All Commentary
Saturday, April 1, 1961

On a Text From The Federalist

Dr. Manchester is an educator, formerly of the Department of English, University of Wisconsin.

While reading recently in The Federalist, I was struck by a quality of its thought which bore no relation to my immediate in­terest, but which seemed signifi­cant, and whose significance has grown upon me with reflection. This quality I call moral realism. As to its nature and importance I should like the reader to form, first of all, a completely inde­pendent opinion, and shall there­fore set down without comment a series of passages in which it appears. If the series seems long, I ask his indulgence. If I quote so much, it is only because I wish the Lextual basis for my subsequent remarks and speculations to be broadly and firmly established. Here, then, are the passages:

1. Why has government been in­stituted at all? Because the pas­sions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice, without constraint.

2. Has it not… invariably been found that momentary passions, and immediate interests, have a more active and imperious control over human conduct than general or remote considerations of policy, utility, or justice?

3. There are few men who would not feel much less zeal in the dis­charge of a duty, when they were conscious that the advantages of the station with which it was con­nected must be relinquished at a determinate period, than when they were permitted to entertain a hope of obtaining, by meriting, a continuance of them. This posi­tion will not be disputed, so long as it is admitted that the desire of reward is one of the strongest incentives of human conduct, or that the best security for the fi­delity of mankind is to make their interest coincide with their duty.

4. To presume a want of motives for such contests [frequent and violent contests between the states if they should be wholly or par­tially disunited], as an argument against their existence, would be to forget that men are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious.

5. Nothing was more to be de­sired [in the system of electing the President] than that every practi­cable obstacle should be opposed to cabal, intrigue, and corruption. These most deadly adversaries of republican [that is, popular] gov­ernment might naturally have been expected to make their approaches from more than one quarter, but chiefly from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper as­cendant in our councils. How could they better gratify this than by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union?

6. If the impulse and the oppor­tunity [on the part of a majority to concert and carry into effect schemes of oppression] be suffered to coincide, we well know that neither moral nor religious mo­tives can be relied on as an ade­quate control. They are not found to be such on the injustice and vio­lence of individuals, and lose their efficacy in proportion to the num­ber combined together; that is, in proportion as their efficacy be­comes needful.

7. The legislature, with a discre­tionary power over the salary and emoluments of the chief magis­trate [the President], could render him as obsequious to their will as they might think proper to make him…. There are men who could neither be distressed nor won into a sacrifice of their duty; but this stern virtue is the growth of few soils; and in the main it will be found that a power over a man’s support is a power over his will. If it were necessary to confirm so plain a truth by facts, examples would not be wanting, even in this country, of the intimidation or se­duction of the executive by the ter­rors or allurements of the pecuni­ary arrangements of the legisla­tive body.

8. If we should reject the union of the colonies] our commerce would be a prey to the wanton in­termeddlings of all nations at war with each other; who, having nothing to fear from us, would, with little scruple or remorse, sup­ply their wants by depredations on our property, as often as it fell in their way. The rights of neutrality will only be respected when they are defended by an adequate power. A nation despicable by its weak­ness forfeits even the privilege of being neutral.

9. As there is a degree of de­pravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican [that is, popular] government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form. Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousy of some among us faith­ful likenesses of the human char­acter, the inference would be that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government, and that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one an­other.2

The Moral Nature of Man

All these excerpts are manifestly concerned, directly or indirectly, with the moral nature of man. What do they say? Reduced to es­sentials, simply this: that men are ambitious, vindictive, and rapa­cious; that they are moved by passion and self-interest; that if you would have them do their duty you had better make it to their interest to do it; that, with rare exceptions, a power over a man’s support is a power over his will; that men are prone to cabal, intrigue, and cor­ruption; that neither moral nor re­ligious motives can be relied on as adequate control on the injustice and violence of individuals, and, still less, on the injustice and vio­lence of groups; that, combined in­to nations, men will contrive against one another—and even, as suitable occasion offers, openly rob one another, “with little scruple or remorse”; and, finally, that along with the depravity in man’s nature there is also virtue.

I have named the quality illus­trated moral realism—”moral” for an obvious reason, “realism” be­cause it seems to me an essentially correct, authentic, factual repre­sentation of the aspect of reality concerned. This is what, once you penetrate to the bottom of their nature, men are really like.

A Realistic Appraisal

The picture painted is not a flattering one—yet these are no bishops of a fanatically strenuous church, the authors I have quoted, but simply hardheaded men of the world, tried in the fires of a peri­lous revolution, well acquainted with history, the greatest by far of moral laboratories, and intellectu­ally qualified to profit by their learning and by their experience. Moreover, this was no light and ordinary undertaking in which they were engaged, but one which offered the strongest and most practical reasons for dealing only in cold fact. They were recommend­ing a document which, if accepted, would be of the most critical im­portance to the welfare of the na­tion, and they were well aware that their premises and conclusions would be subjected to the severest scrutiny. A sound constitution for a country was necessarily a consti­tution that took into account the naked truth, however uncompli­mentary, regarding its citizens (“citizens,” they believed, were “the only proper objects of govern­ment”); and upon clear statements of this truth they built their case.

An idea expressed in the last of the quoted passages I want to re­cur to immediately, before it can fade from memory. Popular gov­ernment, we are told, presupposes the existence of the better quali­ties of human nature in a higher degree than any other form. This observation, plainly of the highest political significance, finds definite support, and even a striking exten­sion, in a remark made long after the appearance of The Federalist by the nineteenth-century English philosopher Herbert Spencer. “The Republican form of govern­ment,” he said, “is the highest form of government; but because of this it requires the highest type of human nature—a type [I am adding the emphasis] nowhere at present existing.”3

The Changing Attitudes

To this idea I shall return; but at the moment I want to inquire why it was that the moral realism of The Federalist, especially its vivid recognition of the evil in man, so much attracted my atten­tion. Not of course because it is new: there is nothing new in it. “The heart is deceitful above all things,” said Jeremiah, some twenty-five hundred years ago, “and desperately wicked.” The reason is, I suggest, that I seem never to encounter matter of this kind in current political discussion. If my experience in this regard is representative, how is the fact it indicates to be accounted for? Have we to do here with a change in fashions—from eighteenth-century love for abstraction and generalization to twentieth-century addiction to factual detail? Con­ceivably, to some extent; but the explanation is inadequate. All po­litical arrangements, whether con­stitutions or laws, are for the con­trol or benefit of men—”the only proper objects of government”—and if the unsophisticated facts of human nature go unmentioned in a statesman’s speech, provide him and his auditors with no solid ground for his argument, I suspect that they are absent also from his inmost thought.

If they were indeed thus absent, the circumstance could hardly oc­casion much surprise in anyone acquainted with certain philosophi­cal developments in the Occident of recent centuries.

Emphasis on Natural Science

Basic among these has been a major shift of investigative atten­tion from human nature to physi­cal nature. The science of man has largely given way to what is inac­curately called natural science—inaccurately because there is no justification for restricting the word nature and its family to such things as air and atoms. The im­portance of this development is difficult to overestimate. In the millennia preceding the European Renaissance, it was to human na­ture, almost exclusively, that the world had devoted its most strenu­ous thought, with a resulting vast accumulation of moral wisdom. The Occident originally shared in this treasure. But with the Renais­sance, and subsequently, it has gradually become more and more absorbed in searching out the se­crets of its physical environment and in using these to better its ma­terial life; and in so doing it has tended to lose its grasp on its most precious heritage. For moral wis­dom, unhappily, is not self-perpetu­ating. Its universal accessibility in public or private libraries in itself avails nothing. If the ultimate truth of man’s nature is not con­stantly rediscovered and confirmed, constantly contemplated and medi­tated upon, it readily becomes ob­scured, diluted, distorted, and at last hopelessly confused in the midst of sophistries without end.

A sophistry that appeared in eighteenth-century Europe is of such importance that I class it, along with the great shift of at­tention to physical nature that alone made it possible, among the significant modern developments. I refer to the doctrine that men are naturally good—a doctrine diametrically opposed to the con­cept of original sin which long played so large a part in Western religious tradition, and which was conspicuously present in early New England. The authors of The Federalist say nothing, so far as I know, about original sin, but one can hardly fail to infer, in read­ing them, that something of the moral rigor which the idea repre­sents had permeated the intellec­tual atmosphere in which they were reared. Men are “ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious”: that is a judgment quite in keeping with the thunderous condemnations of a Jonathan Edwards.

Original Sin vs. Natural Goodness

The doctrine of original sin re­flected an extreme view of man’s depravity, and its very extreme­ness helped the opposite theory of man’s goodness to gain acceptance. Acceptance it did gain, widely, and it is obviously still active in contemporary thought. So long as the capital accumulated during centuries of moral realism, with its accompanying disciplines, con­tinued to yield large dividends in conduct, there was some plausi­bility in the new doctrine; and by the time capital and dividends had dwindled to the point where the wickedness of man was too ob­vious to overlook, saving explana­tions were ready. Men who do evil do it, not because they are not naturally good, but because they are brought up in a bad environ­ment; let society but provide a proper environment, and their conduct will be different. Or, if evil behavior develops even de­spite a benign environment, it can be attributed to some physiologi­cal or psychological defect. Be­tween the two ideas individual responsibility—without which morality has absolutely no mean­ing—all but disappears.

In proportion as the theory of natural goodness prevails, spon­taneous feelings of friendliness, love, compassion, fill the ethical firmament, at the expense of the severities of restraint, and moral realism succumbs to sentimental morality. Then is born the ethical sentimentalist. The ethical senti­mentalist is aware of kindly dis­positions in his own bosom, and these dispositions, present in him­self, he assumes to be present also in others—as indeed, in varying degree and with varying continu­ity, they commonly are. But, if they are, what more proof does one need that men are naturally good? More, very much more, would be the stern reply of a man known to me only by family tra­dition. “If you cannot say any­thing better about me than that I am good-hearted,” ran his novel request, “please say nothing at all.” Behind that request, one sur­mises, lay much enlightening ex­perience. He had listened to the affectionate but meaningless maunderings of neighbors in their cups. He had discovered in his everyday dealings with his fellow men that fine feelings may be followed by dastardly deeds.

The authors of The Federalist assumed, and by implication as­serted, a measure of virtue in man—a measure sufficient for success in self-government; but the virtue they had in mind, be­ing realists, was something—one may be quite sure—very different from the facile outpouring of friendly emotion. It was ultimate­ly neither emotion, nor yet reason, but a moral or spiritual agency distinct from either. It was what marks the man we like to think of, and to honor, as the man of principle.

But to get back to our states­men. If from their inmost thought, as from their speeches, the maxims of moral realism were ab­sent, the fact would not be diffi­cult to account for, as we have seen, on the basis of certain de­velopments in Western philosophy. Still, to show that a thing might very naturally be, is by no means to prove that it is. We cannot know a man’s inmost thought. Possibly our statesmen do indeed meditate upon such concepts of human nature as I have adduced from Hamilton, Madison, and Jay—but in any case, from the point of view of the American elector­ate, the question at issue is largely academic. What this elec­torate is ultimately interested in, as an electorate, is not what goes on in the consciousness, or con­science, of its governors, but whether they put into practice a realistic view of human nature in the laws they pass, the adminis­trative structures they set up, the judicial decisions they make, or accept, and the conduct in other respects of the public business. What, as regards these things, is their recent record?

This is a spacious question, in­viting a spacious answer, but this I must leave mainly to my reader, contenting myself with brief con­sideration of a few relevant topics which I have lately had much in mind. The first three of these are related, each having to do with a domestic area of government in which gross abuses or failures in duty are reported convincingly to have arisen: military procure­ment, the national highway pro­gram, and unemployment compen­sation. I will first try to suggest the facts involved in each case—I can here do little more—and then make my comment.}

Military Procurement

The first area is that of federal procurement of military supplies. The Defense Procurement Act of 1947 ruled that “all purchases and contracts for supplies and services shall be made by advertising, ex­cept that such purchases and con­tracts may be negotiated by the agency head without advertising if—(1) Determined to be neces­sary in the public interest during the period of a national emer­gency declared by the President or by the Congress. (2) The public exigency will not admit of the delay incident to advertising, etc.” Other special circumstances, all to be exceptions, were defined. In a speech delivered on June 13, 1960, Senator Paul H. Douglas revealed that for the fiscal year 1959 the Defense Department “procured 22.7 billion in supplies through contracts with firms within the United States,” and that “of this amount, some 19.7 billion, or 86.4 per cent, was pro­cured through negotiated con­tracts, and only a little over 3 bil­lion, or less than 14 per cent, was procured through contracts let by competitive bidding. “5 The provisions “put in the law to allow negotiation under some limited circumstances where unusual con­ditions existed,” observes the Sen­ator, “have now been used merely to universalize negotiated con­tracts.”

The Senator made further charges, among them: that as of June 30, 1959, about one-third (valued at 14.3 billion dollars) of the supplies on hand in the De­fense Department was “in excess of the needs either to run the mili­tary on a day-by-day peacetime basis, or of their needs if we had to go to war tomorrow morning”; and that the Defense Department “eventually plans to dispose of as much as $60 billion at the rate of $10 billion to $12 billion per year over the next 4 to 5 years…. The records indicate in general that the Department of Defense has been able to obtain only about 2 cents on the dollar, or 2 per cent, for the stock disposed of.”

Illustrations of Waste in Procurement

As illustrations of his charge of waste in procurement, Senator Douglas lists ten items. The first of these is a four-foot cable with a plug at each end, worth about $1.50; price paid by the military, $10.67. The second is a small wrench set with case, worth about $4.50; price paid by the Army, $29. The third is a small socket for a lamp, about one inch in length, sold at a retail store for 25 cents; price paid by the gov­ernment, $21.10. For the remain­ing seven items anyone interested may consult the Senator’s aston­ishing speech.

Naturally, the Defense Depart­ment replied to the charges—but in part, the lesser part, only. On the general, basic criticisms it was silent. The rebuttal, says Senator Douglas, “takes several forms which, upon examination, are either absurd or raise even more serious charges than I made.” This rebuttal I have not seen, but the Senator’s counterstatement, patiently, exhaustively detailed, seems devastating—and defini­tive, leaving no opening for ef­fective further argument. Read­ing it, one marvels how the De­fense Department could have had the temerity to answer the Sena­tor as it did. One suspects it had sadly underestimated the tenacity, thoroughness, earnestness, and caution of its critic.

“We know,” said Senator Gruen­ing, in the course of Senator Douglas’s speech, “that Senator Douglas always understates a case.” Yet it is Senator Douglas’s contention that the waste involved in use of negotiated contracts (a negotiated contract, according to Senator Ervin, is “something like kissing; it goes by favor, not as a matter of right”) is “appalling and runs into billions of dollars.”

The Federal Highway Program

The second area I referred to is the national highway program. This, a beautiful “dream” sold in 1956 to the American people, “has become a nightmare of reckless­ness, extravagance, special privi­lege, bureaucratic stupidity and sometimes downright thievery.” Originally thought to require an outlay of 27 billion, “Already many engineers and builders pri­vately estimate that 50 billion dol­lars will not touch its total cost.” The law governing the project, which was to be paid for almost entirely (90 per cent or more) by the federal government, provides that “local needs shall be given equal consideration with the needs of interstate commerce,” but “too many cities are giving all consid­eration to their own needs.” “Al­though only 12 per cent of the In­terstate Network mileage is slated to go into or around cities, at least 45 per cent of the network money is being spent on urban roads such as Omaha’s”—which “is be­ing driven through the heart of the city at an estimated cost of 42 million dollars, though an alter­nate route, around the town, would cost less than 15 million.”

The article I am citing supplies varied examples of abuse or dere­liction besides the one just noted, including duplication of already existing roads; building of bridges supposed to accommodate the mili­tary to unpardonably erroneous specifications; purchase of land (contrary to federal policy) in advance of appraisal; excessive employment of private engineer­ing consultants; and what are politely referred to as “hush-hush deals.” Senator Harry Byrd would appear to be well within the facts when he alleges that the road pro­gram is in an “inexcusable mess,” and that there has been great “temptation to grab land, hike prices and profiteer.”

Unemployment Compensation

The third and last of the areas mentioned is that of unemploy­ment compensation. A federal-state system set up by Congress twenty-five years ago required that to qualify for compensation “workers had to be ‘ready, willing, and able to work.’ Benefits were to go to legitimate wage-earners who had clearly lost jobs through no fault of their own, to tide them over until they could find employment.—The collapse of these standards is shocking.” “The solid planks on which [the system] was built… have been so warped by the pressures of our growing welfare bureaucracy that hun­dreds of millions of dollars are being wasted on loafers, quitters, honeymooners, schemers, parasites and a host of others for whom it was never intended.”

A few illustrations will point the generalities. An industrial worker retiring at the age of sixty-five with a monthly income of $338, in addition to his Social Security checks, registered as a job seeker, and in this status ul­timately collected over $2,000. “In Hollywood, a twelve-year-old child actor spurned parts as an extra paying up to $28 a day, yet was declared eligible for unemploy­ment benefits. Why? The young­ster was accustomed to speaking roles at $100 to $150 a day, so lesser parts were beneath him.” In New York a woman quit a $45­a-week job to get married, and drew nine weeks of unemployment compensation. Her employer, who as such had to pay the bill, ap­pealed. “When the case finally reached the State Supreme Court Appellate Division, the employer was turned down. The court put marriage in the same class ‘as an illness or other event of important personal consequence to the worker.’ ” A man stole $25,000 from his employer; after a sus­pension period he collected benefits—for which the man he had stolen from was duly charged!

Such instances as I have given beat the system, we are told, “within the law.” There are also illegal abuses. “In the last three recorded years 170,000 cases of fraud were officially reported…. The officially admitted take by gypsters: more than 12 million dollars.”

There they are—the three areas of shame. What if anything do they suggest regarding the pres­ence of moral realism in those who in the last decades have made or administered our laws? The reply to this question, I for one think, need not be doubtful, or vague. For either in the making or in the administering of the legislation concerned, or in both, this indis­pensable quality appears to have played a monstrously inadequate role; and it is reasonable to as­sume that in moral matters a quality that is absent from an ac­tion is absent also from the agent.

Global Moral Delinquency

Moral delinquency has many gradations—by no means all of them appearing in our quotations from The Federalist. In the present context it ranges all the way from indifference, careless­ness, irresponsibility, physical in­dolence, to conscious violation of oath or duty, and finally to down­right venality, theft, or even trea­son. Both legislation and adminis­tration should guard against the entire scale of human weaknesses, with an elaborateness and an in­tensity proportionate in each indi­vidual case to the seriousness or magnitude of the risks involved.

Moral realism, then, in our in­ternal affairs, if we may judge by the three instances cited, is, to say the least, insufficiently active; but obviously such a condition in our internal affairs is prima facie evidence of its presence also in our external affairs. If we are not to stop midway in the course of our argument, we must therefore take a look at our recent foreign policy.

The United Nations, I take it, was mainly our idea. The monologuist of “Locksley Hall,” an early poem of Tennyson’s (pub­lished in 1842), tells of how in his rapturous youth, dipping into the future “far as human eye could see,” he beheld, among other things, the “nations’ airy navies grappling in the central blue…

Till the war-drum throbbed no longer, and the battle-flags were furled

In the parliament of man, the federation of the world”—

but to this happy consummation he affixed no date.6 Could it be that the attempt to realize it in our time was definitely premature, and was this attempt due to the birth and spread during the eighteenth and nineteenth cen­turies of the modern belief in a broadly based democracy, and was this belief itself the product, in part at least, of that faith in the natural goodness of mankind, that sentimental morality, with the ad­vent of which its burgeoning co­incided? There is plausibility in the idea; and if there is reason to doubt the wisdom of setting up the United Nations in the first place, that reason could hardly fail to be enhanced by reflection on what has lately happened in the organiza­tion and on its probable future de­velopment.

Gradations of Morality in the Pyramid of Civilization

As to what has happened, could not much of it, in essentials, have been readily anticipated? What is the United Nations, in one aspect, but a two-level popular govern­ment—insofar as its power ex­tends; and what was it The Federalist said about popular gov­ernment? It said that popular gov­ernment (it used the word repub­lican) presupposes the existence of the better qualities of human nature in a higher degree than any other form—a degree which Herbert Spencer declared in effect, as we have seen, was realized by no society of his time. Well then, if popular government is so ex­ceedingly exacting, what is to be expected of the United Nations, a popular government in which the units governed are societies oc­cupying, some one, some another, nearly all the stages, from the lowest to the highest, on the pres­ent pyramid of civilization?

And now, leaving the United Nations, what shall we say of our conduct of the struggle between ourselves and our communist enemy? Has that represented a policy of adequate moral realism? Into our relations with him has there not appeared, here too, that dangerous illusion which I have called sentimental morality?7 What of the Spirit of Geneva and the Spirit of Camp David, ghosts scarcely to be referred to without irony; what were they, after all, but chance expressions of our cur­rent national mood, our predilec­tion for thinking, where human re­lations and values are concerned, not with the head, as did the distinguished moral realists who wrote our greatest political com­mentary—but with the heart? 4

Foot Notes

1 In the following list the arabic nu­merals identify the quoted passages as distinguished in the text, the roman nu­merals (in parentheses) the essays in The Federalist from which they are taken: 1 (XV), 2 (VI), 3 (XXI), 4 (VI), 5 (LXVII), 6 (X), 7 (LXXII), 8 (XI), 9 (LIV). Essay X is by James Madison, Essay LIV by John Jay; the rest of the essays cited are by Alexander Hamilton. The Federalist, it will be recalled, was written in explanation, and defense, of the Constitution proposed for the colo­nies by the great convention of 1787.

2 One may here be reminded of Pascal: “It is dangerous to make man see too clearly his equality with the brutes with­out showing him his greatness. It is also dangerous to make him see his greatness too clearly, apart from his vileness. It is still more dangerous to leave him in ig­norance of both. But it is very advanta­geous to show him both.” (Translated by W. F. Trotter.)

3 From The Americans (Bartlett’s Quotations, 1948, p. 581).

4 The material used in my account of this first area is derived from the Con­gressional Record, Senate, of June 13, 1960 (pp. 11,524 ff.) and from a mimeo­graphed document entitled “Statement of Senator Paul H. Douglas Concerning De­fense Department Reply to His Charges of Gross Waste in Procurement and Supply Practices of the Military Depart­ments” the latter marked for release from the office of the Senator on July 11, 1960. (For both sources I am indebted to the Senator’s kindness.) The material for the second area comes from an ar­ticle entitled “Our Great Big Highway Bungle” (Reader’s Digest, July 1960), by Karl Detzer; and that for the third area from an article entitled “The Scandal of Unemployment Compensation” (Reader’s Digest, April 1960), by Kenneth 0. Gil­more.

5 Elsewhere in the speech Senator Douglas observes: “If any mayor of a city were to purchase 86 per cent of the goods for his city under negotiated con­tracts such a storm of public disapproval would arise that he would be driven from office.”

6 In darker mood the monologuist soon follows these lines with others of ominous present import:

“Slowly comes a hungry people, as a lion, creeping nigher,Glares at one that nods and winks be­hind a slowly dying fire.”

7 For a brilliant account of sentimen­tal morality, see Irving Babbitt’s Rous­seau and Romanticism, Chapter IV: “Ro­mantic Morality: The Ideal” (Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1919)—now obtainable in Meridian Books (Meridian Books, Inc., New York).

  • Dr. Manchester is an educator, formerly of the Department of English, University of Wisconsin.