The risk of being less free

Alexander Hamilton 
Alexander Hamilton, portrait by Daniel Huntington (1865)

American culture has long prided itself on defiant statements of liberty. “Live free or die”, runs the official motto of the state of New Hampshire. “Don’t tread on me”, warns the rattlesnake of the Gadsden Flag. According to this mythology, Americans are willing to sacrifice their lives before losing their cherished freedoms.

Alas, as the last several years have shown, Americans are all too ready to trade away their freedoms for a greater sense of physical safety — in this, of course, they are no better nor worse than the rest of us — and the greater the apprehended threat to their safety, the deeper they’ll nestle into the protective arms of the state.

As Carol Vanderveer Hamilton points out in an interesting essay posted on George Mason University’s History News Network, Alexander Hamilton sounded a prescient warning about this in Federalist No. 8:

Safety from external danger is the most powerful director of national conduct. Even the ardent love of liberty will, after a time, give way to its dictates. The violent destruction of life and property incident to war, the continual effort and alarm attendant on a state of continual danger, will compel nations the most attached to liberty to resort for repose and security to institutions which have a tendency to destroy their civil and political rights. To be more safe, they at length become willing to run the risk of being less free.

Hamilton was talking about standing armies, and of the hostilities and despotisms that might ensue if the American confederacy collapsed into a collection of squabbling and independent states — predictions which formed part of his tenacious advocacy of a constitution that would bind the states together under a robust federal government. He also warns of the temptations of militarism, of undue deference shown to soldiers:

The perpetual menacings of danger oblige the government to be always prepared to repel it; its armies must be numerous enough for instant defense. The continual necessity for their services enhances the importance of the soldier, and proportionably degrades the condition of the citizen. The military state becomes elevated above the civil. The inhabitants of territories, often the theatre of war, are unavoidably subjected to frequent infringements on their rights, which serve to weaken their sense of those rights; and by degrees the people are brought to consider the soldiery not only as their protectors, but as their superiors.

Hamilton ends No. 8 on a hopeful note, yet one that would sadly prove mistaken:

If we are wise enough to preserve the Union we may for ages enjoy an advantage similar to that of an insulated situation. Europe is at a great distance from us. Her colonies in our vicinity will be likely to continue too much disproportioned in strength to be able to give us any dangerous annoyance. Extensive military establishments cannot, in this position, be necessary to our security.

Given his overriding emphasis on ensuring the ratification of the constitution, there may have been an element of political misdirection in such predictions. Hamilton, after all, was no radical democrat or libertarian, but a man aristocratic in temperament and hard-headed in policy — see my National Post essay on his embrace by modern “national greatness” conservatives — a supporter of a powerful federal government and a sophisticated financial system, who would ultimately become an advocate, ironically, of one of the things that Federalist No. 8 opposed: a standing army.

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