The end of the US Revolutionary War happened with the surrender of the British forces at the Battle of Yorktown on October 19, 1781. However, George Washington is not inaugurated as the first President of the United States until April 30, 1789. In the nearly eight years between these events, the US federal government existed under the Articles of Confederation, adopted by the Continental Congress on November 15, 1777, but not ratified by the states until nearly the end of the US Revolutionary War on March 1, 1781. As the word “confederation” implies, most of the power remained with state governments. Hearty congratulations to the US history buffs among you who can name the 14 people who served in the largely ornamental role of “President of the Continental Congress” during the 14 years from 1774 to 1788 (without looking it up, as I always need to do), from Peyton Randolph to Cyrus Griffin. Not only was the US central government very weak at this time., but it was a time of strong divisions between states and local rebellions within states.
By the later part of the 1780s, it seemed clear to many people that the Articles of Confederation were not enough. If the country was to live up the name of “United States,” which the Continental Congress voted to adopt on September 9, 1776 (about two months after adopting the Declaration of Independence), it needed formalized arrangements for a central government.
Thus, a group led by James Madison drafted a Constitution for the United States. It was approved by the US Congress on September 17, 1787. But it needed to be ratified by nine of the 13 states before taking effect. Thus, Madison together with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay decided to write a set of essays, using the pen name “Publius,” to explain and justify the structure of government proposed by the Constitution. On October 27, 1787, the first essay of what later became known as The Federalist Papers was published. this one written by Alexander Hamilton. As modern Americans look back at this moment in time, it is worth nothing that it was a time when the country was far from unified. In Federalist #1, Hamilton explains the need for rational discourse in times of national stress and unrest, especially when major changes are being proposed. The Federalist Papers were published between October 1787 and May 1788, and the US Constitution took effect after being ratified by a ninth state (New Hampshire) on June 21, 1788. Hamilton started:
After an unequivocal experience of the inefficiency of the subsisting federal government, you are called upon to deliberate on a new Constitution for the United States of America. … It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.
Hamilton then pointed out that while one might hope for such arguments to be made purely on the merits, this was highly unlikely. Instead, he stated that in many cases argumentative strategy that would be broadly used by both side is that they “will mutually hope to evince the justness of their opinions, and to increase the number of their converts by the loudness of their declamations and the bitterness of their invectives.” He wrote:
Happy will it be if our choice should be directed by a judicious estimate of our true interests, unperplexed and unbiased by considerations not connected with the public good. But this is a thing more ardently to be wished than seriously to be expected. The plan offered to our deliberations affects too many particular interests, innovates upon too many local institutions, not to involve in its discussion a variety of objects foreign to its merits, and of views, passions and prejudices little favorable to the discovery of truth. …
A torrent of angry and malignant passions will be let loose. To judge from the conduct of the opposite parties, we shall be led to conclude that they will mutually hope to evince the justness of their opinions, and to increase the number of their converts by the loudness of their declamations and the bitterness of their invectives. … History will teach us that … of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.
Hamilton then says that he won’t preach about his own good intentions; in fact, be suspicious of those who preach about their intentions. Also, he will not fake an uncertainty about his views, pretending to be a neutral observer weighing the arguments when he is actually a supporter of the new Constitution. Instead, he will make his case with arguments open to all. He writes:
In the course of the preceding observations, I have had an eye, my fellow-citizens, to putting you upon your guard against all attempts, from whatever quarter, to influence your decision in a matter of the utmost moment to your welfare, by any impressions other than those which may result from the evidence of truth. You will, no doubt, at the same time, have collected from the general scope of them, that they proceed from a source not unfriendly to the new Constitution. Yes, my countrymen, I own to you that, after having given it an attentive consideration, I am clearly of opinion it is your interest to adopt it. I am convinced that this is the safest course for your liberty, your dignity, and your happiness. I affect not reserves which I do not feel. I will not amuse you with an appearance of deliberation when I have decided. I frankly acknowledge to you my convictions, and I will freely lay before you the reasons on which they are founded. The consciousness of good intentions disdains ambiguity. I shall not, however, multiply professions on this head. My motives must remain in the depository of my own breast. My arguments will be open to all, and may be judged of by all. They shall at least be offered in a spirit which will not disgrace the cause of truth.
In passing, I’ll note that the pretense of being an uncertain neutral observer comes up a lot in academic writing. There will be a neutral-sounding title like “Weighing the Costs and Benefits of the Minimum Wage,” immediately followed by an essay that either all benefits or all costs.
Donald J. Kochan takes up this topic at greater length in “On the Imperative of Civil Discourse: Lessons from Alexander Hamilton and Federalist No. 1” (Southern California Law Review Postscript, 2020, vol. 94, pp. 32-43). As Kochan writes:
Although The Federalist Papers are most often read for its lessons on constitutional interpretation, Federalist No. 1 actually had an additional purpose. Hamilton wanted his readers to understand the imperative of civility in discourse, a presumption of good faith applied to one’s political opponents, and the importance of respecting different opinions when engaging in the most important, often contentious, conversations of the day.
2 thoughts on “Alexander Hamilton: Why Civil Discourse Matters”
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