Refreshing and Disturbing: Anthony Peacock on Thucydides and The Federalist

Anthony Peacock’s effort to vindicate the commercial republic, as it is explained in The Federalist, is both refreshing and disturbing. By calling our attention to Publius’s case for a well-constructed Union, the spirit of enterprise, and the enormous extent to which The Federalist is about war and strategy, Peacock rediscovers an almost lost continent neglected by scholars who take the survival of the Union for granted, disdain commercial society, and are more concerned with controlling power than generating it. In that way, such scholars have not been true to the spirit of the work, for as James Madison explained in Federalist 51, in framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the first task is to enable the government to control the governed; the next task is to oblige it to control itself.

Liberty, the most important objective of the Constitution, simply could not be secure without sufficient power to provide for the common defense and prevent war among the states, so those who treat liberty as their first principle must pay attention to generating power before they focus on controlling it. They must start with Thomas Hobbes, so to speak, in order to end with John Locke, the Baron de Montesquieu, David Hume, and others who sought to limit power for the sake of freedom. But Hobbes was the greatest English translator of Thucydides, so Peacock innovates against the current of much scholarship today by treating Thucydides as, if not a source for, then at least a fellow-traveler with, Publius’s understanding of the dynamism—and warlike character—of commercial republics.

Commercial Virtues

Peacock opens with a brilliant literature review of scholarship on The Federalist since 1913, the year when Charles Beard, the progressive historian who saw the Constitution as an oligarchic conspiracy to control the masses, published his Economic Interpretation of the Constitution. Following Martin Diamond, Peacock sees The Federalist as a beforehand critique of Karl Marx relying on the extended sphere of the republic to diversify interest groups so much that no one of them could govern exclusively for its own advantage.

In Peacock’s telling, Beard’s major, and almost unintended, contribution to discussion of The Federalist winds up being that it focused future scholars’ attention on the institutional political science of Publius, as it is developed in Federalist 10 and Federalist 37 through 85 (especially Federalist 51)—at the expense of its case for Union to avoid war among the states (and deter or win war with foreign powers), and at the expense of its political anthropology and sociological analysis of commercial society. Both play a large role in the first half of The Federalist, essays 1 through 36, but essays 2 through 8,11 through 14, 15, and 23 especially.

As a result, those critics of commercial republics who see them as low but solid (merely bourgeois efforts to avoid utopian experiments) miss something extremely important about commercial society: namely, that it is a great engine for human flourishing, aka virtue, because it unleashes spirited efforts not merely in the pursuit of wealth, but also to develop the human faculties in all walks of life. Indeed, one might say the more diversified a commercial economy becomes, the more it is able to unleash this potential and the better it will be for humanity.

Peacock vindicates the commercial republic envisioned in The Federalist by showing it is part of a trinity linking the Union, the spirit of enterprise, and some of the most thoughtful writing on strategy and war ever produced by Americans. His starting point is Federalist 6, in which Publius-Hamilton criticizes the theory, developed by Montesquieu, and advocated by some Anti-Federalists (like Agrippa) that commercial republics were naturally peaceful—thus making it unnecessary to establish a more energetic national government to keep the peace among the states. Hamilton demolishes the theory in a manner that sounds a great deal like Thucydides.

The universal causes of war are the love of power and the jealousy of power, which Thucydides treated as the truest causes of the Peloponnesian War. In truth, republics, whether commercial or not, have been among the most warlike states in history. Rome was never sated of carnage; Sparta was little more than an armed camp. Carthage was a commercial republic, and democratic Athens had a commercial society, too, but Athens lost its liberty in its efforts to expand its empire and Carthage was destroyed by Rome, the most warlike state in antiquity.

In modern times, Genoa, Venice, and other republics were frequently at war, and often with each other, and commercial states, like England (which Montesquieu deemed a republic disguised as a monarchy) and France, were almost constantly at war. Neither commercial softening of manners nor republican institutions had diminished the propensity of states to go to war whenever they had a prospect of gaining something from it. Far from it: Wars of the modern age were often between mercantilist empires, and not infrequently, the cries of the people had dragged their monarchs into war.

So Peacock concludes that Publius-Hamilton was right and Montesquieu wrong. Commercial republics are spirited and warlike, which could be either a blessing or a curse for Americans. It would be a curse if commercial restrictions among the states led to trade wars, which might lead to shooting wars, which in turn would undermine civil and political liberty—not to mention risk national independence, as different states raised standing armies against each other, concentrated ever more power in the executive, erected the same engines of despotism as in the Old World, and called in foreign powers, eager to divide and conquer America, for aid against their neighbors.

It could be a blessing, however, if the spirit of enterprise were properly channeled by using the national power to regulate commerce to keep trade free among the states. This would minimize the likelihood of war among them, unleash ambition in the service of human flourishing, and generate enormous wealth, the sinews of war required to deter war from foreign powers, and, if deterrence failed, defeat them.

Athens as Model?

Peacock thus sees democratic—and warlike—Athens as a deeply flawed but useful model for the United States. Indeed, though Peacock does not quite express it this way, one might see The Federalist as the American solution to the Thucydidean problem. Sparta and Athens had once been allies against Persia. Had they remained united, they might not have exhausted themselves in a 27-year-long war that enabled first Thebes and later Macedon to conquer ancient Greece, with liberty the ultimate victim. And during the revolution in Corcyra (the model,  perhaps, for Hobbes’s state of nature as a state of war), life became short, nasty, and brutish—with Hobbes writing his Leviathan, in part, to offer his solution to the Thucydidean problem, understood as a spiral of violence resulting from the love of power and the fear of power.

Civil liberty would consist of enabling free and secure movement without collisions that lead to conflict. Much of the story of modern liberty might thus be told by looking at how others—Locke especially, but also Montesquieu, and even Kant and Hegel—sought to modify the Hobbesian solution. In the American case, if the Constitution enabled Americans to generate, harness, and channel the energy of commercial Athens, if it leavened the American dough with some Spartan caution, then perhaps the United States might become a great republic. It might in fact become the greatest republic ever because of its durable liberty and, not to be forgotten, the enormous potential power in commercial society that the government might tap, when necessary, in time of war.

Peacock’s incisive analysis of war, union, and the spirit of enterprise in The Federalist is long overdue; but one might pick a few nits and raise one or two powerful objections. Peacock argues strenuously that a close reading of The Federalist reveals that it is not advocating a grand strategy of insularity or isolationism. His point is fair—that if the United States were to be become a global trading nation, attacks on American trade would lead the country into war, as they did in 1798, 1812, and 1917. And sometimes the flag did not follow commerce; instead, commerce followed the flag when Admiral Perry forced Japan to open its markets to American trade in 1852.

But Peacock probably misreads The Federalist on the relation of land power, sea power, and liberty. Publius is arguing that the United States might usually avoid large standing armies, and their potential threat to liberty, by using the Union to erect a moat, guarded by the navy, to protect Americans from foreign invaders. Federalist 8 makes the case that if Americans feared standing armies and military despotism, then they had to support a Union strong enough to prevent war among the states. And Federalist 23 argues that the power to raise troops and money for war had to be unlimited for it is impossible to predict exactly how much strength one might need in war.

Nonetheless, Federalist 11 reveals that the closest model for the commercial republic Publius advocated is not democratic Athens, but England. Union of England, Scotland, and Wales made it unnecessary, most of the time, for them to have large standing armies. Great Britain was thus able to concentrate on its navy, which supported its commerce (and vice versa), which grew out of its civil liberty.

So long as Americans were united, they could grow strong and remain free because, most of the time, a powerful navy would remove the danger of military despotism from land forces. They could become a newer, improved version of Great Britain.

Another reason democratic Athens could not be a model for the United States is normative. Yes, Athens was a commercial society, but it was also a cruel tyranny over its allies, so-called, which it exploited for tribute and crushed mercilessly if they rebelled. This is emphatically not part of the moral horizon of The Federalist, which is anti-imperial—liberal and republican—to its core. Peacock acknowledges this, but he is so focused on the energy Publius meant to generate, both institutionally and socially, that he sometimes pays little attention to the obvious. War is an evil. War is also antithetical to a free society. Hence, any nation constantly at war is unlikely to remain free. And because war brings out not merely the best, but also the worst, of human nature, war might undermine the moral quality of the American regime.

So when America went to war, it needed to be as a last resort, for a just cause, and waged by just means. Such at least appears to be the argument of the Declaration of Independence, of Federalist 3, and even of Federalist 11, which addresses the honor of the human race, with the possibility that the United States might become the leader of a free world in the New World, thus anticipating the Monroe Doctrine as a strategy to oppose, not practice, imperialism. The “manly spirit” of independence Publius invokes is not about dominating others like Athens did, but about resisting the great empires of Europe, which had come to dominate Africa, Asia, and South America.

Self-Assertion and Self-Control

As a nation founded on universal principles, it was not sufficient for the United States to assert its own rights; it also had to restrain itself by respecting the rights of other peoples to pick their own forms of government. It had to follow international law, especially the laws of war, as John Jay (an almost forgotten author of The Federalist in Peacock’s account) made clear. Ironically, though Peacock has a chapter entitled “Taming the Commercial Republic,” he actually says little about controlling its worst tendencies. His account is mainly about national and individual self-assertion, not self-control. It is more about unleashing than taming the commercial republic.

Ironically, again, the best solution for the problem Peacock has generated for himself is the institutional political science of Publius. Among other things, it is designed to ensure that the enormous power the United States might need to generate could also be controlled through the extent and proper structure of government, including all the tools (representation, bicameralism, separation of powers, judicial review) that Peacock says little about. He knows that institutional science well, but his account is so one-sided that he does not explain clearly enough that it is the institutional political science that is meant to build in restraint of the spirit of domination, and thus enable self-government, properly understood.

In light of American versions of the disastrous Athenian expedition to Sicily—like the Vietnam War and the Iraq War, not to mention recent presidential assertions of emergency powers overriding the congressional power of the purse—we need such restraint now more than ever. Thus, too, we need to understand that Thucydides was a political pathologist, a student of the diseases of free government in time of war, the diseases that led Athens to self-destruct during the Peloponnesian War. Publius sought remedies for diseases Thucydides considered incurable. It is not at all clear that Publius succeeded, but The Federalist is a noble effort to synthesize spirited self-assertion with sober self-control and Peacock’s rediscovery of its lost continent is a much-needed corrective to contemporary scholarship.