaved Africans, according to Madison, were an "unfortunate race" "debased by servitude."12 The institution of slavery itself reduced them, Madison believed, into a state of being human and property simultaneously: "In being compelled to labor not for himself, but for a master; in being vendible by one master to another; and in being subject at all times to be restrained in his liberty, and chastised in his body, by the capricious will of another, the slave may appear to be degraded from the human rank, and classed with those irrational animals, which fall under the legal denomination of property."13 Hence the three-fifths compromise. Hamilton, who did not own any slaves, was terrified of a prospect in which "mortal feuds, which in certain conjunctures spread a conflagration through a whole nation," such as the coming battle over slavery that had been left unresolved by the constitution, "do not fall within any ordinary rules of calculation. When they happen," he warned, "they commonly amount to revolutions and dismemberments of empire. No form of government can always either avoid or controul them."14

And as for the weighing of freedom and safety, which has been often discussed of late, Hamilton is worth quoting in full on this matter. "Safety from external danger is the most powerful director of national conduct," he believed, adding:

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 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.15

New York City, which was under British occupation throughout the Revolution, was under particular threat, Madison felt. His description of the security situation has lost only a little of its relevance: "The great emporium of its commerce, the great reservoir of its wealth, lies every moment at the mercy of events, and may almost be regarded as a hostage, for ignominous compliances with the dictates of a foreign enemy, or even with the rapacious demands of pirates and barbarians."16 Although the U.S.A. was and remains separated from "the old world" by the Atlantic, Americans should not be complacent, Hamilton reported, as the thirteen states were effectively encircled by British and Spanish settlements threatening to ally with the "savage tribes on our western frontier" who have "most to fear from us and most to hope from them."17

From the very beginning, the fabric of this country was woven with the threads of fear and division. In creating "a more perfect Union," as the preamble reads, we Americans still have a long way to go. The end of the path is not yet in sight.

1. [Terence Ball, ed., The Federalist (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), No. 22, 14 Dec. 1787, p. 106.]

2. [The Federalist, No. 1, 27 Oct. 1787, p. 1; No. 23, 18 Dec., p. 110; No. 28, 26 Dec., p. 131; No. 14, 30 Nov., p. 63.]

3. [No. 10, 22 Nov. 1787, p. 43.]

4. [No. 14, p. 60.]

5. [No. 35, 5 Jan. 1788, pp. 159, 160, 161. Emphasis added.]

6. [No. 6, 14 Nov. 1787, p. 19; No. 10, p. 41.]

7. [No. 55, 13 Feb. 1788, p. 270.]

8. [No. 10, p. 44.]

9. [No. 62, 27 Feb. 1788, p. 304.]

10. [No. 11, 24 Nov. 1787, pp. 51-52.]

11. [No. 42, 22 Jan. 1788, p. 204.]

12. [No. 54, 12 Feb. 1788, pp. 266, 267.]

13. [Ibid., p. 265.]

14. [No. 16, 4 Dec. 1787, p. 75.]

15. [No. 8, 20 Nov. 1787, p. 31. Emphases added.]

16. [No. 41, 19 Jan. 1788, p. 200.]

17. [No. 24, 19 Dec. 1787, p. 113.]