Constitution Sunday: “Publius,” The Federalist VIII [Alexander Hamilton]

“Publius,” The Federalist VIII [Alexander Hamilton]

New-York Packet, November 20, 1787

Following are excerpts from The Federalist VIII, authored by Alexander Hamilton:

“Assuming it therefore as an established truth that the several States, in case of disunion, or such combinations of them as might happen to be formed out of the wreck of the general confederacy, would be subject to those vicissitudes of peace and war, of friendship and enmity with each other, which have fallen to the lot of all neighbouring nations not united under one government, let us enter into a concise detail of some of the consequences, that would attend such a situation.”

“This picture is not too highly wrought, though I confess, it would not long remain a just one. 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.”

“. . . But if we should be disunited, and the integral parts should either remain separated, or which is most probable, should be thrown together into two or three confederacies, we should be in a short course of time, in the predicament of the continental powers of Europe—our liberties would be a prey to the means of defending ourselves against the ambition and jealousy of each other.”

“This is an idea not superficial or futile, but solid and weighty. It deserves the most serious and mature consideration of every prudent and honest man of whatever party. If such men will make a firm and solemn pause, and meditate dispassionately on the importance of this interesting idea, if they will contemplate it, in all its attitudes, and trace it to all its consequences, they will not hesitate to part with trivial objections to a constitution, the rejection of which would in all probability put a final period to the Union. The airy phantoms that flit before the distempered imaginations of some of its adversaries, would quickly give place to the more substantial forms of danger real, certain, and formidable.”

Hamilton’s argument in favor of the Constitution is one of the most persuasive made. At the heart of the argument is the comparison between America and Europe. With the benefit of hindsight, the gravity of Hamilton’s words could be lost on a contemporary reader.

The states, not as a collective but as a loose set of sovereigns, had a decision to make. Were they going to replicate the disunity in Europe or combine their efforts and attempt to bring together a diverse group of interests? Hamilton made the correct answer clear.

As a practical matter of protecting themselves in the future, Hamilton stated, America had to unite as one country. The states’ collective admiration of liberty was not enough, according to Hamilton. While this may seem controversial and perhaps not the most romanticized interpretation of American unity, Hamilton makes a point worth considering.

Modern Europe, and particularly the European Union, would do well to remember this principle. Unity, while inherently requiring some level of sacrifice in sovereignty, carries with it the potential to best perpetuate a union of states. While the love of liberty is a powerful binding agent, it is difficult to imagine how it can solely maintain a disunited group of states.

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