“Think of your forefathers!  Think of your posterity!”–John Quincy Adams


” 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 by the bitterness of their invectives.”

I’ve been thinking about these words from Alexander Hamilton quite a lot this election season.  He was referring to the angry debate over the newly proposed Constitution, but in many ways his description of the political climate in 1787 sounds a lot  like 2016.  Indeed, the quote above, originally published in a New York newspaper over the pseudonym “Publius,” could come straight out of the op-ed section of one of today’s newspapers, except for the fact that columnists can’t use words like “declamation” and “invective” any more and hope to be understood.

In the same essay (which we now remember as Federalist #1), Hamilton went on to sound a word of warning that I also keep thinking about during this bizarre presidential campaign:

. . . a dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people than under the forbidding appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government.  History will teach us that the former has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism than the latter, and 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.”

Your thoughts?


  1. Is it at all comforting to know that the ‘founders’ struggled with the same issues? Given how personal political attacks could be in the early republic and how much they feared oppression I think the historical perspective that you have brought up is helpful for us witnessing current developments. These things are nothing new. Does it mean we have less to fear because our government has lasted this long and still functions well (comparatively speaking)? I am not sure, but I think that knowing that the ‘founders’ faced difficulties and struggled greatly with them is helpful.

  2. In my high school history course, three views of history were discussed – Hegel’s Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis, Niebuhr’s Problem of Evil, and Toynbee’s Challenge-and-Response. All three views have some merit, but Toynbee’s idea that societies broke down when too many groups presented challenges and government lost the ability to respond creatively, has always struck me as perfectly describing current societal trends. Human rights is being used as leverage by an ever growing body of interest groups, and the increasing variety of their claims is beginning to expose modern governments’ weaknesses. As I read more of the original writings which inspired the Enlightenment and its crowning achievement in the American Constitution, I have the growing thought that the idea of human rights was flawed from the beginning. Frequently, the social and political philosophy of the Enlightenment writers are based on very shaky ground. I’m reading Locke ‘Second Treatise on Government’ and I find myself thinking that he would have failed any high school or university course for making assertions with little or no evidence – his portrayal of man in a state of nature is not based on any historical or archeological evidence and contradicts, for those of us looking from a Christian perspective, the Biblical description of a state of nature, in which every man does that which is right in his own eyes. In reading the Bible, it occurs to me the reasons for justice, government, and doing right are based not in rights, but in responsibilities.

  3. My thoughts? Democracy is overrated.

  4. I’ve heard that quote before and actually have it in my spreadsheet of such quotes that I like to keep. I’m not sure we get to all-out tyranny such as existed in centuries past in this age of democracy. That “change over time” thing. At least in the western democracies, I think “tyranny” comes around more in wielding policy swords instead of outright tyranny of Hamilton’s day, such as the recent threat to withhold federal funding in NC due to a new law. “Tyranny” seems to be more of the “soft despotism” that arises from one of the fears of the folks from Hamilton’s time that I believe still is legitimate – centralized government that is far removed from the people and wields an unhealthy power over the people/states to determine how to live their lives. I know “states’ rights” gets a bad rap due to it’s ties with past racism, but now we suffer a “soft despotism” because the national government dictates things as trivial as how much water is in a toilet or what type of light bulbs we use or forces corn to be used to fuel vehicles instead of feeding people.

    Side note: I am reading Patrick Daly’s “When Slavery was Called Freedom”. I ran across a mention of William Brownlow and chuckled. It was a one or two sentence mention of him and I was greatly pleased with myself that I knew a whole lot more about him because of reading “Lincolnites and Rebels”.

    • Hi, Ed: Good comments. I agree with you that the outcome is more likely to be the “soft despotism” that Tocqueville sometimes had in mind. The bottom line, to my mind, is that appeals to bring “power to the people” almost always end up in greater concentration of power in government. On a different note, glad you could relate to the allusion to Parson Brownlow when you came across it!

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