The Federalist’s Heart of Darkness

The authors of The Federalist provide us with a varied view of human nature. While humanity’s character inclines generally toward the darker side, this is not an iron rule. Examples exist in which humans draw on, as Abraham Lincoln put it over seven decades later, the better angels of their nature. Part of Publius’s varying assessment of human nature might reflect different emphases of the different authors, or different rhetorical needs of an essay’s particular argument. But, also, Publius suggests human nature reflects itself differently in different social and institutional environments. Publius observes that humans behave differently in groups than they do as individuals; and that people behave differently depending what they have at stake in a political contest. Most interesting is Publius’ suggestion that the design of constitutional institutions can be made in such a way as to harness human motivations so as to produce outcomes better than individuals intend.

Madison famously framed the issue in Federalist 51 with the rhetorical question, “what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections of human nature?” He then provides a Mandevillian, virtue-out-of-vice reading the separation-of-powers, one in which “the private interests of every individual may be centinel over the public rights.”

But the arrangement of institutions cannot carry the whole load. Publius does not fall into the temptation, as T.S. Eliot put it, of “dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.” Still, according to Madison, for republicanism to work it requires greater virtue in the population, both in intensity and in wider distribution, than alternative forms of government. Madison concluded Federalist 55 by observing,

As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust: So there are other qualities in human nature, which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form. Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousy of some among us, faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government, and that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.

I take Madison’s reference to the low anthropology posited by the politically jealous to be a reference to (some of) the anti-Federalists. Assuming my surmise is correct, Madison’s response doesn’t quite answer. While the anti-Federalists argued for different institutional arrangements than those proposed in the Constitution (although part of their trouble was they disagreed among themselves about the content of those different institutional arrangements), their goal was to minimize the probability of despotism in their opposition to the then-proposed Constitution. Their more pessimistic anthropologies did not entail throwing up their hands in despair at the possibility of republicanism. They opposed the Constitution in the name of republicanism and liberty. On the other hand, other of the anti-Federalists had a more sanguine view of human nature than even Publius had.

Yet Publius at places articulated a pretty dark anthropology. None gets much darker than Alexander Hamilton’s comment in Federalist 6 that “men are ambitious, vindictive and rapacious.” The idea that harmony between the states could continue in the event the union failed “would be to disregard the uniform course of human events, and to set at defiance the accumulated experience of ages.”

There is tension between Hamilton’s argument in Federalist 6 and Madison’s argument in Federalist 55. First, Hamilton’s comment suggests the anti-Federalists have too high a view of human nature, not too low a view. Secondly, the upshot of Hamilton’s argument is that the United States needed a stronger, more centralized national government because human nature was so depraved, the disunited states would descend into open conflict in the event the union failed.

Later Hamilton floats what might be styled a political analogue to Gresham’s law. Hamilton’s maxim might be that bad motivations drives out good motivations. He writes in Federalist 34 that “peace and war will not always be left to our option; that however moderate or unambitious we may be, we cannot count upon the moderation, or hope to extinguish the ambition of others.” He adds,

To judge from the history of mankind, we shall be compelled to conclude, that the fiery and destructive passions of war, reign in the human breast, with much more powerful sway, than the mild and beneficent sentiments of peace; and, that to model our political systems upon speculations of lasting tranquility, is to calculate on the weaker springs of the human character.

As we’ll see in my next post, while Madison never paints quite as dark a portrait of human nature as Hamilton, and might accent a few more bright spots, on balance, Madison, too, draws humanity with a persistent inclination to darkness in political relationships, at least with respect to those outside one’s immediate social or political circle. Despite their moderate Augustinianism, however, neither Hamilton nor Madison sees the depravity of the human heart as antithetical to republicanism. Their approach, however, is not to minimize that depravity. Rather, the turn in their argument is the constitutional design of institutions can open a space between the lowness of what humans intend in their individual capacities and the better outcomes the system provides. In their argument, while human nature remains generally (but not comprehensively) depraved, institutional arrangements can turn it back onto itself, harnessing it to produce outcomes superior to what it intends, or deserves.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on August 07, 2018 at 10:05:54 am

Nice interpretation of Madison / Hamilton view of humanity and the effects (hopeful) of governing structure on the body politic.

Yet, let us not forget that these men, in varying degrees, assumed that *this* structure was intended for a religious people. Recognizing that any official government attempt to induce / compel a more moral / selfless set of behaviors would tend toward tyranny, they left it to the political sub-divisions AND the cultural milieu to instill such "beneficent sentiments" in the community.

It seemed to have worked for some 200 years and THEN.........

read full comment
Image of Guttenburgs Press and Brewery
Guttenburgs Press and Brewery
on August 07, 2018 at 10:24:58 am

Good piece. I wrote an essay recently referencing Madison's view of human nature and the reflection of that in American disestablishment of religion. https://www.religiousfreedominstitute.org/cornerstone/religion-and-the-american-constitutional-settlement

read full comment
Image of Ismail Royer
Ismail Royer
on August 07, 2018 at 11:44:40 am

Government rest upon the initiation of violence to terrorize people into being good by what standard? Certainly not the standard of voluntary reciprocal relations upon which trade and commerce rest.

read full comment
Image of D Frank Robinson
D Frank Robinson
on August 07, 2018 at 13:18:07 pm

The Federalists, the party of the gentlemen of trade and the professions, was in terror of the anti-Federalists, the party of the 40 shilling freeholders, and never missed an opportunity cast the freeholders as rabble, a mob and depraved. When the Federalists were drafting the Constitution, Madison and Hamilton repeatedly described looser confederations than the union they were proposing, such as the Dutch and Swiss republics, as perpetually plagued by intra-confederacy warfare and self-dealing by the member states. Of course, much of this was exaggerated as history shows that both the Dutch and Swiss republics were not much prone to either internecine strife or self-dealing to the disadvantage of the confederation.

It is interesting to note that when several Agreements of the People and Heads of Proposals were being discussed in England in 1649-50, the Presbyterian (Grandee) faction used the same arguments with success to forestall dividing the country into electoral districts and apportioning representatives.

read full comment
Image of EK
on August 07, 2018 at 21:46:25 pm

"For republicanism to work it requires virtue in the population, both in intensity and in wider distribution...." Hmmmmmm!

read full comment
Image of Anthony

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.