Politics, the Ambitious Few, and Making America Great Again
“The ambitious,” “the few,” “the oligarchs,” those who Aristotle calls, euphemistically, “the gentlemen,” aren’t they the most dangerous politically? Isn’t Aristotle’s Politics addressed primarily to them? Aren’t Socrates’ interlocutors in The Republic, Glaucon and Adeimantus, representative of the ambitious few? Didn’t Socrates want to tame their ambition, much as he opposed Periclean imperialism in Athens? Wasn’t the elevation of the ambitious few one phenomena most feared by the Anti-Federalists were the new, proposed constitution to be ratified?
And that constitution was written to appeal to the ambitious few, by creating a government that would appeal to them, appeal to their desires for fame and power. As Hamilton put it in the Federalist, the presidency was constructed to appeal to those who “love fame,” which was “the ruling passion of the noblest minds.” Without term limits, the offices of the proposed government would appeal to the ambitious few, those most interested in creating an “extensive empire,” “from sea to shining sea” and beyond, as it came to be.
Whereas it may be said that the Anti-Federalists wanted to establish a “small republic;” that is, a republic characterized by what might be called “small mindedness,” a mindedness not captured by dreams of glory, dreams of greatness, dreams of eternal fame. As Herbert Storing characterized the dissent of the Anti-Federalists: “Ambitious Federalists [were] captured by visions of ‘stately palaces’ and ‘dazzling ideas of glory, wealth, and power” [and] wanted us ‘to be like other nations.’” [p. 31, What the Anti-Federalists Were For] The Anti-Federalists saw in Hamilton’s scorn of their arguments “dangerous dreams of national glory.” As Patrick Henry put it in the Virginia ratifying convention: “If we admit this Consolidated Government, it will be because we like a great splendid one. Some way or other we must be a great and mighty empire; we must have an army, and a navy, and a number of things: When the American spirit was in its youth, the language of America was different: Liberty, Sir, was then the primary object.’”
As very few object to “making America great” these days, it would be useful to consider whether the pursuit of greatness is compatible with liberty, justice, or even decency. It may be that one of the most important things needed is to recover the thought of those who saw political greatness as a temptation best resisted.