Federalism and David Hume’s Perfect Commonwealth

Authored by: Will R. Jordan , Scott Yenor

The Ashgate Research Companion to Federalism

Print publication date:  August  2009
Online publication date:  April  2016

Print ISBN: 9780754671312
eBook ISBN: 9781315612966
Adobe ISBN: 9781317043454


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Alexander Hamilton bemoans, in Federalist No. 9, the disappointing record of republican forms of government. It is impossible, he writes, “to read the history of the petty republics of Greece and Italy without feeling sensations of horror and disgust at the distractions with which they were continually agitated, and at the rapid succession of revolutions by which they were kept in a state of perpetual vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy.” Given this record of factious instability, Hamilton fears that republican government and, more importantly, the principle of civil liberty will be sacrificed to the more reliable principle of political order. Yet Hamilton urges his readers not to lose faith in republican forms. “The science of politics,” in his view, “like most other sciences, has received great improvement. The efficacy of various principles is now well understood, which were either not known at all, or imperfectly known to the ancients.” This new science of politics includes the separation of powers, institutional checks and controls, and the principle of representation – all of which tend to mollify factious tendencies of popular government. Also among the discoveries of this new science is what is now known as federalism, the “enlargement of the orbit” of republican systems through the “consolidation of several smaller States into one great Confederacy” (Hamilton, Madison, Jay 1999, 39–41).

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