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Publius’ Conservative Values

Late last month, constitutionalists marked the publication 230 years ago of Federalist 1 with reveries about Publius’ call for Americans to rise to the occasion and show the world that governments could be founded on “reflection and choice” rather than “accident and force.”

But the dichotomy is problematic, as is evident from the hand of that paper’s author, Alexander Hamilton. Taking the reflection and choice/accident and force sentence out of context might lead one to infer that the Constitution was the product of reason abstracted from experience. That is decidedly not Hamilton’s position, even within the four corners of The Federalist, which is why today—the anniversary of Hamilton’s second contribution to the series, Federalist 6—is just as significant.

No sooner had Hamilton let the speculative genie out than he turned his attention to rebottling or, perhaps more aptly, rechanneling it. Among the most compelling indications of Publius’ innate conservatism happens to be that the reflection and choice that emerge from The Federalist as a whole are modest and grounded.

Federalist 6 pertains to the danger of internecine rivalries between states in the absence of a strong central government. But it is as significant for its method as for its conclusions. Hamilton bases his argument not on speculation but on “the accumulated experience of ages.” It is this—experience, not abstract theory—upon which Federalist 1’s “reflection” is to be exercised, pursuant to the making of deliberate and sound “choice[s].”

Consequently, Federalist 6 isn’t only about the nature of commercial republics or the proclivity of polities toward conflict, but also about the method of political science. Hamilton identifies his choices clearly. Suggestively, he dismisses as “projectors in politics” those who count on a pacific relationship between the states. Their plans and predictions are founded on air. Hamilton, by contrast, looks back into the concretely known, enjoining his reader: “Let experience, the least fallible guide of human opinions, be appealed to for an answer to these inquiries.”

Hamilton returns repeatedly to the differences between off-the-cuff speculation and on-the-ground experience. In Federalist 8, still detailing the possibilities of interstate conflict, he declares that “these are not vague inferences deduced from speculative defects in a constitution . . . they are solid conclusions, drawn from the natural and necessary progress of human affairs.” Federalist 15 calls experience “that best oracle of wisdom.”

Nor does his writing partner, James Madison—author of some of The Federalist’s boldest appeals to reason—much disagree. In the course of Federalist 14’s famous appeal to reason, Madison writes:

Is it not the glory of the people of America, that whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to over-rule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience?

Notice that what Madison rejects is “a blind veneration” of the old and traditional, which conservatism does not require. Conservatism requires giving the past due deference as an accumulated storehouse of wisdom and experience. What Madison calls reason is not the abstract, speculative reason that repels the Burkean. It is, rather, rooted in “good sense,” one’s “situation”—that is, concrete circumstances—and in what “experience” teaches.

Similarly, Madison’s Federalist 37, which delineates the difficulties the Philadelphia Convention faced, points to experience as a guide even as it acknowledges its limited scope in the American constitutional context:

The most that the convention could do in such a situation, was to avoid the errors suggested by the past experience of other countries, as well as of our own; and to provide a convenient mode of rectifying their own errors as future experience may unfold them.

The succeeding paper adds that any errors in the Constitution result from a lack of experience and, crucially, that only future experience will reveal them. Earlier, in Federalist 20, Madison had called experience “the oracle of truth; and where its responses are unequivocal, they ought to be conclusive and sacred.” He proceeds in Federalist 52 to call experience “the guide that ought always to be followed whenever it can be found.”

Any reader of The Federalist is familiar with Publius’ method of historical inquiry, which ranges from the experience of Greek confederacies to that of medieval and contemporary Europe. By Federalist 85, the concluding paper, Hamilton—having begun the enterprise with a call to “reflection and choice”—has come full circle. There, referring to David Hume, Hamilton writes:

The zeal for attempts to amend, prior to the establishment of the constitution, must abate in every man, who is ready to accede to the truth of the following observations of a writer, equally solid and ingenious: “to balance a large state or society (says he) whether monarchical or republican, on general laws, is a work of so great difficulty, that no human genius, however comprehensive, is able by the mere dint of reason and reflection, to effect it. The judgments of many must unite in the work: EXPERIENCE must guide their labour: TIME must bring it to perfection: and the FEELING OF inconveniences must correct the mistakes which they inevitably fall into, in their first trials and experiments.” (Emphasis in original.)

Hume rejects “mere” reason and reflection, by which he means the isolated individual speculating in the abstract. Such is the case for Hamilton too. Between Federalist 1 and Federalist 85, Hamilton’s presentation of reflection has grown more nuanced. He has shown us on what he expects the public and its representatives to reflect, which is experience.

The dichotomy of Federalist 1—reflection and choice on the one hand, accident and force on the other—was never a neat opposition. Experience is rife with accident and force; such is the condition of those burdened with this mortal coil. Reflection upon experience can shape choices.

For this reason, William Gladstone’s famous tribute to our Founding—that “the American Constitution is the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man”—ill befits the efforts, and also the ethos, of the convention in Philadelphia. Quite deliberately, the delegates confined their innovations to those areas to which experience did not speak. Where it did, they closely adapted long-developing colonial forms. That speaks to their essential conservatism.

By contrast, the mythology according to which 55 oracular figures descended on Philadelphia, posted guards, and concocted a government fuels the hyper-rationalism on which Progressivism, with its Wilsonian calls for constitutional reform and its Lippmannite demand for scientific public policy, is based. Since they did it, the argument goes, there is no reason we cannot—on the contrary, there is every reason we should try.

If Federalist 1 is read in rhetorical isolation, surely it constitutes an “accident” from the perspective of a person born in 2017 that he or she is “force[d]” to accept a Constitution written in 1787. The document binds on the basis of a sustained, generational exercise of “reflection and choice”—reflection on experience that is not merely instructive but also authoritative. That is what makes it a conserving rather than a reforming document, and what makes The Federalist an essentially conservative book.

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