Greetings and salutations on this most patriotic of days. I hope that this Independence Day finds you all safe and well, with plenty of time to spend with friends and family, as well a chance to contemplate the past and future of our country. Given the importance which I’m sure most of you reading this place on the Constitution of the United States and its welfare going forward, perhaps we could start by revisiting the words of one of its chief proponents in the days of the Founding Fathers. Let’s hear from Alexander Hamilton in the opening volley of one of the other great sets of documents in our nation’s history. This, from Federalist 1.
AFTER an unequivocal experience of the inefficiency of the subsisting federal government, you are called upon to deliberate on a new Constitution for the United States of America. The subject speaks its own importance; comprehending in its consequences nothing less than the existence of the UNION, the safety and welfare of the parts of which it is composed, the fate of an empire in many respects the most interesting in the world. It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, 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 constitutions on accident and force. If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.
This idea will add the inducements of philanthropy to those of patriotism, to heighten the solicitude which all considerate and good men must feel for the event. Happy will it be if our choice should be directed by a judicious estimate of our true interests, unperplexed and unbiased by considerations not connected with the public good. But this is a thing more ardently to be wished than seriously to be expected. The plan offered to our deliberations affects too many particular interests, innovates upon too many local institutions, not to involve in its discussion a variety of objects foreign to its merits, and of views, passions and prejudices little favorable to the discovery of truth.
As Hamilton pondered the consequences of their actions in crafting the Constitution, he wasn’t approaching the prospect with any sort of pie in the sky, rose colored glasses mentality. He noted the forces which would be arrayed against accepting the constitution, including the natural inclinations of a certain class of men in every State to resist all changes which may hazard a diminution of the power, emolument, and consequence of the offices they hold under the State establishments. The second group of opponents he feared were in a similar vein of the social scale, described by the author as those who might seek the subdivision of the empire into several partial confederacies.
Hamilton was a federalist by definition and had to make a tough case against those who worried that the powers of the individual states would be dissolved under the weight of what would eventually become Washington, DC. Unfortunately, both he and his fellow writers seemed to discount that possibility to a great degree. Some of their predictions regarding federal power were truly laughable. For one of the most egregious examples, I would remind you of the prognostications of Madison in Federalist 45 when he sought to calm the fears of citizens over the collection of taxes. (Some emphasis added)
It is true, that the Confederacy is to possess, and may exercise, the power of collecting internal as well as external taxes throughout the States; but it is probable that this power will not be resorted to, except for supplemental purposes of revenue; that an option will then be given to the States to supply their quotas by previous collections of their own; and that the eventual collection, under the immediate authority of the Union, will generally be made by the officers, and according to the rules, appointed by the several States. Indeed it is extremely probable, that in other instances, particularly in the organization of the judicial power, the officers of the States will be clothed with the correspondent authority of the Union.
Should it happen, however, that separate collectors of internal revenue should be appointed under the federal government, the influence of the whole number would not bear a comparison with that of the multitude of State officers in the opposite scale.
Not to put too sharp of a point on it, but… how wrong can one person be?
The entire point of this exercise today is to serve as a simple reminder. We have to remain vigilant regarding threats from abroad or even domestic terrorists. But at the same time, Jefferson’s worries about too much power in a central, federal government were probably more predictive than the pro-federalist writings of some of his contemporaries. Yet somehow they managed to get the job done and create what eventually became the greatest nation on Earth. Given the squabbling that was going on regarding these questions during the birth of the nation, it’s rather remarkable.
But they built it. Recall that Benjamin Franklin was once asked if they had given us a monarchy or a republic. He answered, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Let’s be sure that we do. Happy Independence Day.