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11 “Wanton Intermeddlings”

January 22, 2013

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.  ↩


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