Lessons in Empire from the Federalist Papers

We think of the Federalist Papers as a playbook for democratic governance. Not so fast.

The Federalist – known today as the Federalist Papers – is at once the best known single work in American political thought and rarely read in its 85-essay entirety. The American Bar Association and the State Department recognize the canonical status of the essays, written under the name “Publius” by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison, by sending copies of the collection to persons around the world charged with the task of writing new constitutions, especially during times of transitions.

No doubt this is because they associate the entirety with about a half dozen essays that reinforce certain American views – or cliches – about proper governance, including, for example, the importance of “checks and balances” as a means to keep ambitious leaders in line. But if one reads all of the essays, and not merely the chosen few, very different messages are often conveyed. It is not that the ideas of Publius are uninteresting or irrelevant to foreign readers; that almost certainly is not the case. Rather, it is that foreign readers – including especially the Chinese – might well learn lessons that run adverse to specific American interests in the 21st century.

An especially interesting example of this reality is the obscure Federalist 11, almost never assigned in college curricula or discussed by academics (unlike its immediate predecessor, Federalist 10). In this essay, Publius emphasizes, as he did in a number of the earlier essays, the dangers facing the highly vulnerable United States from abroad and the need for a strong national government to confront these threats.

In particular, he focuses on commercial competition and the desire of rapacious European countries to exploit their advantages over the weak American states. This condition, Publius argues, would leave us “a prey to the wanton intermeddlings of all nations at war with each other; who, having nothing to fear from us, would with little scruple or remorse, supply their wants by depredations on our property as often as it fell in their way.”

One can easily imagine several candidates for the 2016 presidency happily quoting Publius’ conclusion that we can (and should) overcome the “arrogant pretensions” of those who threaten us. We should aspire “to dictate the terms of the connection between the old and the new world!” Heady words indeed!

But imagine that the reader is not an American in New York or Charleston, concerned with America’s entrance into the international arena, but rather someone in China, for generations the victim of foreign exploitation backed by other powers’ “powerful marines.” One might well imagine that Chinese leaders – both Communist and resolutely anti-Communist – viewed these countries, including the United States, as engaging in “wanton intermeddlings,” sometimes as the consequence of their wars with one another, sometimes in concert, but always with disdain for China’s own interests in development and autonomy.

Chinese readers might well identify with Publius’ warning against becoming a nation “despicable in its weakness,” and indeed, China’s rise to military power is strikingly “Publian” in its approach.

In his recommendations for how the young United States could protect itself from exploitation by stronger nations with substantial navies (and defend itself against would-be predators, whether pirates or the ships of other countries), Publius proposed imposing “prohibitory regulations” that will “oblige foreign countries to bid against each other, for the privileges of our markets.” Access to these markets is a precious good, and foreign countries should not believe it will come without a price.

Publius moreover proposed enforcing such regulations through the building of a strong navy. Such a “powerful marine,” he argued, would have two main purposes. The first would be to provide ships to move American goods around the world and, presumably, bring goods back to the United States on American “bottoms.” The second would be to build ships that can, if need be, defend American shipping interests, particularly in the West Indies, from interference by British, French, and Spanish ships.

Today, we see ever-more-frequent analyses of China’s growing naval capacities, including the creation of artificial islands in the South China Sea and its declared willingness to prevent incursion into what it defines as its protected waters. This, of course, is in addition to other techniques by which China limits access to its domestic markets by foreign countries eager to reach its one billion potential customers.

If we read The Federalist in its entirety, it is hard for modern readers to miss the hard-headed realism that counsels not only political union and a strong national government, but also the building up of a navy that will enable the country to defend itself and flourish in a basically heartless system of commercial and ultimately military competition. Perhaps Publius speaks to twenty-first century Americans, but he may speak as well, and even more powerfully, to foreign readers as to what they must do within this system to protect themselves against the United States and its allies. It would be ironic indeed if, by counseling other nations to follow the recommendations of Publius to grow their strength and influence, we inadvertently encourage them to diminish the relative power of the United States in the international system.

Sanford Levinson

Sanford Levinson is the author of An Argument Open to All:  Reading the Federalist in the 21st Century (Yale 2015). He also  holds the W. St. John Garwood and W. St. John Garwood, Jr. Centennial Chair in Law at the University of Texas Law School and is currently a visiting professor of law at Harvard University.