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This blog is on hiatus. Turns out The Federalist is a little too repetitive to provide fresh material every Monday. Currently evaluating my options for a new, broader politics blog. Check back in a few weeks!

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11 “Wanton Intermeddlings”

11: “Wanton Intermeddlings…”

The Federalist 11: The Utility of the Union in Respect to Commercial Relations and a Navy. First published November 24, 1787. Author Alexander Hamilton. Please see Introducing the American Bible for an introduction to this project.


Hamilton continues a theme begun by Jay in Federalist 4, and continued in Federalist 5 and by Hamilton himself in 6: If America is divided, it simply will not last.

While Hamilton begins his discussion with trade, this is not his primary focus. He begins with a bit of praise for his readers—Americans are so industrious and clever, he says, that they are bound to excite the envy of other countries. But if united Americans will grow ever-richer, a divided country will be so poor that we will be easy pickings.

So if either course is dangerous, how are we to choose? The reader soon discovers that Hamilton is offering a false balance. Disunion is far worse: it would “see the profits of our trade snatched from us, to enrich our enemies and persecutors.”

He does not make a mystery of who these “persecutors” would be: the European empires. Spain, he notes, has her eyes on the Mississippi river; France and Britain envy our fisheries (and, even more importantly, the shipping routes that cross them!). Even the Dutch come in for a sideways jab, though only because Hamilton believes their price gouging might turn the British against us (See footnote; it’s complicated[1])

Ben Franklin's classic cartoon summarizes Publius's message best

Ben Franklin’s classic cartoon summarizes Publius’s message best

Hamilton writes that these three great imperial powers—Britain, France, and Spain—must surely be eyeing the new republic nervously. A divided America they could parcel up and use themselves: Britain had already done it once, and the 13 states were each small, underpopulated, and certainly under-defended. Hamilton looks across the world and counts four continents:

Unhappily for the other three, Europe, by her arms and by her negotiations, by force and by fraud, has […] extended her dominion over them all. Africa, Asia, and America, have successively felt her domination. The superiority she has long maintained has tempted her to plume herself as the Mistress of the World, and to consider the rest of mankind as created for her benefit.[2]

America’s commercial prowess will not be enough to protect it—indeed, it might simply make America a more tempting target. No, Hamilton says America can prosper only by uniting that wealth in a single republic, and thus turn that wealth into influence, in the form of a navy.

Hamilton devotes a bizarrely extended paragraph to describing how different sections of the country can supply different key ingredients for that navy: the South the raw ingredients of “tar, pitch, and turpentine” as well as wood that is of a “more solid and lasting texture” than Northern forests could provide. The middle states are tasked with yielding “a greater plenty of iron,” and finally the “seamen must chiefly be drawn from the Northern hive”.

Hamilton’s suspicion of other countries is quite striking; as I have written before, we are lucky to live in an era when we need no longer fear that France or Britain will soon stab us in the back.

Obama addresses the nation, touching on many of the same themes with which Hamilton ends Federalist 11

Obama addresses the nation, touching on many of the same themes with which Hamilton ends Federalist 11

Yet Hamilton is not all darkness and fear. In classically American fashion, he concludes with the hope that America will be an example and guardian to the rest of the world. By arming ourselves against European despots, he writes, Americans can build

One great American system, superior to the control of all transatlantic force or influence, and able to dictate the terms of the connection between the old and the new world!

This was the same American dream Barack Obama invoked in his Inaugural Speech today. They’re the same values many presidents have called out from Washington to Lincoln to Roosevelt, Kennedy, or Reagan: America’s values, its wealth, and yes its might, allow us to lead the world to a brighter future. On a day of inaugural dreams, may it ever be so.


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  1. It’s an argument almost as complicated as it sounds. But in brief, Hamilton is attempting to counter his opponents’ argument that Britain would never get frustrated if America blocked British ships from trading in U.S. ports. These anti-federalists apparently suggested that the Dutch could perform business on behalf of the British, and so relieve any tension that might result. Hamilton says that Britain would still be angry, because the “principal part of its profits [would] be intercepted by the Dutch”.  ↩

  2. Emphasis added.  ↩

10B: “To Break and Control”

10B: “To Break and Control…”

The Federalist 10: The Same Subject Continued: The Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection. First published November 22, 1787. Author James Madison. Please see Introducing the American Bible for an introduction to this project.


This post is a part two of my post on Federalist 10, widely-considered one of the most important Federalist Papers. 10A, on Monday, summarized Madison’s argument that a large republic is the best way of avoiding factional division.


Who doesn’t hate political parties? The Democrats and Republicans are hardly popular; if they were, I would be able to walk through downtown Portland without being harassed by petition-signers seeking my help enabling third party or nonpartisan candidates. Meanwhile, the number of Americans identifying as independent hit an all-time high in Gallup’s 2012 poll. A full 40% of Americans now consider themselves independents.

A record number of Americans now call themselves independents.

A record number of Americans now call themselves independents.

If you look to Publius for sympathy, I have good news: Madison (author of Federalist 10) hates parties too! Much of Federalist 10 is devoted to explaining their dangers. The other half explains how America’s new constitution will, thankfully, prevent the formation of permanent political parties.

Wait. Hold on a minute? The Constitution was supposed to have done what?

On this one, it seems, Madison could not have been more wrong. America was a divided country in his own time, after all: the Federalist Papers had their Anti-Federalist Papers. These factions weren’t labelled for the nation’s first few years, but were beginning to solidify behind the scenes.

XKCD infographic illustrating the partisan history of the US Congress (license: CC BY-NC)

XKCD infographic illustrating the partisan history of the US Congress (license: CC BY-NC)

Soon enough, Congress split into Democratic-Republicans and Federalists. Indeed, two of Publius’s three authors were to lead the rival parties!—Madison headed the Democratic-Republicans; and Hamilton the Federalists. They were succeeded by Democrats and Whigs, and from 1854 by those most-familiar names: Democrats and Republicans (see the fantastic xkcd US Congress infographic, pictured, for much more info).

For over 150 years, America has been governed by the same two parties. Clearly Madison was wrong in believing a large republic would prevent the formation of permanent factions. While the parties’ beliefs have shifted, their leadership has remained broadly continuous.

So, the power of faction ultimately proved too much for Publius’s hopes. We must then ask the next question: Was Publius right about the dangers of faction? And if he was, did the US Constitution manage to restrain those dangers?

The answer is no, and once upon a time. I realize independence from parties is a cherished American ideal: None of us, even the most partisan, likes the idea of submitting his identity to some label. But it is not parties that are the problem.

Plenty of countrie have parties that are far more ideological and far more powerful than their American counterparts. Britain is the classic example: In the British parliamentary system, the party determines whether a candidate rises or falls. Politicians live their lives inside the parties, and once they work their way into parliament they are expected to vote their party line. It’s politician as expression of the party’s will.

Madison, author of today's Federalist, who later lead one of the political factions he so despises in Federalist 10.

Madison, author of today’s Federalist, who later lead one of the political factions he so despises in Federalist 10.

Yet British democracy seems to work reasonably well; at any rate, Brits are able to make tough policy decisions when they have to, unlike us Americans. Americans have punted on deficit-fixing plans for decades. Britain’s 2010 coalition government implemented a radical plan to cut the deficit, at great cost to social services, education, and tax rates. Nor was austerity Britons’ only hard choice—her current government is an uneasy coalition of Liberals and Conservatives, a measure every bit as radical as it sounds.

The problem these days is not the party, not faction. It is us, of course, but it is also the system that Publius and his colleagues gave us.

In Federalist 10, Madison discusses how to prevent dangerous actions by an oppressive faction. But he sidesteps, in Fed 10 at least, the risks of dangerous _in_action. And it is dangerous _in_action that has come to govern modern American politics—particularly the politics of the right, though Democrats must come in for some blame too.

Hamilton, major contributor to The Federalist Papers, and leader of the Federalist party.

Hamilton, major contributor to The Federalist Papers, and leader of the Federalist party.

Doubtless, Madison foresaw that inaction carries risks. But he and his colleagues decided that an efficient, active government was more risky than a slow, inactive one. The Founders designed our government not to do very much very easily: look at the three branches of a divided government, all checking and balancing one another. It was a system designed to delay action.

This system has now broken down. It has become the tool of the very factions Madison despised. The debt ceiling debacle has dragged on for almost two years, almost certainly because a divided government means the Senate, House, and President are almost certain never to agree on anything of substance. Meanwhile, the economy and millions of ordinary Americans are constantly teetering on the brink of disaster, unsure when the nightmare will end.

It is time, in fact, to consider changing the system Madison and his colleagues gave us. Small proposals might help: Redistricting reform, for instance, to force congresspeople to fight for reelection, instead of coasting to victory inside partisan fortresses. Slightly more radical proposals would alter small constitutional bits: The Economist’s S.M. has proposed extending a Representative’s term from two to four years.

This 200-year-old cartoon demonstrates that gerrymandering—creating bizarre electoral districts to ensure partisan control—has blighted American politics for a long time.

This 200-year-old cartoon demonstrates that gerrymandering—creating bizarre electoral districts to ensure partisan control—has blighted American politics for a long time.

Personally, I’m ready to consider more radical changes. Britain and many other European countries are able to make tough policy decisions because their governments are not as divided as ours is: An elected government in Britain can simply change laws, and there’s not much the opposition can do about it. If the voters don’t like it… Well, they can always throw the bums out.

I think I’d like to try having a government that can make exciting mistakes, don’t you? A government that can cut entitlement spending, or restrict gun access, or massively expand charter schools? Sure, mistakes would happen. But right now, a few mistakes seem a hell of a lot better than American super-paralysis.


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10A: “The Violence of Faction”

10A: “The Violence of Faction…”

The Federalist 10: The Same Subject Continued: The Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection. First published November 22, 1787. Author James Madison. Please see Introducing the American Bible for an introduction to this project.

Federalist 10 may be the most important of all the Federalist Papers. Certainly it is considered the most original: In Federalist 10, Madison attacks the ancient belief that smaller governments are always better, and instead makes the novel argument that a bigger republic[1] is a more stable one. This is somewhat radical even in our own day; in Madison’s time, it went against all received wisdom.

Given Federalist 10’s importance, and in honour of Publius 225’s 10th Paper[2], I’ve decided to devote two days to it. Today, I’ll present a brief summary of Federalist 10. Of all the papers discussed so far, it is the one most worth knowing first hand. Any student of American politics ought to add it to her repertoire. In the follow-up, I posted the sort of analysis I usually post on Mondays.


The Pnyx Hill, site of the Athenian Assembly, the heart of ancient democracy (Source: Wikimedia, user Qwqchris)

The Pnyx Hill, site of the Athenian Assembly, the heart of ancient democracy (Source: Wikimedia, user Qwqchris)

Madison’s subject today is faction. By faction, he means something like “political party”. He includes any group of citizens “who are united.. by some common impulse… adverse to the rights of other citizens”. Madison seems to simply expect that any group of citizens who form a unified front will, someday, misuse that power.

This is the first key takeaway from Federalist 10: Madison believed parties were dangerous. Nowhere in Federalist 10 will you find a good word about factions. Every interest group is potentially compromised, every ideal tainted.

Yet even has he despises faction, he also recognizes its inevitability. The problem is simply human nature:

As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed.

We could attempt to attack this tendency at the root; but only at a horrible price: We could eliminate liberty, for “liberty is to faction what air is to fire”. So wherever liberty exists, faction follows. This is not simply because our fellow citizens are wicked or stupid (or both). Instead, the natural differences in our capabilities is itself enough to generate disagreement. A smarter investor makes more money, as does the stronger athlete. The rich man will disagree with the poor, and the dreaded_faction_ will result.

All this, of course, ignores the thousand other ways people divide against each other: Madison notes the “zeal for different opinions” in matters of religion and government. Any reader can, of course, supply a dozen other hot-button issues.

So we are divided. Division is dangerous because one faction will oppress the other: peasants against landowners; Protestants against Catholics; whites against blacks (this last, of course, Madison was blind to). This oppression is a crime against liberty, of course; but Madison also thinks it will compromise the very stability oppressors are often trying to protect.

Madison notes that divided democracies end unhappily: They “have in general been as short in their lives, as they have been violent in their deaths.” As John Jay wrote in Federalist 5, America has as many divisions as the next country. So, how can we avoid a similar fate?

Here Madison introduces a new thesis in political philosophy: Bigger is better.

Bigger is better largely because it is harder for individual voices to be heard. A large republic—and already some Americans saw America’s westward destiny would make it a very large republic—will make forming a faction a difficult enterprise. For every new representative in Congress, a new set of competing interests is brought to the table. Madison hoped to make forming permanent factions impossible, as coalitions constantly broke and re-formed in response to a new set of issues.

Just as important, national representatives are accountable to larger audiences. Where a state assemblyman might answer to just 57,000 people today[3] (and perhaps just a few thousand in Madison’s day), Senators and Representatives must answer to whole cities or states. Statewide politicians can’t be seen to favor any group too much—or, presumably, a new politician will come along and put together a “coalition of the oppressed”.

Gaius Gracchus, one of the Roman "tribunes of the people," whose appeals to the peoples' will disrupted the Roman republican system.

Gaius Gracchus, one of the Roman “tribunes of the people,” whose appeals to the peoples’ will disrupted the Roman republican system.

Madison also notes, in passing, that it’s “more difficult for unworthy candidates to practise with success the vicious arts” on a statewide scale. By this he presumably means vote-buying, intimidation, ballot box-stuffing, and all the other unpleasant things characteristic of a second-rate democracy. More citizens means more people to bribe.

A large republic, in fact, enjoys the same benefits over a small republic as a republic does over a “democracy”. The Founders were very afraid of democracy, by which they meant simple majority rule. Democracies were too easily swayed by gifted speakers; too likely to suddenly turn vicious and attack their own members; too changeable and unstable. Republicanism is a filter on the people; Madison argues that a large republic compounds the benefits of republicanism, by further isolating politicians from factions and populism.

With this clever comparison, Madison seals his argument. His contemporaries adored republics, and loathed democracies. If a large republic had the same virtues as republicanism itself—stability, respect for minorities, wise leadership—than America would be a large republic. Anything else would have been most imprudent.


In 10B

Was Madison right? Did America’s large republic “break and control the violence of faction”?


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  1. A brief note: Whenever I say “republican” or “democrat” with a small “r” or small “d”, I’m referring to the two styles of government (not the American political parties). A full comparison is beyond this article, but briefly: A “democracy” features direct rule by the people. Democratic citizens vote on their own laws, serve as their own legislative body, and change their minds as they please. In Ancient Athens, even the courts were a popular assembly. “Republics” elect representatives to make laws and run the government on their behalf. All modern “democracies” are actually republics. For reasons Madison outlines here, direct democracy has been out of style since ancient Athens.  ↩

  2. And, this honest keyboard-masher admits, a certain amount of writer’s block.  ↩

  3. The number of people per Oregon House District.  ↩

9: “Principal Progress Towards Perfection…”

9: “Principal Progress Towards Perfection…”[1]

The Federalist 9: The Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection. First published November 21, 1787. Author Alexander Hamilton. Please see Introducing the American Bible for an introduction to this project.

Any student of American politics—or, indeed, of this blog—is aware of America’s reverence for the Founding Fathers. Even the name conjures up a strong image: Good-hearted, wise, and paternal figures setting out a straight path for the idle generations that would follow them. American life may change quickly; but our devotion to the Founders seems to have only deepened in recent years.

This increase has been lopsided, however. While both the left and the right are careful to give their respects, there can be little doubt that the Republican party is the Founding Fathers’ more loyal child. At the very least, they are more vocal about it. Examples abound: Wikipedia links to five websites selling pocket Constitutions. Two of the five are nonpartisan; the rest are all conservative.

Then too, liberal judges traditionally base their decisions on a “living” Constitution. As the times change, so must the law. The Founding Fathers would not have objected to executing a murderer, even if the criminal had been 17 when they committed the crime. Yet in Roper v. Simmons, liberal justices led the Supreme Court to write that “evolving standards of decency” meant executing minors now violated the 8th Amendment.

Conservatives gave us originalism. Originalism looks to the “plain meaning” of the text first, and to its authors’ intent next. The authors in this case are, of course, the Founding Fathers. As Justice Scalia—originalism’s most eloquent fan—put it:

I don’t think it’s a living document, I think it’s dead. More precisely, I think it’s enduring. It doesn’t change. I think that needs to be orthodoxy.

America’s most right-wing party, the Constitution Party, also draws heavily on the myth of the Founders. Its 2012 platform is based on “the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the Bill Of Rights according to the original intent of the Founding Fathers”. Similar references to the Founders’ are scattered throughout its publications.

This is not merely respect for the Founders’ as men. Rather, it is a demand to adhere to their specific ideas and intent, not just their principles. This idea has become so ingrained that even liberals like Justice Kagan, nominated by President Obama, pay lip service to it. In her confirmation hearing she famously declared that “we are all originalists”.

But if our own era worships the Founders, who were they devoted to?

The looming giant in today’s Federalist is Montesquieu. Though little-read today (I confess I have not read him), he is remembered for his great contribution to American political theory: The separation of powers. America’s government is divided into three branches (led by the President, Congress, and the Courts), and two layers (the nation and the states). This careful balancing act originates in Montesquieu.

Today, Hamilton feels obliged to defend the Constitution against charges that it is, well, not very Montesquieuean. Hamilton’s critics said that Montesquieu favored small, confederate governments; the new Constitution, of course, created a large federal state. Interestingly, Hamilton does not respond by downplaying Montesquieu’s importance (as any oped columnist would today). Instead, his argument simply assumes that Montesquieu’s accuracy should be taken for granted.

The actual arguments Hamilton uses to navigate around Montesquieu are unimportant. What matters is what we have done with Montesquieu since Hamilton’s time. For we have not forgotten him, not exactly. Rather, we have ingested him. Montesquieu’s ideas are now found in every high school government class (generally repackaged as the Founders’ ideas). We have so internalized the spirit of Montesquieu that most of us no longer need to be devoted to his works (let alone to his person).

It is this process that originalists neglect. America is not in danger of forgetting the Founders. Rather, Americans have internalized their values; this is what liberals mean by a “living” Constitution. To be sure, this is not always straightforward. But as I have argued before, originalism is not always so straightforward either.

Montesquieu was not the only giant Hamilton credited. Many of the Papers, including today’s, honor the Greek and Roman republics so beloved of Enlightenment thinkers. Hamilton admires these republics, and admires their leaders still more. But he is not afraid to argue that

It is impossible to read the history of the petty Republics of Greece and Italy, without feeling sensations of horror and disgust, at the distractions with which they were continually agitated[2]

Hamilton wrote since the ancient republics “the science of politics… has received great improvement”. Montesquieu had made his contribution. Hamilton was beginning to make his own. The history of democracy is one of ever-increasing understanding, and ever-improving values.

Why should this “progress towards perfection” have ceased with the Founders?


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  1. Choosing this week’s title was exceptionally difficult. In addition to the crunchily alliterative gem above, Hamilton also offered “Jealous, Clashing, Tumultuous Commonwealths” and the exceptional “Wretched Nurseries of Unceasing Discord”. I had a very hard time turning down this second title, except that I could not force it to connect with my content.  ↩

  2. An unkind observer might note that the same may be true of today’s Republics of Greece and Italy.  ↩

8: “Engines of Despotism…”

8: “Engines of despotism…”

The Federalist 8: The Consequences of Hostilities Between the States. First published November 20, 1787. Author Alexander Hamilton. Please see Introducing the American Bible for an introduction to this project.

Twenty children died at Sandy Hook Elementary. Six staff members died with them; one, Vicki Soto, was shot while shielding her students with her body. She was all of 27 years old. Her life, like her students’ lives, had barely begun.

This was the fourth high-profile mass shooting my country suffered this year. 12 people died in a movie theater in July. Six more died just two weeks later in Wisconsin. They were at their temple; like all this year’s victims of mass murder, they were engaged in an activity perfectly ordinary and familiar. It is chilling to think America has become a place where a cinema, a house of worship, or an elementary school are places of fear. The NRA’s proposal to station armed guards at every school seems unlikely to make our children feel safe.

A scant four days before the Sandy Hook killings, my home state was visited with a senseless tragedy. Two people were killed at Clackamas Town Center, a shopping mall familiar to any Portlander. The shooter used a gun very similar to that used by Adam Lanza a few days later.

The M4A3, based on the same weapons platform wielded in the Newtown and Clackamas massacres. Photo credit: Ministry of Defence and Armed Forces of the Czech Republic

The M4A3, a sister weapon to the one wielded by Adam Lanza at Newtown

All this has, at last, returned our nation’s attention to gun control. America is peculiarly full of gun violence. David Hemenway has noted that an American child is 13 times more likely to be murdered by a gun then her OECD peers. Since our non-gun homicide rate is about the same, American children are about 3½ times more likely to die murder victims. American children are 8 times more likely to commit suicide by gun; once again, the non-gun rates are broadly similar. When I say children, I do mean children: These suicide victims are 5- to 14-year-olds, hardly a circumstance in which one can blame the victim.

Eliminating and reducing gun violence has been done by other countries, and the method is entirely straightforward: Eliminate and reduce guns. Japan essentially eliminated non-hunting guns in 1971, and the results have been astounding. PRI noted earlier this year that for every fifty Americans who die by accidental gun discharge, just one Japanese dies from a non-suicide-related gun death. Japan is a country of over 120 million people. Yet in 2006, just two Japanese were murdered by guns. Australia has similarly clamped down on gun access, with similarly encouraging results.

Yet even the most optimistic of liberal commentators would hardly dare to hope for such progress. The Constitution is the problem—or, rather, the Bill of Rights, and a certain conservative reading of the second amendment. This amendment is but a single sentence, yet it has spawned two very contrary interpretations:

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

One interpretation reads this as protecting gun rights, but only with a view to ensuring the health of a “well regulated militia” (a militia in this context being a citizens’ army, called up in times of need and disbanded afterwards). In the absence of such citizen militias, an individual’s right to bear arms can be restricted. And outside the militias, the Second Amendment does not create any “right to possess and use guns for nonmilitary purposes like hunting and personal self-defense.”[1]

President Obama and staff share a minute of silence after the Newtown shootings.

President Obama and staff share a minute of silence after the Newtown shootings.

This liberal reading focuses on the first part of the text. Conservatives instead fix their eyes on its end, seeing an individual right to own weapons. In this view, citizens’ weapons may be useful to a militia, but the right is essentially about individuals.

So which is it? The question is one that has occupied many constitutional scholars, and is somewhat above my pay grade. But based at least on Federalist 8, I think the liberals may have it.[2]

Federalist 8 is nominally about Hamilton’s vision of a war between the states. But really, he instead paints a picture of one of the Founders’ greatest fears: Those “engines of despotism”, standing armies.

The very phrase “standing army” may require explanation for modern readers. A standing army is one that always “stands” ready for battle—unlike the citizens’ militias favored by the Founders, a standing army is not disbanded when not in use. Almost every modern army is a standing army.

The Framers had a great horror of such armies. They looked to Europe’s mighty armies, and saw a mighty hand always raised to quash the people. Most of the Framers thought only a militia could be trusted to remain loyal to its citizens’ interests. A standing army could too easily become the tool of a repressive dictator, or even a dictator in its own right.

But Hamilton’s fears have proved misplaced. America has had a standing army for decades, without sliding into dictatorship. The Founders underestimated the power of civilian control: the idea that President Truman could dispense with the highly-decorated General MacArthur. Though MacArthur’s military expertise certainly surpassed Truman’s, Truman was still the Commander-in-Chief; MacArthur, merely a soldier. When MacArthur forgot his place, he lost it.

Ultimately, it was this that broke the “engine of despotism”, not the citizen militias (which have long since faded into irrelevance).

The US military is sufficiently trusted that armed patrols in the wake of Katrina raised few eyebrows.

The US military is sufficiently trusted that armed patrols in the wake of Katrina raised few eyebrows.

Yet Hamilton’s obsessive concern with standing armies is suggestive. His concern is with standing armies, not with individual citizens’ self-defense. If Hamilton’s interests are any guide, the 2nd Amendment is not about self-defense, or sport shooting. It’s about national defense.

But national defense is one area our understanding has surpassed the Framers’. The answer was a professionalized army that knew its place, not an armed citizenry.

Today, most Western armies look like those of America or Germany or France: They are well-equipped, well-trained, and they know their place. Where armies are bad, it is because their governments and leaders are bad—where their governments have learned to be good, as in post-World War 2 Germany, armies have also learned to be good.

Intact, those countries whose people have retained the means to armed revolt are scarcely nations to envy: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia. An armed citizenry often looks distinctly Hobbesian. Ordinary people are afraid; the government is unstable.

No, the best guarantor of liberty is not weapons. It is a strong civic culture. A history of deferring to the democratic process, to its laws and even to its mistakes.

America’s greatest revolutions have not emerged from a gun barrel. African-Americans did not win their civil rights by violence. Instead, they engaged with a government and a people that could ultimately be trusted to do the right thing. Other countries’ minorities have taken up arms under similar circumstances, and condemned all their neighbors to years of fear and bloodshed.

It would be a tragedy indeed, if the deaths of 26 more innocents were not enough to wake us up. The Founders’ greatest legacy is good law, respect for our neighbors, and trust in our government. This is what protects us from dictators, not millions of people with semi-automatic rifles.

Let’s not sell America short. We depend on our army and police for protection—and they, in turn, depend on us for legitimacy. Liberal to conservative, Americans trust their soldiers and their cops to do the right thing; and to follow orders.

Hamilton need not have feared a standing army: a country soaked in the cult of the gun has proved much more scary.


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  1. From Justice John Paul Stevens’ dissent in DC v. Heller.  ↩

  2. For a deeper, and certainly better-informed, argument that the 2nd Amendment was not originally intended to protect gun ownership, see Riva B. Siegel’s excellent Originalism and Popular Constitutionalism. Part I, “The Temporal Locus of Constitutional Authority in Heller”, is particularly good.  ↩

Christmas Break

Christmas break, taking the week off to spend time with my fiancé, cook, and relax. Back next week!

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