Monday, November 17, 2008

The Chords of Affection: Federalist 14

James Madison easily disposes of the main item on his agenda for Federalist 14: to counter the argument that the territory covered by the United States (from New England to Georgia, from the Atlantic seaboard to the Mississippi River) was too extensive to be united under a single central government. That argument, based upon a study of ancient democracies and a reading of Montesquieu, was expressed, for example, by the Antifederalist governor of New York, George Clinton, who wrote:
[W]hoever seriously considers the immense extent of territory comprehended within the limits of the United States, together with the variety of its climates, productions, and commerce, the difference of extent, and number of inhabitants in all; the dissimilitude of interest, morals, and politics, in almost every one, will receive it as an intuitive truth, that a consolidated republican form of government therein, can never form a perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to you and your posterity...
Madison answers this objection by pointing out that the American form of government will be republican, not democratic. That is, it will not be necessary for every citizen to gather to form the government, as in the small democracy of ancient Athens; it will only be necessary for the representatives of the people to come together. This can easily be accomplished, even in a large country; indeed, it had been accomplished throughout the Revolution by the Continental Congress.

The more interesting part of Federalist 14 is Madison's peroration on union, which finds famous echoes in Lincoln's First Inaugural Address. But first, here is the Antifederalist argument, again made by George Clinton, to which Madison was responding:
It may be suggested, in answer to this, that whoever is a citizen of one state is a citizen of each, and that therefore he will be as interested in the happiness and interest of all, as the one he is delegated from. But the argument is fallacious, and, whoever has attended to the history of mankind, and the principles which bind them together as parents, citizens, or men, will readily perceive it. These principles are, in their exercise, like a pebble cast on the calm surface of a river -- the circles begin in the center, and are small, active and forcible, but as they depart from that point, they lose their force, and vanish into calmness.

The strongest principle of union resides within our domestic walls. The ties of the parent exceed that of any other. As we depart from home, the next general principle of union is amongst citizens of the same state, where acquaintance, habits, and fortunes, nourish affection, and attachment. Enlarge the circle still further, and, as citizens of different states, though we acknowledge the same national denomination, we lose in the ties of acquaintance, habits, and fortunes, and thus by degrees we lessen in our attachments, till, at length, we no more than acknowledge a sameness of species.
Clinton, in other words, argues that distance, rather than making the heart grow fonder, loosens the ties between people. He can see no reason why inhabitants of New Hampshire and inhabitants of Georgia should feel any attachment toward one another.

Madison replies with his warmest rhetoric to Clinton's "unnatural voice":
Hearken not to the unnatural voice which tells you that the people of America, knit together as they are by so many chords of affection, can no longer live together as members of the same family; can no longer continue the mutual guardians of their mutual happiness; can no longer be fellow citizens of one great, respectable, and flourishing empire.
Lincoln famously echoes these words in the First Inaugural Address when he declares:
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched , as they surely will be, by the better angels of our nature.
Madison, meanwhile, goes on to make a clear statement of "American exceptionalism," arguing against those who think that, because America is embarking on an entirely unprecedented experiment in national government, it is doomed to failure:
Hearken not to the voice which petulantly tells you that the form of government recommended for your adoption is a novelty in the political world; that it has never yet had a place in the theories of the wildest projectors; that it rashly attempts what it is impossible to accomplish. No, my countrymen, shut your ears against this unhallowed language. Shut your hearts against the poison which it conveys; the kindred blood which flows in the veins of American citizens, the mingled blood which they have shed in defense of their sacred rights, consecrate their Union, and excite horror at the idea of their becoming aliens, rivals, enemies. And if novelties are to be shunned, believe me, the most alarming of all novelties, the most wild of all projects, the most rash of all attempts, is that of rendering us in pieces, in order to preserve our liberties and promote our happiness.
Again, Lincoln's ear, both in the First Inaugural and the Gettysburg Address, seemed particularly attuned to Madison's language in Federalist 14 in its stirring and emotional defense of the principle of Union. The history of the United States has been a long struggle to enlarge and perfect that principle of national kinship that both Madison and Lincoln so eloquently proclaimed.

1 comment:

Jim H. said...

With Governor Clinton, I sometimes wonder whether I have anything at all in common with, say, the wealthy yacht-owners at Santa Monica Pier or Kennebunkport. Or with the south Georgia tenant farmer who supplements his income trapping muskrats. Or with a snowmobile racer in Alaska.

But Madison was right, of course. The regional differences that Clinton thought were a barrier are instead a strength -- because we can see past them to larger interests, more fundamental truths.

Thanks for this series, Rob.

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .