Readers of The New Yorker magazine will recognize the name, Jill Lepore. She is one of the magazine’s most insightful writers.
But Lepore’s day job is as a historian, a professor of American History at Harvard. In that capacity she has published a new one volume history of the United States, These Truths.
Apparently one-volume histories of the U.S. aren’t much attempted these days, so Lepore’s volume is an outlier. At 900 plus pages, it is also a hefty one-volume.
I’m not far into it, but I was struck by Lepore’s framing of her book with a question posed by Alexander Hamilton. That question, which appears deceptively simple, is found in THE FEDERALIST No. 1, a paper published anonymously in 1787. Hamilton argued that the United States “was an experiment in the science of politics, marking a new era in the history of government.”
Here’s Hamilton and his question:
“It seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”
It was the autumn of 1787. The occasion was the ratification of the proposed Constitution of the United States, just written in the Constitutional Convention in a sweltering Philadelphia.
But the question endures. “This was the question of that autumn,” writes Lepore. “And, in a way, it has been the question of every season since, the question of every rising and setting of the sun, on rainy days and snowy days, on clear days and cloudy days, at the clap of a thunderstorm.
“Can a political society really be governed by reflection and election, by reason and truth, rather than by accident and violence, by prejudice and deceit? Is there any arrangement of government — any constitution — by which it’s possible for a people to rule themselves, justly and fairly, and as equals, through the exercise of judgment and care? Or are their efforts, no matter their constitutions, fated to be corrupted, their judgment muddled by demagoguery, their reason abandoned for fury?”
Hamilton’s question has gained new force in this time of Trumpian demagoguery and of the extreme and calculating partisanship embodied by a Mitch McConnell.
It is Hamilton’s question that is at stake right now, right here.
Can reason, reflection and a decent respect for truth prevail over accident, violence, and fury in the governance of a nation? This is not a question of whether the Democrats will win or the Republicans. It is question that is both deeper and more important. Will the norms, institutions, laws and practices that make a decent society possible endure?
Nor is this an abstract question. The consequences of its answer are enormous for human beings, for every woman, man and child in a society.
Hamilton might be accused of a certain chauvinism for his emphasis on the uniqueness on the United States in this experiment. Certainly other societies have struggled and are struggling to govern themselves by something better than accident and force.
But not so many as one might hope. Consider all the “failing states” of the Middle East, Central and South America and Africa whose disarray drives the global immigration crisis. Consider those states which might not be what you would call “failing” at this moment, but which are so clearly driven by force, by “might makes right.” Among them, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Hungary, and the Philippines.
In other words, Hamilton’s question is not just a question for the United States alone, but one for humanity and all the nations and people’s. And yet, it is the question before us, in the United States.
Often today it seems that the question is a different one: who is winning or has won? Who has power?
But Hamilton’s question is a better and more important one. When a society is able to govern itself by reflection and choice, by reason and truth, everyone wins. When accident, force and fury prevail, everyone loses.