Reading Project

Federalist Paper No.8

The Consequences of Hostilities Between The States

Tuesday, November 20, 1787

Alexander Hamilton


When the Federalist Papers were written America faced potential threat from foreign powers, as well as internal division. The anti-Federalist position was to refuse to ratify the new Constitution, preferring to uphold the sovereignty of State governments. A key anti-Federalist argument was that a strong federal government would be an impediment to liberty.


In this paper, Hamilton systematically deconstructs this belief. By assuming that conflict between States is inevitable without a federal system. Based upon the arguments of his previous papers, he convincingly argues that not only would States be less secure, but the protection of State sovereignty would threaten the rights of citizens and their liberty.


This paper is interesting for its applicability to the modern world. While America faced the potential threat of foreign aggression in Hamilton’s time, modern America and the world now face the threat of terrorism. And while terrorist organisations are not powerful enough to mount a military attack upon America, at least using the conventional means hitherto employed, they can nevertheless still mount attacks upon American soil, as shown by the 1993 and 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre. The result of this has been that various laws have been enacted to meet this threat. Donald Trump’s restriction of visas to people from many Muslim-majority nations is one example. In Australia there has recently been a debate about new laws to curb the dissemination of information deemed important to national security. However, concern has been raised that these laws could lead to the imprisonment of journalists who are legitimately doing their job, and therefore effect a serious erosion of free speech.

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.
- Alexander Hamilton


The parallel with Hamilton’s argument lies in the importance Hamilton places upon the level of threat against a nation. A nation geographically isolated may enjoy a much-reduced threat of attack. Hamilton cites England’s physical separation from Europe as a key to its power, its constitution and freedoms. A State forced to continually defend its borders necessarily elevates the importance of its military in relation to civil society. Countries on the European continent, therefore, have a long history of conflict with one another.


According to Hamilton, this creates two distinct situations. A country like England can focus its defence exterior to its territory. England’s powerful navy in this period is evidence of that. Countries like those on the continent, however, must invest in standing armies to protect their citizenry from sudden attacks. England has the luxury of having the time to mobilise an army and militias to protect its own soil, since a sudden attack is not possible.


Hamilton uses England’s situation as a metaphor for the Union under the new Constitution, while continental Europe is a metaphor for the anti-Federalist model.


First, Hamilton argues that while conflict may exist under any model, conflict will be more devastating in an America with separate States. A state system may lead to military conflict, and given that America has States of various populations, strengths and wealth, the system would encourage predation. Also, the effects of any conflict would be more severe, since America has not the long history of Europe, which has, over time, come to a balance in power between its States, and has a system of fortifications to maintain the status quo.


Second, given the States’ geographical proximity, they would require standing armies akin to continental Europe. This would not only force States to arm themselves against the possibility of threat – to reinstate themselves in their lost preeminence (a kind of arms race) – but would change the very social values States sought to protect. Rather than preserving liberty, Hamilton argues that a standing army on State soil enhances the importance of the soldier, and proportionably degrades the condition of the citizen. The military state becomes elevated above the civil … the people are brought to consider the soldiery not only as their protectors, but as their superiors.


In short, the new Constitution offers America an opportunity for the greatness and security Britain enjoys, while protecting the rights of citizens. The anti-Federalist proposal would make States less secure, place their values under threat, while any conflict would be more extreme than those suffered by Europe with its long history and defensive fortifications.


What makes this paper more interesting is the notion of borders. Trump’s attempts to close borders (the proposed Mexican wall and the restriction of visas, for instance) tacitly demonstrate the veracity of Hamilton’s argument: that a defence mounted on home soil will lead to the impediment of the rights of the citizens, which is the strength of terrorists, given their military inferiority.

15 February 2018

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