Bench Memos

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The Perennial Publius, part 11


In contrast to his earlier worries about a large standing army, Hamilton looks forward, in Federalist No. 11, to “the establishment of a federal navy.”  It will be an invaluable aid to the security of American neutrality, and to the protection of our international commerce by our own merchant marine.  Only a strong union can finance and pursue a coherent naval policy that deters the great powers of Europe from meddling in the commerce of our hemisphere: “By a steady adherence to the union we may hope ere long to become the arbiter of Europe in America; and to be able to incline the balance of European competitions in this part of the world as our interest may dictate.”

Is this a harbinger of the Monroe Doctrine?  It looks that way.  Later in the essay Hamilton observes that “our situation invites, and our interests prompt us, to aim at an ascendant in the system of American affairs.”  As for the old powers across the ocean, Hamilton scoffs at the “arrogant pretensions of the European,” and urges that America “teach that assuming brother moderation.”  What was that Donald Rumsfeld said about “old Europe”?  How very American.

Hamilton, as is well-known, drafted much of what became President George Washington’s Farewell Address in 1796, which famously warned of “entangl[ing] our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humour or caprice.”  But this was not a prescription for withdrawal from world commerce and world affairs, for sheltering beyond the high walls of a Fortress America.  It was part of a call for a robust, independent assertion of America’s place in the world, as a nation that was no other’s satellite but plotted its own course.  Washington and Hamilton shared a vision of a United States that was a force to be reckoned with on the global scene.  In lines less well-remembered from the Farewell Address, the first president said “the period is not far off . . . when we may choose peace or war, as our interest guided by our justice shall counsel.”

And only a strong union with an effective government could send forth the navy and foster the private merchant marine that fulfilled this vision of the American future.

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

Tags: Franck


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