Sunday, February 21, 2010

Ambition, Continued

Continuing on the theme of my last blog, it may be said with some confidence that the differences between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists may be illustrated with their disagreements about ambition. The issue was and, I would say, still is: What is the status of ambition? That is, what should be the relationship between a political order and ambition or ambitious people?

For the Federalists, ambition, while dangerous, is to be sought after when constructing a political order. That is, the political order should be constructed so as to draw ambitious men into the government. Alexander Hamilton in a paper on the presidency pronounced that "the love fame [is] the ruling passion of the noblest minds," and argued based on this psychology that the task with regard to the presidency was to draw the ambitious into the government, that is, to construct an office that would appeal to the most ambitious men available. Of course, Hamilton and others knew that such men were potentially dangerous and so sought to render the government "safe," by means of the separation of powers and even by means of what we call "the impeachment process." But, for the Federalists, it was crucial to get those characterized by ambition, even great ambition, into the government, especially in the presidency and the executive department more generally.

For the Anti-Federalists, it would be accurate to say that they did not want to construct a government, a political order, that would appeal to the ambitious because they thought that such men were dangerous and that once in the government would not be controllable. For the Anti-Federalists, no great talents were necessary or safe when it came to government. Such men would undertake political projects in order to harvest the glory that would come from their success, with that glory being the object of the exercise and not whether the exercise was compatible with the well-being of the nation. Needless to say, these projects would be "great" as it is through such projects that the most glory is to be harvested. [See Abraham Lincoln's speech on "The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions" for another example of this reasoning.]But for the Anti-Federalists, as for many today, "great projects" are fraught with danger, especially danger to the well-being of society. And, moreover, once the glory is harvested, what is to stop the harvester from seeking to undermine the republican character of the government by becoming a "monarch"?

Now, of course, the Anti-Federalist argument makes little or no sense if one has the idea that it is the task of government to undertake "great projects." If this is one's conception of government, then it is only logical to seek those ambitious types who hunger and thirst for glory, for fame, for a kind of immortality - but the only kind of immortality that human beings can be sure of -that is bestowed on those who do "great things." So, to understand the Anti-Federalist argument, one must understand that their conception of government was different than that of the Federalists and, therefore, that their understanding of the ends of political or governmental activity was different than that of the Federalists. For the Anti-Federalists, the political arena was not or should not be an arena for those of great ambition, those seeking fame or today celebrity status, to play out their need for glory or greatness. Rather, the political or governmental arena should be an arena where people of competence meet, not to seek glory or fame, but rather to seek the well-being of a people. And, of course, the Anti-Federalists would argue that those would be most competent who were most like those they were "re-presenting" in the governmental arena. Would anyone today want to argue that the Anti-Federalists were simply wrong? Haven't we had enough presidents who seek "greatness," who seek to be remembered by "history" as "great men?" I for one would settle for and even praise simple competence, perhaps something along the lines of the Eisenhower presidency. But then Eisenhower did not need the presidency to achieve greatness. He had already done that, much like Washington, Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson before him.

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