The Federalist #25: Hamilton on the Militia and the Limits of Legislation


Due to my workload during the school year, I’ve had to drop blogging except for occasional instances on my other blog, but due to the lovely three day weekend bestowed by our observance of Veteran’s Day, I have a chance to return to The Federalist Papers. Appropriately enough, in this one, Federalist No. 25, Alexander Hamilton discusses the limitations and dangers of maintaining local militias.

However, the most interesting point Hamilton makes here is a broader appeal to the limitation of legislation. I may be misreading this a bit, as I am pulling it out of context, but I’ll leave that up to wiser readers to decide:

Here I expect we shall be told that the militia of the country is its natural bulwark, and would be at all times equal to the national defense. This doctrine, in substance, had like to have lost us our independence. It cost millions to the United States that might have been saved.. . . the bravest of [militiamen] feel and know that the liberty of their country could not have been established by their efforts alone, however great and valuable they were. War, like most other things, is a science to be acquired and perfected by diligence, by perseverance, by time, and by practice.

All violent policy, as it is contrary to the natural and experienced course of human affairs, defeats itself. . . .

. . . nations pay little regard to rules and maxims calculated in their very nature to run counter to the necessities of society. Wise politicians will be cautious about fettering the government with restrictions that cannot be observed, because they know that every breach of the fundamental laws, though dictated by necessity, impairs that sacred reverence which ought to be maintained in the breast of rulers towards the constitution of a country, and forms a precedent for other breaches where the same plea of necessity does not exist at all, or is less urgent and palpable. [bold added]

This point of caution about the limitations of legislation made me think of a passage I just read in a short book called The Gardens of Democracy by Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer.

What’s lost is the willingness of people to make judgments in situations that are not formulaic but are messy and human, and then to trust each other to make the best calls we can. As Philip Howard has argued powerfully, in a society that over-relies on laws and rules to govern everyday interactions—one where much is prescribed and proscribed and “what is not prohibited is permitted”—people forget how to exercise both rights and responsibilities.
What’s lost, in short, is citizenship.
 
Hamilton’s point about militias has faded with relevance, but his point about the limitations of legislation remains salient to our time.

Author: manderson

I live in NYC.

1 thought on “The Federalist #25: Hamilton on the Militia and the Limits of Legislation”

  1. Nice to see someone else taking an interest in Hamilton, I have many post that mention him, you should check it out sometime.

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