Expanded Federal Power … That Would be too much Bother (according to Hamilton)

One of my current reading projects is the Federalist Papers. I became seriously aware of their significance when I taught U.S. History, and what I learned about them disturbed me a great deal. I downloaded a copy (available at Project Gutenberg) and finally have made the time to read them.

I know many conservatives adore the Federalist Papers and the Papers’ defense of the constitution. I can’t figure this out because Hamilton, Madison, and Jay are calling for massive centralized power and an overthrow of (what had been normative prior to the constitution) any real sense of states’ rights.

In short, now that I’m actually reading the Federalist Papers, I’m discovering that I had good reason to be disturbed by them when teaching history. I have a hard time making a case that Hamilton, Madison, and Jay were friends of liberty at all in this set of writings.

That being said I am amused by their naivety about human nature. (This is probably why they didn’t see the contradiction between a nearly all-powerful central government and the loss of liberty. Being Deists or proto-Unitarians – if not in name, clearly in thought process – they failed to understand the inherent evil that coinheres with the inherent good of a sinful human that was created in the image of God.)

Hamilton, in # 16, says the following:

Allowing the utmost latitude to the love of power which any reasonable man can require, I confess I am at a loss to discover what temptation the persons intrusted [sic] with the administration of the general government could ever feel to divest the States of [their proper sphere of authority]. The regulation of the mere domestic police of a State appears to me to hold out slender allurements to ambition. Commerce, finance, negotiation, and war seem to comprehend all the objects which have charms for minds governed by that passion; and all the powers necessary to those objects ought, in the first instance, to be lodged in the national depository.

… That someone in the federal government wouldn’t be tempted to usurp power from the states? Can any modern American read that with a straight face? Could it be that Hamilton was merely naïve about “the love of power”? I suspect it goes far beyond that. It was not “the love of power,” but the human condition about which Hamilton was naïve. Given the opportunity, sinful humans will usurp whatever they can usurp apart from divine intervention.

Hamilton’s confidence is rather charming if viewed as a statement by a founding father who assumes that we are a noble people founding this new country in a new land. But no matter how noble or charming the sentiment is, history has shown that it is a dangerous attitude. As noble as the old Deist would like us humans to be, the fact is, we are driven by sin more than nobility when historic Christianity is marginalized by a secular document like the U.S. constitution. That noble “love” to which Hamilton alludes is actually a lust for power. The Federalists should have realized this as they considered what had been going on in Europe for the last 100 years. But Hamilton continues in this same vein:

It is therefore improbable that there should exist a disposition in the federal councils to usurp the powers with which [state jurisdictions] are connected; because the attempt to exercise those powers would be as troublesome as it would be nugatory; and the possession of them, for that reason, would contribute nothing to the dignity, to the importance, or to the splendor of the national government.

This is why the U.S. constitution built in the potential for nearly unlimited federal power overseen by a judiciary-for-life that had no realistic checks on its power: It was beyond his noble imagination that we might have people in the federal government that found nothing “nugatory” at all about absolute power. Unfortunately, Hamilton, Jay, and Madison convinced the voters of New York, and we Americans gave up the opportunity for limited government and personal liberty for the sake a new constitution that centralized power and created the potential for almost unlimited expansion of the federal government.

And it didn’t take long for Hamilton to be proved wrong. Thomas Jefferson, who opposed a strong federal government and promised to dismantle much of what the first two power-grabbing, big government presidents (George Washington and John Adams), had created, ended up reneging on his “no new government” promise and expanding the government at an astonishing rate.

The same thing happened with Andrew Jackson, except it occurred with a level of vengeance and evil that could not have been imagined by any of the founding fathers (even the big government crowd), because the founding fathers truly were honorable men. Jackson was probably the first truly wicked and power-thirsty president our country produced, and the incredible breadth of power which he squeezed out of the constitution, and a willing electorate and congress, allowed him to not only carry out his very deliberate genocide against the native Americans, but both expand federal government and beat down state and local governments with abandon. The honorable Jefferson and the embarrassingly dishonorable Jackson were precursors to what was to come after World War II: What we politely call the “nanny state,” but what is in fact a government systematically usurping the very powers of the Kingdom of God.

And how could this happen? If political theorists don’t understand the magnitude of the sin problem (and in a state that presumes to be secular, founded on the sole authority of “we the people” rather than the authority of God, it is impossible for the political theorists to understand the magnitude of the sin problem) they simply cannot propose a government that is up to the task of keeping wickedness in check.


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