In his last essay but one, John Jay wrote in Federalist No. 5:
“Distrust naturally creates distrust, and by nothing is good will and kind conduct more speedily changed, than by invidious jealousies and uncandid imputations, whether expressed or implied.”
His context is the prospect of the division of the United States into several smaller “confederacies,” whose friction as they bump up against each other, their individual fortunes rising and falling, would inevitably bring about violent conflict (a point Lincoln also made in his first inaugural address: “Can treaties be more faithfully enforced between aliens, than laws can among friends?”).
But Jay’s maxim is stated so broadly it transcends its context, and may have surprising implications for those who think that distrust is the vital principle of our constitutionalism. For isn’t this often said to be the mainspring of our checks and balances—that jealousies between the branches of government will drive them to check one another, producing the restraints on power that make constitutional government safe for liberty?
Jay’s remark is a reminder that no principle is without its limit. Distrust unbridled, multiplied by “uncandid imputations”—of the sort that partisanship for its own sake can breed—will threaten the “good will and kind conduct” that must exist to some degree among citizens and politicians if the shared business of self-government is to remain possible.
Think of the graciousness President Bush displayed toward the Democratic majority in Congress during his State of the Union address—an extended hand of trust fully consistent with the vigorous assertion and use of executive power—and you’ll see Jay’s point.
(For explanation of this recurring feature, see here.)