Bench Memos

NRO’s home for judicial news and analysis.

The Perennial Publius, part 27


Why, Alexander Hamilton asks in Federalist No 27, do the opponents of the Constitution imagine that the new government will need a large standing army for routine matters of internal law enforcement?  This “seems to originate in a pre-supposition that the people will be disinclined to the exercise of federal authority in any matter of an internal nature,” and that their “obstruction” of its undertakings will have to be overcome by force.  But of course, all governments in the United States at the present moment (December 1787) seem to be performing badly.  If the new national government performs well, it will inspire the people’s confidence, and its policies will be met with widespread cooperation, not resistance.  And if this is true, the government’s direct encounter with the people’s lives will work to its advantage, not its disadvantage:

“Man is very much a creature of habit.  A thing that rarely strikes his senses will generally have but transient influence upon his mind.  A government continually at a distance and out of sight, can hardly be expected to interest the sensations of the people.  The inference is, that the authority of the union, and the affections of the people towards it, will be strengthened rather than weakened by its extension to what are called matters of internal concern; and that it will have less occasion to recur to force in proportion to the familiarity and comprehensiveness of its agency.”

It must be remembered that Hamilton is an advocate of energetic but limited government (or limited and energetic, if you prefer).  Its relationship to the people will remain a healthy one so long as its competent performance remains high.  He even boldly predicts “a probability that the general government will be better administered than the particular governments,” which will tell in favor of the people’s affections for the former.  This can hardly be expected if the national government attempts too much, and looms too large in our lives, as it does now, because it will soon trespass into regions where it simply cannot perform well.

But let it be noted that Hamilton’s conservatism is not reflexively anti-government.  It is, instead, pro-good-government.  I guess this makes Hamilton the original goo-goo conservative.

(For explanation of this recurring feature, see here.) 

Tags: Franck


Sign up for free NRO e-mails today:

Subscribe to National Review