Bench Memos

The Perennial Publius, part 28

With a realism rare in one so young (he was only 32 in 1787), but well-earned by both experience and study, Alexander Hamilton writes in Federalist No. 28 that “seditions and insurrections are unhappily maladies as inseparable from the body politic, as tumours and eruptions from the natural body.”  When they occur, “[t]he means to be employed must be proportioned to the extent of the mischief”—reason enough for a standing army of some extent.  He may have had in mind Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts the previous year, but with our own hindsight on history it is hard not to think (again) of the Civil War.  Hamilton does not seem to have foreseen that great breach in the Union along sectional lines.  Instead, his worst-case scenario is some form of general struggle between the states on one side and the federal government on the other, with opposing claims of “usurpation” flung by each at the other.  In that case, “[t]he people, by throwing themselves into either scale, will infallibly make it preponderate.”


Or is that the worst case?  Just a moment earlier, Hamilton recalls the ground of all government in the natural rights of the people, echoing the Declaration of Independence:


“If the representatives of the people betray their constituents, there is then no resource left but in the exertion of that original right of self-defence, which is paramount to all positive forms of government . . .”


As Harry V. Jaffa has pointed out in A New Birth of Freedom, his profound book on Lincoln and the coming of the Civil War (see my review here), it was this nettle that the secessionists refused to grasp.  They claimed a constitutional right to secede, not a natural right of revolution, because under the influence of Calhoun they had ceased to believe in natural rights antecedent to “positive forms of government”—and because they could not make such a natural-rights argument without calling to mind the slaves, the violation of whose natural rights was the sine qua non of their new “confederacy.”


Lincoln and Hamilton are as one: an authentic American conservatism is a natural-rights conservatism.


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


Matthew J. Franck — Matthew J. Franck is the Director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey.

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