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Antiquity in "The Federalist Papers"

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Politik - Internationale Politik - Region: USA



Antiquity in The Federalist Papers

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Antiquity in The Federalist Papers

The significance of antiquity, and of examples drawn from antiquity, during the American founding era is contested among scholars. While Hannah Arendt asserted that without the classical example the American revolutionaries, ''conscious of emulating ancient virtue,'' would not have had the courage to rebel, Bernard Bailyn famously suggested that frequent references to antiquity were merely ''illustrative, not determinative'' of revolutionary thought.[1] As familiarity with antiquity was evident during the Revolutionary War,[2] it is less clear what role it played in the construction of the new American regime under the constitution of 1787, a time during which not virtuous warfare but positive political philosophy was called for. Hence, a thorough examination of The Federalist shall serve to illuminate the extent to which the founding generation's political science was inspired by ancient precedent, resulting in the conclusion that examples drawn from antiquity did not supersede those drawn from other periods in human history, and that therefore no unique or special status can be ascribed to antiquity in this context.

In the first place, the pseudonym ''Publius'' that the authors of The Federalist, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, use is derived from Roman history and to an audience ''steeped in the classics'' easily recognizable as referring to Publius Valerius Publicola, who was one of the founders of the Roman Republic.[3] The widespread use of classical pseudonyms, predominantly from the Roman period, in American revolutionary publications is a custom going back to seventeenth-century English Whig literature.[4] After the American Revolution, according to Eran Shalev, ''antiquity was helpful in the process of constructing viable republican identities and as a means of envisioning the infant republic on a continuum of a republican tradition.''[5] The practice was not limited to a particular political group; Federalists and Anti-Federalists alike hid behind ancient masks. While the former displayed an understandable tendency to choose pseudonyms that reflected their advocacy of a strong national government, such as Caesar and Mark Anthony, the latter selected names more in line with their uncompromisingly republican cause, such as Cato and Brutus.[6] This passion for the past is not surprising, given the fact that American (higher) education from its inception in the 17th until well into the 19th century was heavily based on the study of classical languages and literature.[7] With respect to The Federalist, Shalev writes that ''[t]he mere name of Publius enriched the arguments presented in the essays with supplementary contexts, illuminated meanings and goals. It served to entrench the notion of republican virtue within the classical allusions deployed throughout the essays. . . . The fact that each essay was signed by 'Publius' (the 'text') supplemented the constitutional arguments (the 'context') because of classical allusions and appeals to ancient history (the 'hypertext'). What became known as The Federalist Papers thus were [sic] defined by the conspicuously false pretence of having been written by the founder of the Roman republic.''[8]

Secondly, the understanding of human nature in The Federalist comes into view. The authors of the work make it very clear that they believe human nature to be problematic but nevertheless capable of self-government. Significantly, Hamilton also wrote of ''the uniform course of human events'' in the sixth Federalist.[9] This interpretation of human nature as essentially unchanging allows Publius to invoke historical examples to support his case to begin with. After all, only if human nature is unchanging can the experience from different times be related to the present. Moreover it is worth noting that the understanding of human nature in The Federalist overlaps to an uncanny degree with the classical understanding. When the Athenian historian Thucydides wrote about ''an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the understanding of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble it if it does not reflect it,'' he uses a formulation similar to that by Hamilton quoted above.[10] In this light the invocation of historical examples that pervade the heavily empirical political philosophy of The Federalist serves as an importation of political lessons from different, but relatable, eras of human events. This approach was anchored in the Scottish enlightenment and is illuminated by David Hume's statement ''that there is a great uniformity among the actions of men in all nations and ages, and that human nature remains still the same, in its principles and operations. The same motives always produce the same actions; the same events follow from the same causes. . . . Would you know the sentiments, inclinations, and course of life of the Greeks and Romans? Study well the temper and actions of the French and English . . .''[11]

The first main object coming into view in The Federalist is the utility and desirability of union among the American states. Before the discussion of how this union is only imperfectly achieved by the contemporary national government under the Articles of Confederation is begun, the advantages of union are presented by Publius on their own merits. In the fourth Federalist, John Jay, in a reflection of the aforementioned enlightenment view of history, warned of potential and ''natural'' jealousies and mutual hostilities that would haunt the states in the absence of union: ''The history of the states of Greece, and of other countries, abound with such instances, and it is not improbable that what has so often happened, would, under similar circumstances happen again.''[12] The utility of the historical dimension is aptly described in the following Federalist, in which Alexander Hamilton, discussing the British example, remarked that ''[w]e may profit by their experience, without paying the price which it cost them.''[13]

The sixth Federalist, devoted to discussing the numerous causes of war, draws upon the example of a great Athenian statesman, ''[t]he celebrated Pericles,'' to demonstrate that even this great man was not immune to the various natural causes of conflict and faction.[14] Warning not to ignore ''the accumulated experience of ages,'' Hamilton wrote that Pericles, through corruption and the pursuit of petty, private interests, caused the Peloponnesian War, which in turn ''terminated in the ruin of the Athenian commonwealth.''[15] He also points to Athens and Carthage as examples of commercial republics, which were no less prone to warfare than their non-republican counterparts, while Sparta, a non-commercial state, was ''little better than a well regulated camp; and Rome was never sated of carnage and conquest.''[16] In proving his point, namely that America was not and would not be exempt from the various causes of war and thereby would not be exceptional at least in this respect, Hamilton also proved that the ancient examples are not exceptional. In fact, in the same paper he also pointed to experience drawn from English and French history. The standard being the utility of the examples in illuminating the argument, antiquity plays no special or unique role and is to be understood as a reservoir of experience equal to those from other eras.

Significantly, in the eight Federalist, Hamilton specifically distinguished the situation contemporary Americans found themselves in from the world of the ancient Greek republics. The latter promoted ''a nation of soldiers,'' while the former might be in need of standing armies: ''The means of revenue, which have been so greatly multiplied by the increase of gold and silver, and the arts of industry, and the science of finance, which is the offspring of modern times, concurring with the habits of nations, have produced an entire revolution in the system of war, and have rendered disciplined armies, distinct from the body of the citizens, the inseparable companion of frequent hostility.''[17] Far from betraying a historicist view, this statement can be read as a recognition not of changing human nature but of the changing circumstances into which human nature is cast. In this respect, specialization and technology provide for a clear line of separation between modernity and antiquity. At least in the case of standing armies, the ancient example is therefore rendered meaningless and cannot be consulted. Indeed, Hamilton only brought up Greece in anticipation of an objection his detractors might draw from the absence of standing armies in the ancient republics.[18]

Similarly, Hamilton in Federalist nine drew a distinction between the ''science of politics,'' which has made its ''principal progress towards perfection in modern times,'' and, on the other hand, the ''petty republics of Greece and Italy'' to whom the principles of the separation of powers, representation, legislative checks and balances, and an independent judiciary were ''imperfectly known;'' they therefore ''kept perpetually vibrating between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy'' and were ''overwhelmed by the tempestuous waves of sedition and party rage.''[19] This harsh judgment, condescension even, of ancient political science powerfully illuminates the role of antiquity in the argument of The Federalist: Ancient history provides only precedents to learn from, not examples to be emulated. This tendency—which one might call scientific historicism—to superordinate modernity is limited to political science and did not extend, for example, to the moral domain. However, it is also a crucial testimony to the spirit of innovation in The Federalist. Characteristic of this spirit is the peculiar absence of Greek philosophy from the papers; Aristotle is never mentioned, Plato only once, and in a disparaging manner.[20] This is despite the fact that the Founders were intimately acquainted with, and affirmative of, the classics.[21] Thus ancient history, rather than philosophy, informs Publius' argument; practice, not theory; Plutarch, not Plato.

This view was taken up by James Madison in the famous tenth Federalist, in which he devised a republican remedy to the negative effects of (majority) faction. While not mentioning ancient precedents by name, his argument nevertheless seems to be informed to a certain degree by antiquity, in particular the Athenian democracy of the classical period, which fits his conclusion ''that a pure democracy, by which I mean, a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction.''[22] His admonition regarding the ''influence of factious leaders,'' who may ''kindle a flame within their particular states'' but not in the federal government, can certainly be seen in the light of Athenian demagogues such as the tanner Cleon, whom Thucydides called ''the most violent man at Athens, and at that time by far the most powerful with The People,'' and to whom he assigned an exceptionally gory speech in the Athenian assembly.[23] Thus, Athens provides a negative model for Publius, whose argument is based on the positive effects of the political principle of representation and therefore by definition separated from ancient practice, in which the principle was not holistically applied. This distinction is also reflected in Federalist 14, in which Madison accused his detractors of confusing ''the turbulent democracies of ancient Greece, and modern Italy'' with the republican mode of government proposed for the united American states.[24]

Once the inadequacy of the Articles of Confederation comes into view, Hamilton in Federalist 16, arguing for the ability of the proposed federal government to extend its authority to individual citizens rather than have to rely on intermediate action by the states in their collective capacities, pointed to the examples of the Lycian and Achaean confederacies, which have come closest to the advocated principle and thereby ''were accordingly those which have best deserved, and have most liberally received, the applauding suffrages of political writers.''[25] It is noteworthy that Hamilton in this paper was content with pointing to these two examples of ''all the confederacies of antiquity which history has handed down to us;'' not giving any mention to examples from other historical periods. Far from suggesting a special role of antiquity, this has to be seen in the context of the organization of The Federalist, which reserves to individual papers individual historical examples: while no. 18 deals exclusively with Grecian examples, nos. 19 and 20 draw upon evidence from more recent periods, including the contemporary one. In fact, Hamilton even expressed irreverence toward the ancient attitude by comparing it to that of his detractors, who pursue a project ''little less romantic than the monster-taming spirit, attributed to the fabulous heroes and demi-gods of antiquity.''[26]

Federalist 18 is dedicated exclusively to the examination of the Amphyctionic and Achaean confederacies of ancient Greece. Madison described the former confederacy as analogous to the contemporary American constitution and asserted that, in theory, its powers ''exceed the powers enumerated in the articles of confederation.''[27] In practice, however, the stronger member states quickly outmaneuvered the weaker ones, since the confederacy was administered by deputies chosen by the member cities in their collective capacities; as a result, the Athenians, Spartans, and Thebans took turns in dominating the federal government, until internal faction caused members to ask Philip of Macedon to intervene, which he did by usurping the confederacy. Like Hamilton, Madison displayed a degree of depreciation by chiding the Greeks for having allowed themselves to become ''inflated with the victories and the glory they had acquired'' in the Persian Wars and for not having followed the ''obvious policy'' of pursuing reformation immediately thereafter.[28] In this instance, Publius' critique of the ancients leaves the realm of the merely political and extends to that of the moral, further eroding the shaky ground on which antiquity stands in The Federalist.

Madison briefly returned to this view in number 43, quoting Montesquieu, the preferred authority of the Anti-Federalists, to show that ''Greece was undone . . . as soon as the king of Macedon obtained a seat among the Amphyctions.''[29] Madison in this instance was content to add that ''the disproportionate force, as well as the monarchical form of the new confederate, had its share of influence on the events.''[30] Significantly, and perhaps more characteristically, Madison in Federalist 47 compared the Anti-Federalists' obsession with Montesquieu to the poets' obsession with the Greek poet Homer: ''As the latter [writers of epic poetry] have considered the work of the immortal bard, as the perfect model from which the principles and rules of the epic art were to be drawn, and by which all similar works were to be judged: so this great political critic appears to have viewed the constitution of England as the standard, or to use his own expression, as the mirror of political liberty.''[31] Surely, to compare Homer to the object of his detractors' excessive flattery can hardly be seen as an attempt by Madison to praise the ancient poet. Madison here made it clear that, at least in the context of the Federalist cause, his reverence for the classics is not necessarily deeper than that for Anti-Federalist idiosyncrasies.

The next object in Federalist 18 is the Achaean confederacy, which Madison granted limited praise on account of its ability to enforce its general authority as well as legislative conformity among its member cities. It was therefore more just and moderate and of longer duration than the Amphyctionic confederacy. Still, even the Achaean league was eventually destroyed by the same pattern of internal discord and, as a result, external interference, this time by Rome, which, at other times being attested the character of a positive model for the American republic, for example in its institution of a senate, at this point was portrayed by Madison as tearing into pieces ''the last hope of ancient liberty.''[32] Remarkably, Madison asserted that the Achaean league, not exempt from the pattern which brought down its Amphyctionic counterpart, ''by no means equally deserved it;'' thus, he rendered a judgment of the ancients by modern standards, a reflection of the superiority of contemporary political science invoked in Federalist 9.


[1] Arendt, Hannah, On Revolution, (New York: Viking, 1963), 197; Bailyn, Bernard, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, enl. ed., (Harvard Univ. Press, 1992), 26.

[2] Characteristically, George Washington had the early-eighteenth-century play ''Cato'' by Jospeh Addison staged at Valley Forge. According to Bailyn, ''[k]nowledge of classical authors was universal among colonists with any degree of education, and references to them and their works abound in the literature.'' Origins, 23f.

[3] Rahe, Paul A., Republics Ancient and Modern: Classical Republicanism and the American Revolution, (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1992), 571. Accounts of the life of Publius are available from Livy and Plutarch.

[4] Shalev, Eran, ''Ancient Masks, American Fathers: Classical Pseudonyms during the American Revolution and Early Republic,'' in Journal of the Early Republic, Vol. 23, No. 2 (Summer, 2003), 151-172, here 154f.

[5] Ibid., 163. See also Hanses, Mathias, ''Antikebilder im 'Federalist'/'Anti-Federalist','' in Ulrich Niggemann and Kai Ruffing, eds., Antike als Modell in Nordamerika?, Historische Zeitschrift, supplement 55, (Munich: Oldenbourg, 2011), 85-110, esp 97.

[6] Shalev, 164.

[7] Burstein, Stanley M., ''The Classics and the American Republic,'' in The History Teacher, Vol. 30, No.1 (Nov. 1996), 29-44, here 30.

[8] Shalev, 167f.

[9] Carey, George W., and James McClellan, eds., The Federalist. The Gideon Edition, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2001), 21. All quotations and page numbers are taken from this edition, which I shall henceforth refer to as The Federalist. For Hamilton's view of human nature, see also Rosano, Michael J., ''Liberty, Philanthropy, and Power in Alexander Hamilton's Conception of Human Nature,'' in American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 47, No. 1 (Jan., 2003), 61-74.

[10] Thuc. 1.22.4. All Thucydides translations from Strassler, Robert B., ed., The Landmark Thucydides (New York: Free Press 2008).

[11] Quoted and discussed in Adair, Douglass, '''That Politics May Be Reduced to a Science.' David Hume, James Madison, and the Tenth Federalist,'' in Trevor Colbourn, ed., Fame and the Founding Fathers. Essays by Douglass Adair, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998), 132-51, here 135.

[12] The Federalist, 16.

[13] Ibid., 18.

[14] Ibid., 21.

[15] Ibid., 22.

[16] Ibid., 24.

[17] Ibid., 34.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 37f. On the almost perpetual state of war in ancient Greece, see Rahe, Paul A., ''The Peace of Nicias,'' in Williamson Murray and Jim Lacey, eds., The Making of Peace. Rulers, States, and the Aftermath of War, (Cambridge University Press, 2008), 31-69, here 31f.

[20] Ibid., 262.

[21] Cf. MacKendrick, Paul, '''This Rich Source of Delight': The Classics and the Founding Fathers,'' in The Classical Journal, Vol. 72, No. 2 (Dec., 1976 – Jan., 1977), 97-106.

[22] The Federalist, 46.

[23] Ibid., 48; Thuc. 3.36.6, Cleon's speech at 3.37-40. It has been argued that Thucydides is responsible for the fairly negative view Americans at this time held of the Athenian democracy; see Heun, Werner, ''Die Antike in den amerikanischen politischen Debatten in der zweiten Hälfte des 18. Jahrhunderts,'' in Ulrich Niggemann and Kai Ruffing, eds., Antike als Modell in Nordamerika?, Historische Zeitschrift, supplement 55, (Munich: Oldenbourg, 2011), 65-83, here 71. The Anti-Federalists' view of Athens was much more positive; see Hanses, 103.

[24] The Federalist, 63.

[25] Ibid., 75.

[26] Ibid., 78. It should be noted that Alexander Hamilton once wrote that ''it is ridiculous to seek for models in the simple ages of Greece and Rome, as it would be to go in quest of them among the Hottentots and Laplanders.'' He also declared the new American constitutional order to be a ''system without precedent, ancient or modern.'' Quoted in Heun, 70.

[27] The Federalist., 85.

[28] Ibid., 86.

[29] Montesquieu, quoted in ibid., 225. It is noteworthy that Madison and Hamilton misunderstood the nature of the Amphyctionic confederacy, for which they are chided by Hanses, 109f.

[30] The Federalist, 225.

[31] Ibid., 250.

[32] Ibid., 89.


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The Federalist The Federalist Papers Classics Antiquity Antike Politik Politics Founding Fathers Publius Madison Hamilton Jay Federalism Athens Rome USA America American Politics Constitution 1787 1788 Constitutional Convention




Titel: Antiquity in "The Federalist Papers"