Front Page Titles (by Subject) I.: The Ideas and Predictions of 1788. - The Predictions of Hamilton and Tocqueville
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I.: The Ideas and Predictions of 1788. - Viscount James Bryce, The Predictions of Hamilton and Tocqueville 
The Predictions of Hamilton and Tocqueville. John Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science, ed. Herbert B. Adams. 5th Series, no. IX (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1887).
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The Ideas and Predictions of 1788.
I begin by briefly summarizing the record which the Federalist preserves for us of the beliefs of the opponents and advocates of the Draft Constitution of 1787 regarding the forces then at work in American politics and the probable future of the nation.
To understand those beliefs, however, we must bear in mind what the United States then were, and for that purpose I will attempt to recall the reader’s attention to some of the more salient aspects of the Federal Republic at the epoch when its national life began.
In 1783 the last British soldier quitted New York—the last stronghold that was held for King George. In 1787 the present Constitution of the United States was framed by the Convention at Philadelphia and in 1788 accepted by the requisite number of States (nine). In 1789 George Washington entered on his Presidency, the first Congress met and the machine began to work.1 It was a memorable year for Europe as well as for America—a year which, even after the lapse of a century, we are scarcely yet ripe for judging, so many sorrows as well as blessings, πολλὰ μὲν ἐσϑλὰ μεμιγμεν, πολλά δε λυγρά, were destined to come upon mankind from those elections of the States-General which were proceeding in France while Washington was being installed at Philadelphia.
All of the thirteen United States lay along the Atlantic coast. Their area was 827,844 square miles, their population 3,929,214, less than the population of Pennsylvania in 1880. Settlers had already begun to cut the woods and build villages beyond the Alleghanies; but when Kentucky was received as a State into the Union in 1792, she had a population of only 73,677 (census of 1790). The population was wholly of English (or Anglo-Scotch) stock, save that a few Dutch were left in New York, a few persons of Swedish blood in Delaware, and some isolated German settlements in Pennsylvania. But in spite of this homogeneity the cohesion of the States was weak. Communication was slow, difficult and costly. The jealousies and suspicions which had almost proved fatal to Washington’s efforts during the War of Independence were still rife. There was some real conflict and a far greater imagined conflict of interests between the trading and the purely agricultural States, even more than between the Slave States and those in which slavery had practically died out. Many competent observers doubted whether the new Federal Union, accepted only because the Confederation had proved a failure and the attitude of foreign powers was threatening, could maintain itself in the face of the strong sentiment of local independence animating colonies which after throwing off the yoke of Britain, were little inclined to brook any external control. The Constitution was an experiment, or rather a bundle of experiments, whose working there were few data for predicting. It was a compromise, and its very authors feared for it the common fate of compromises—to satisfy neither party and to leave open rents which time would widen. In particular, it seemed most doubtful whether the two branches of the Legislature, drawn from so wide an area and elected on different plans, would work harmoniously, and whether general obedience would be yielded to an executive President who must necessarily belong to and seem to represent one particular State and district. Parties did not yet exist, for there was as yet hardly a nation; but within a decade they grew to maturity and ferocity. One of them claimed to defend local self-government, the rights of the people, democratic equality; the other, the principle of national unity and the authority of the Federal power. One sympathized with France, the other was accused of leaning to an English alliance. They were, or soon came to be, divided not merely on burning questions of foreign policy and home policy, but also—and this was an issue which mixed itself up with everything else—as to the extent of the powers to be allowed to the central Government and its relations to the States—questions which the curt though apparently clear language of the Constitution had by no means exhausted, though by specifying certain powers as granted and certain others as withheld, it had supplied data for legal argument on points not expressly dealt with as well as on the general theory of the Constitution.
Slavery was not yet a leading question—indeed it existed to some slight extent in the Middle as well as in the Southern States, but the opposition of North and South was already visible. The Puritanism of New England, its industries and its maritime commerce gave it different sentiments as well as different interests from those which dominated the inhabitants of the South, a population wholly agricultural, among whom the influence of Jefferson was strong, and doctrines of advanced democracy had made great progress.
There was great diversity of opinion and feeling on all political questions in the America of those days, and the utmost freedom in expressing it. Over against the extreme democrats stood an illustrious group whose leader was currently believed to be a monarchist at heart, and who never concealed his contempt for the ignorance and folly of the crowd. Among these men, and to a less extent among the Jeffersonians also, there existed no small culture and literary power, and though the masses were all orthodox Christians and except in Maryland, orthodox Protestants, there was no lack of scepticism in the highest circles. One may speak of highest circles, for social equality, though rapidly advancing and gladly welcomed, was as yet rather a doctrine than a fact: and the respect for every kind of authority was great. There were neither large fortunes, nor abject poverty: but the working class, then much smaller relatively than it is now, deferred to the middle class, and the middle class to its intellectual chiefs. The clergy were powerful in New England: the great colonial families enjoyed high consideration in New York, in Pennsylvania, and above all in Virginia, whose landowners seemed to reproduce the later feudal society of England. Although all the States were republics of a hue already democratic, every State constitution required a property qualification for the holding of office or a seat in the legislature, and, in most States, a similar condition was imposed even on the exercise of the suffrage. Literary men (other than journalists) were rare, the universities few and unimportant, science scarcely pursued, philosophy absorbed in theology and theology dryly dogmatic. But public life was adorned by many striking figures. Five men at least of that generation, Washington, Hamilton, Franklin, Jefferson and Marshall, belong to the history of the world; and a second rank which included John Adams, Madison, Jay, Patrick Henry, Gouverneur Morris, James Wilson, Albert Gallatin, and several other gifted figures less familiar to Europe, must be mentioned with respect.
Everybody professed the principles of the Declaration of Independence and therefore held a republican form of government to be the only proper, or at any rate the only possible form for the central authority as well as for the States. But of the actual working of republican governments there was very little experience, and of the working of democracies, in our present sense of the word, there was really none at all beyond that of the several States since 1776, when they broke loose from the British Crown. Englishmen and Americans are more likely than Continentals to forget that in 1788 there was in the Old World only one free nation and no democracy.1 In Europe now there remain but two strong monarchies, those of Russia and Prussia, while America, scarcely excepting Brazil and Canada, is entirely (at least in name) republican. But the world of 1788 was a world full of kings—despotic kings—a world which had to go back for its notions of popular government to the commonwealths of classical antiquity. Hence the speculations of those times about the dangers, the merits, the characteristic tendencies and methods of free governments under modern conditions, were and must needs be vague and fanciful, because the materials for a sound induction were wanting. Wise men when forced to speculate, recurred to the general principles of human nature. Ordinary men went off into the air and talked at large, painting a sovereign people as reckless, violent, capricious on the one hand, or virtuous and pacific on the other according to their own predilections, whether selfish or emotional, for authority or for liberty. Though no one has yet written the natural history of the masses as rulers, the hundred years since 1788 have given us materials for such a natural history surpassing those which Hamilton possessed almost as much as the materials at the disposal of Darwin exceeded those of Buffon. Hence in judging the views of the Federalist writers2 and their antagonists, we must expect to find the diagnosis often inexact and the forecast fanciful.
Those who opposed the Constitution of 1787, a party both numerous and influential in nearly every State, were the men specially democratic and also specially conservative. They disliked all strengthening of government, and especially the erection of a central authority. They were satisfied with the system of sovereign and practically independent States. Hence they predicted the following as the consequences to be expected from the creation of an effective Federal executive and legislature.1
1. The destruction of the States as commonwealths. The central government, it was said, would gradually encroach upon their powers; would use the federal army to overcome their resistance; would supplant them in the respect of their citizens; would at last absorb them altogether. The phrase “consolidation of the Union,” which had been used by the Convention of 1787 to recommend its draft, was laid hold of as a term of reproach. “Consolidation,” the consolidation of the States into one centralized government became the popular cry, and like other plausible catchwords, carried away the unthinking.
2. The creation of a despot in the person of the President. His legal authority would be so large as not only to tempt him, but to enable him to extend it further, at the expense of the liberties both of States and of people. “Monarchy,” it was argued, “thrown off after such efforts, will in substance return with this copy of King George III, whose command of the federal army, power over appointments, and opportunities for intriguing with foreign powers on the one hand and corrupting the legislature on the other,1 will render the new tyrant more dangerous than the old one. Or if he be more open to avarice than to ambition, he will be the tool of foreign sovereigns and the means whereby they will control or enslave America.”2
3. The Senate will become an oligarchy. Sitting for six years, and not directly elected by the people, it “must gradually acquire a dangerous preëminence in the government, and finally transform it into a tyrannical aristocracy.”3
4. The House of Representatives will also, like every other legislature, aim at supremacy. Elected only once in two years, it will forget its duty to the people. It will consist of “the wealthy and well-born,” and will try to secure the election of such persons only as its members.4
5. The larger States will use the greater weight in the government which the Federal constitution gives them to overbear the smaller.
6. The existence of a strong central government is likely, not only by multiplying the occasions of diplomatic intercourse with foreign powers, to give openings for intrigues by them dangerous to American freedom, but also to provoke foreign wars, in which the republic will perish if defeated, or if victorious, maintain herself only by vast expenditure, with the additional evil of having created an army dangerous to freedom.
That some of these anticipations were inconsistent with others of them was no reason why the same persons should not resort to both in argument. Any one who wishes to add to the number, for I have quoted but a few, being those which turn upon the main outlines of the Philadelphia draft, may do so by referring to the record of the discussions in the several State Conventions which deliberated on the new Constitution, known as Elliott’s Debates.
I pass from the opponents of the Constitution to its advocates. Hamilton and its friends sought in it a remedy against what they deemed the characteristic dangers of popular government. It is by dwelling on these dangers that they recommend it. We can perceive, however, that, while lauding its remedial power, they are aware how deep-seated such dangers are, and how likely to recur even after the adoption of the Constitution. It is plain from the language which Hamilton held in private that he desired a stronger and more centralized government, which would have approached nearer to that British Constitution which he regarded as being, with all its defects, the best model for free nations.1 And in a remarkable letter written in February, 1802, under the influence of disappointment with the course events were then taking, he calls the Constitution he was “still labouring to prop” a “frail and worthless fabric.”
We may therefore legitimately treat his list of evils to be provided against by the new federal government as indicating the permanently mischievous tendencies which he foresaw. Some of them, he is obliged to admit, can not be wholly averted by any constitutional devices, but only by the watchful intelligence and educated virtue of the people.
The evils chiefly feared are the following:
1. The spirit and power of faction, which is so clearly the natural and necessary offspring of tendencies always present in mankind, that wherever liberty exists it must be looked for.1
Its causes are irremovable; all you can do is to control its effects, and the best prospect of overcoming them is afforded by the representative system and the size of American with the diversities among its population.
2. Sudden impulses, carrying the people away and inducing hasty and violent legislative measures.2
3. Instability in foreign policy, due to changes in the executive and in public sentiment, and rendering necessary the participation of a comparatively small council or Senate in the management of this department.
5. The Legislature is usually the strongest power in free governments. It will seek, as the example of the English Parliament shows, to encroach upon the other departments; and this is especially to be feared from the House of Representatives as holding the power of the purse.5
6. The States, and especially the larger States, may overbear the Federal government. They have closer and more constant relations with the citizen, because they make and administer the ordinary laws he lives under. His allegiance has hitherto belonged to them and may not readily be acquired by the central authority. In a struggle, should a struggle come, State power is likely to prevail against federal power.
7. There is in republics a danger that the majority may oppress the minority. Already conspicuous in some of the State governments, as for instance Rhode Island, this danger may be diminished by the application of the federal system to the great area of the Union, where “society will be broken into so many parts, interests and classes of citizens, that the lights of individuals or of the minority will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority.”1
8. Another source of trouble is disclosed by the rash experiments which some States have tried, passing laws which threaten the validity of contracts and the security of property. As there is unwisdom in these, so there are signs of weakness in the difficulty which State governments have found in raising revenue by direct taxation.2 Citizens whose poverty does not excuse their want of public spirit refuse to pay; and the administration fears to coerce them.
Not less instructive than the fears of the Federalist writers are their hopes. Some of the perils which have since disclosed themselves are not divined. Some institutions which have conspicuously failed are relied on as full of promise.
The method of choosing the President is recommended with a confidence the more remarkable because it was the point on which the Convention had been most divided and had last arrived at an agreement.
“The mode of appointment of the Chief Magistrate of the United States is almost the only part of the system, of any consequence, which has escaped without severe censure, or which has received the slightest mark of approbation from its opponents. . . . If the manner of it be not perfect, it is at least excellent. It unites in an eminent degree all the advantages the union of which was to be wished for. . . . The process of election affords a moral certainty that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any one who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications. Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State, but it will require other talents and a different kind of merit to establish him in the confidence and esteem of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States. It will not be too strong to say that there will be a constant probability of seeing the station filled by characters preëminent for ability and virtue.”1
It is assumed that America will continue an agricultural and (to a less extent) a commercial country, but that she will not develop manufactures; and also that the fortunes of her citizens will continue to be small.2 No serious apprehensions regarding the influence of wealth in elections or in politics generally are expressed.
The contingency of a division of the States into two antagonistic groups is not contemplated. When the possibility of State combinations is touched on, it is chiefly with reference to the action of small and of large States respectively. In particular no hint is dropped as to the likelihood of the institution of slavery becoming a bond to unite the Southern States and a cause of quarrel between them and the Northern.1
Although the mischiefs of faction are dwelt on, nothing indicates that its embodiment in highly developed party systems, whose organizations might overshadow the legal government, had occurred to any one’s mind. Still less, of course, is there any anticipation of the influence to be exerted on politics by the distribution of offices.
Let us now see which of these views and forecasts have been verified by the event.
Of those put forth by the opponents of the Constitution not one has proved true. The States are still strong, the President is not a despot, though for a time during the war he came near being one, nor has he ever fallen under the influence of any European power. The House does not consist of the “wealthy and well born;” the large States do not combine against nor press hardly on the smaller; no great country has so few wars or indeed foreign complications of any kind. Although persons are still found who call the Senate “an oligarchy,” they only state the undeniable fact that it consists of comparatively few persons, most of them wealthy, and that it has a strong corporate feeling in favor of the personal interests of each of its members. It is really as dependent on public opinion as the House, perhaps even more afraid of public opinion, and almost as directly the offspring of popular election. One is in fact surprised to find that of the many arrows of accusation levelled at the Constitution, all should have flown wide of the mark.
The deeper insight and more exact thinking of Hamilton and Madison fastened upon most of the real and permanent weaknesses in popular government. Yet even they could not foresee the particular forms which those weaknesses would assume in the new nation. To examine in detail the eight points specified above would involve an examination of the whole of recent American history. I shall therefore simply indicate in a word or two the extent to which, in each case, the predictions of the Federalist may be deemed correct or the reverse.
1. The spirit of faction has certainly, as Madison expected, proved less intense over the large area of the Union than it did in the Greek republics of antiquity or in the several States from 1776 to 1789. On the other hand, the bonds of sympathy created by the Federal system have at times enabled one State to infect another with its own vehemence. But for South Carolina, there would have been no secession in 1861. To-day the “demon of faction” is less powerful in the parties than at any previous date since the so-called “Era of Good Feeling” in 1820.
2. Sudden popular impulses there have been. But finding a ready and constitutional expression in elections, they do not lead to physical violence, while the elaborate system of checks seldom allows them to result in dangerous Federal legislation. In the States the risk of bad laws is greater, but it is largely averted by the provisions of the Federal Constitution as well as by gubernatorial vetoes and the restrictions of recent State Constitutions.
3. The early history of the Union furnishes illustrations of feebleness and inconstancy in foreign policy, yet not greater than those which mark most monarchies. Royal caprice, or the influence of successive favorites, has proved more pernicious in absolute monarchies than popular fickleness in republics. That of late years the foreign policy of the United States has been singularly consistent is due not so much to the Senate, nor even to the good sense of the people, as to the fact that the position and interests of the nation prescribe certain broad and simple lines.
4. On public matters, at least, Congress has not been prone to waste or excess in legislation. At present, it is more blameable for what it neglects or postpones than for what it enacts. The censure is more true of the States, especially the newer Western States.
5. The House of Representatives has doubtless sought to extend its sway at the expense of other departments. Whether it has succeeded is a question on which good observers in America itself differ; but the fact of their differing proves that the encroachments have not been considerable. Whenever the President is weak or unpopular, Congress seems to be gaining on the Executive Chief. When the latter is presumably strong, he can keep the Legislature at bay.
6. In the struggle which never quite ceases, though it is often scarcely noticed, between the States and the Federal Government, the States have rather lost than gained ground. Nor are the larger States more practically formidable than the small ones. No State would now venture to brave the Federal Judiciary as Georgia did, and did successfully, in the disgraceful case of the Cherokee Indians.
7. As regards the so-called tyranny of the majority, a question too large to be fully examined here, I must be content to remark that it has not hitherto proved a serious evil in America. This, however, is due rather to the character and habits of the people and their institutions generally than to the mere extent and population of the Union, on which the Federalist writers relied.
8. There is some foolish Congressional legislation, and, of course, much more foolish State legislation. But property is secure and the sense of civic duty seems, on the whole, to be improving.
It will appear from this examination and from the fact (noted a few pages back) that some remarkable developments which political life has taken never crossed the minds of the authors of the Federalist, that these wisest men of their time did not foresee what strike us now as the specially characteristic virtues and faults of American democracy. Neither the spoils system nor the system of party nominations by wirepullers crossed their minds. They did not foresee the inordinate multiplication of elections, nor the evils of confining eligibility for a seat in the legislature to a person resident in the electing district. No student of history will deem that this detracts from their greatness, for history teaches nothing more plainly than the vanity of predictions in the realm of what we call the moral and political sciences, in religion, in ethics, in sociology, in government and politics. Deep thinkers help us when they unfold those permanent truths of human nature which come everywhere into play. Historians help us when, by interpreting the past, they demonstrate what are the tendencies that have so prevailed in recent years as to create the present. Observers keen enough to read the mind of the present generation may help us by rendering it probable that those tendencies, or some new ones just appearing, will be ruling factors in the near future. But beyond the near future—that is to say, beyond the lifetime of the generation which already holds power—no true philosopher will venture. He may indulge his fancy in picturing the details of the remoter landscape; but he knows that it is a region fit for fancy, not for science. In the works of great thinkers there are to be found some happy guesses about times to come; but these are few, indeed, compared with the prophecies whose worthlessness was so soon revealed that men forgot they had ever been made, or the dreams which, like those of Dante, idealized an impossible future from an irrevocable past.
As regards the views of Hamilton and Madison, who, be it remembered, do not present themselves as prophets but as the censors of present evils, it may be added that the Constitution which they framed and carried checked some of these very evils (e.g., the unjust lawmaking and reckless currency experiments of the State legislatures); and that it was obviously impossible till the Federal government began to work to say how the existing forces could adapt themselves to it. Hamilton remarks in one of his letters that he holds with Montesquieu that a nation’s form of government ought to be fitted to it as a suit of clothes is fitted to its wearer.1 He would doubtless have added that it was difficult to make sure of the fit until the coat had been tried on.
The causes, moreover, which have affected the political growth of America are largely causes which were in 1788 altogether beyond human ken: the cotton gin, steam communications, Irish and German immigration have been supreme factors in that history; but even the first of these had not risen over the horizon in that year, and the last did not become a potent factor till half way through the present century.2 What the sages of the Convention shew us, are certain tendencies they discern in their contemporaries, viz.:
Recklessness and unwisdom in the masses, producing bad laws.
Unwillingness to submit to or support a strong government.
Abuse by the majority of its legal power over the minority.
Indifference to national as compared with local and sectional interests, and consequent preference of State loyalty to national loyalty.
That each of these tendencies then existed and might have been expected to work for evil, admits of no doubt. But if we ask American history what it has to say about their subsequent course, the answer will be that the second and third tendencies have declined, and do not at present menace the public welfare, while the first, though never absent and always liable to marked recrudescence, as the annals of the several States prove, has done little harm in the sphere of National Government. As to the fourth, which Hamilton seems to have chiefly feared, it ultimately took the form not of a general centrifugal force, impelling each State to fly off from the system, but of a scheme for the separation of the Scuthern or slave-holding States into a separate Confederacy, and in this form it received, in 1865, a crushing and apparently final defeat.1
[1 ]North Carolina did not ratify the Constitution till November, 1789; Rhode Island not till May, 1790.
[1 ]The Swiss Confederation was scarcely yet a nation, and the few democratic cantons were so small as hardly to come into account.
[2 ]Of these writers Hamilton must be deemed the leading spirit, not merely because he wrote by far the larger number of letters, but because his mind was more independent and more commanding than Madison’s. The latter rendered admirable service in the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, but afterwards yielded to the (in the main unfortunate) influence of Jefferson, a character with less purity but more vehemence.
[1 ]I take no account of those objections to the Constitution which may be deemed to have been removed by the first eleven amendments.
[1 ]See Federalist, No. LIV.
[2 ]Federalist, No. LXVI, p. 667. “Calculating upon the aversion of the people to monarchy, the writers against the Constitution have endeavored to enlist all their jealousies and apprehensions in opposition to the intended President of the United States, not merely as the embryo but as the full grown progeny of that detested parent. They have to establish the pretended affinity, not scrupled to draw resources even from the regions of fiction. The authority of a magistrate in few instances greater, in some instances less, than those of a Governor of New York, have been magnified into more than royal prerogatives. He has been decorated with attributes superior in dignity and splendour to those of a King of Great Britain. He has been shewn to us with the diadem sparkling on his brow and the imperial purple flowing in his train. He has been seated on a throne surrounded with minions and mistresses, giving audience to the envoys of foreign potentates in all the supercilious pomp of majesty. The images of Asiatic despotism and voluptuousness have scarcely been wanting to crown the exaggerated scene. We have been taught to tremble at the terrific visages of murdering janizaries, and to blush at the unveiled mysteries of a future seraglio.”
[3 ]Federalist, No. LXII.
[4 ]Federalist, Nos LVI and LIX.
[1 ]Though he, like other observers of t’ at time had not realized, and might not have relished, the supremacy, now become omnipotence, which the House of Commons had already won.
[1 ]Federalist, No. X (written by Madison) and in other letters.
[2 ]Federalist, No. LXII.
[3 ]Federalist, No. LXI.
[4 ]Federalist, No. LXXII.
[5 ]“The Legislative Department is everywhere (i. e., in all the States) extending the sphere of its activity and drawing all power into its impetuous vortex. . . . It is against the enterprising ambition of this department that the People ought to indulge all their jealousy and exhaust all their precautions.” Federalist, No. XLVII.
[1 ]Federalist, No. L.
[2 ]Federalist, No. XII.
[1 ]Federalist, No. LXVII. In 1800, twelve years after Hamilton wrote this passage, the contest for the Presidency lay between Jefferson and Aaron Burr, and Hamilton was compelled by his sense of Burr’s demerits to urge his party to vote (when the choice came before the House of Representatives) for Jefferson, his own bitter enemy. What he thought of Burr, who, but for his intervention, would certainly have obtained the chief magistracy of the nation, may be inferred from the fact that he preferred as President the man of whom he thus writes: “I admit that his (Jefferson’s) politics are tinctured with fanaticism; that he is too much in earnest in his democracy, that he has been a mischievous enemy to the principal measures of our past administration that he is crafty and persevering in his objects, that he is not scrupulous about the means of success, nor very mindful of truth; and that he is a contemptible hypocrite. But, &c.” (Letter to James A. Bayard, Jan. 16, 1801.)
[2 ]“The private fortunes of the President and Senators, as they must all be American citizens, cannot possibly be sources of danger.” Federalist, No. LIV.
[1 ]But as to the early emergence of the opposition of Northern and Southern men over slavery, see the first chapter of Dr. Von Holst’s History.
[1 ]“I hold with Montesquieu that a government must be fitted to a nation as much as a coat to the individual and consequently that what may be good at Philadelphia may be bad at Paris and ridiculous at Petersburgh.” To Lafayette, Jan. 6th, 1799.
[2 ]The first cargo of cotton was sent from America to Europe in 1791 and the cotton gin invented in 1793.
[1 ]When we come to De Tocqueville, we shall find him touching but lightly on the two first of the above tendencies (partly, perhaps, because he attends too little to the State governments), but emphasizing the third and fearing from the fourth the dissolution of the Union.