A Bolingbrokean Argument Hidden in Hamilton’s Federalist 71

Critical Thinking

March 14, 2022
by Haimo Li Also by this Author


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Alexander Hamilton penned most of the famous series of essays called the Federalist Papers. In Federalist 71, published in March 1788, he wrote this notable paragraph:

It is a just observation, that the people commonly INTEND the PUBLIC GOOD. This often applies to their very errors. But their good sense would despise the adulator who should pretend that they always REASON RIGHT about the MEANS of promoting it. They know from experience that they sometimes err; and the wonder is that they so seldom err as they do, beset, as they continually are, by the wiles of parasites and sycophants, by the snares of the ambitious, the avaricious, the desperate, by the artifices of men who possess their confidence more than they deserve it, and of those who seek to possess rather than to deserve it.[1]

In this paragraph, there clearly hides an argument offered by Lord Bolingbroke a century earlier, showing Hamilton’s understanding of previous literature and his ability to draw on it to make his case.[2]

In Bolingbroke’s On the Spirit of Patriotism, we have this paragraph:

The more genius, industry, and spirit are employed to destroy, the harder the task of saving our country becomes; but the duty increases with the difficulty, if the principles on which I reason are true. In such exigencies it is not enough that genius be opposed to genius, spirit must be matched by spirit. They, who go about to destroy, are animated from the first by ambition and avarice, the love of power and of money: fear makes them often desperate at last. They must be opposed therefore, or they will be opposed in vain, by a spirit able to cope with ambition, avarice, and despair itself: by a spirit able to cope with these passions, when they are favoured and fortified by the weakness of a nation, and the strength of a government.[3]

The textual similarity is striking. Bolingbroke nicely elucidated the specific mechanism of the reason to put three different elements (ambition, avarice and despair) in the same place. It also goes without saying that Hamilton and Bolingbroke were pretty much talking about the same social phenomenon. In this sense, Nick Machiavelli is probably right in saying that “I believe Bolingbroke would have loved The Federalist Papers.”[4] John Adams, in his own Autobiography, called Hamilton a “Scottish Creolian Bolingbroke”[5].

In modern scholarship, George Shea points out that Hamilton’s writing “was of the school of Bolingbroke,”[6] John Chester Miller sharply captures that “in The Federalist, the stylistic overtones were supplied by Gibbon, Bolingbroke and Dr. Samuel Johnson,”[7] and Forrest McDonald points out that “it seemed improbable that Hamilton devoted much time to the works of the English Oppositionists (Davenant, Trenchard and Gordon, Bolingbroke, Burgh) who so profoundly influenced his political enemies; and yet, in his early political tracts he spouted Oppositionist cliches with ease and abandon, so it was necessary to study Oppositionist writings and compare them with Hamilton’s.”[8] Jeff Smith notes that “for Hamilton, the best leaders would be less like the party-promoted officials we know today and more like Bolingbroke’s Patriot King.”[9]

Stephen M. Engel, in his comparison of Hamilton’s and Madison’s “discussion of stable faction, articulated in Federalist 9 and Federalist 10 essays, respectively,” offers a direct conclusion that “Hamilton’s recommendation to suppress faction drew on Bolingbroke’s writings while Madison’s hope to manage faction drew on those by David Hume.”[10]

According to historian Richard Hofstadter, “the Hamiltonian view” on political party was “based on the antiparty doctrine of Bolingbroke.”[11] Peter Gay also claims that “Bolingbroke’s political fantasies matter because they enjoyed considerable vogue among the makers of the US Constitution; in the Federalist papers, Madison and Hamilton displayed vocal distaste for faction, a vice or disease which, they thought, is almost bound to destroy liberty.”[12] Edward Countryman claims that Bolingbroke’s description of “what a British king ought to be and to do . . . fits with Hamilton’s six-hour speech at the Constitutional Convention, arguing the need for a lifetime monarchy and senate.”[13] Daniel Walker Howe’s research shows us that Bolingbroke and the authors of the Federalist Papers both “relied upon balanced institutions of government rather than a balance between two or more political parties to preserve liberty.”[14] John F. Hoadley’s research shows that “efforts by Hamilton and other Federalists to operate in the manner of a party were justified. Just as Bolingbroke could defend the country party in its attempt to reestablish constitutional rule, the Federalists could defend their actions as attempts to establish national authority prior to a return to nonpartisan unanimity.”[15] Manuel Schonhorn claims that both Bolingbroke and Hamilton believed that “a hereditary monarch would be less likely to sacrifice his nation to private inordinate demands.”[16] Douglass C. North et al’s research show to us that “beginning with Aristotle, continuing through . . . Bolingbroke, . . . Hamilton and Madison, the political ideal of the best-designed republic included multiple interests whose presence within the state provided a check on factions, groups and individuals.”[17] All of these observations taken together nicely show to us the potential intellectual link between Hamilton and Bolingbroke.

The link between David Hume and the Federalist Papers has long been known.[18] In fact, Hume and Bolingbroke have close ties. As pointed out by Max Skjönsberg, “Bolingbroke was Hume’s main interlocutor,”[19] Peter Loptson’s research tells us that “their contemporaries saw Bolingbroke and Hume as intellectually birds of a feather,”[20] and Karen Green’s research confirms that “the thrust of Bolingbroke’s views were considered by contemporaries sufficiently similar to Hume’s.”[21] Giovanni Sartori also concludes that “Hume stands halfway between Bolingbroke and Burke, though he was closer to the former than to the latter”[22].

It is also well-proven that in the Federalist Papers, Hamilton sometimes cited British moral and political philosophers’ works without mentioning their names explicitly.[23] Last but not least, even though we can demonstrate that Hamilton indeed borrowed from Bolingbroke’s writing style and some of the Bolingbrokean arguments, we need to frankly admit that overall speaking, when it comes to the broad political spectrum, Hamilton’s position was probably more leaning towards Bolingbroke’s opponent Robert Walpole (and his “court” ideology),[24] or at least somewhere in between Walpole and Bolingbroke,[25] so overall Hamilton was not a typical Bolingbrokean “country” thinker per se. His use of Bolingbroke’s argument in Federalist 71 nonetheless shows that Hamilton was wise enough to recognize, and make use of, specific arguments that supported his own views, even if he more generally disagreed with the author.


[1]See avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed71.asp.

[2]For Bolingbroke and American founding period, see Haimo Li, “The Bolingbrokean Constitutional Argument in John Adams’s 1766 Clarendon Letter,” Journal of the American Revolution, July 12, 2021. See also Kunal M. Parker, Common Law, History, and Democracy in America, 1790–1900: Legal Thought before Modernism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011); Jonathan Eacott, Selling Empire: India in the Making of Britain and America, 1600-1830 (Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press Books, 2016); Mark G. Spencer, David Hume: Historical Thinker, Historical Writer (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2013).

[3]Bolingbroke, Political Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 200-201.

[4]Nick Machiavelli (nom de plume), The Politician: A Companion to Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince (London: Palgrave Macmillan , 2020), 5. See also Walter A. McDougall, The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy: How America’s Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018), 43-44.

[5]Quoted in John P. Kaminski, Alexander Hamilton: From Obscurity to Greatness (Madison, WI: Wisconsin Historical Society, 2016), 67; see also Arnold Rogow, A Fatal Friendship: Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr(New York: Hill and Wang, 1998), 271; Carl J. Richard, The Founders and the Bible (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), 177-178; Joseph J. Ellis, Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011).

[6]George Shea, Alexander Hamilton: A Historical Study (New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1877), 36-37.

[7]John Chester Miller, Alexander Hamilton and the Growth of the New Nation (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1964), 190.

[8]Forrest McDonald, Alexander Hamilton: A Biography (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1982), xii.

[9]Jeff Smith, The Presidents We Imagine (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009), 27.

[10]Stephen M. Engel, American Politicians Confront the Court: Opposition Politics and Changing Responses to Judicial Power (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 92-93.

[11]See Michael Nelson, ed., Guide to the Presidency (New York: Routledge, 2015), 186-187.

[12]Peter Gay, The Cultivation of Hatred (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1993), 220.

[13]Edward Countryman, “George Washington,” in Seth Cotlar and Richard J. Ellis, eds., Historian in Chief: How Presidents Interpret the Past to Shape the Future (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2019).

[14]Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 93-94.

[15]John F. Hoadley, Origins of American Political Parties: 1789–1803 (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1986).

[16]Manuel Schonhorn, Defoe’s Politics: Parliament, Power, Kingship and ‘Robinson Crusoe’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 76-77.

[17]Douglass C. North et al, “The Transition Proper,” in Douglass C. North et al, Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 196.

[18]See Douglass Adair, “‘That Politics May Be Reduced to a Science’: David Hume, James Madison, and the Tenth Federalist,” Huntington Library Quarterly20, no. 4 (1957): 343-60; Mark G. Spencer, “Hume and Madison on Faction,” The William and Mary Quarterly59, no. 4 (2002): 869-96.

[19]Max Skjönsberg, The Persistence of Party: Ideas of Harmonious Discord in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 113.

[20]See Peter Loptson, Philosophy, History, and Myth: Essays and Talks (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2002), 95; James Fieser, ed., Early Responses to Hume’s Life And Reputation: Volumes 9 and 10 (Bristol, England: Thoemmes Press, 2005), 10-11; Isaac Kramnick, Bolingbroke and His Circle: The Politics of Nostalgia in the Age of Walpole (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992), 284.

[21]Karen Green, “Will the Real Enlightenment Historian Please Stand Up?”, in Craig Taylor and Stephen Buckle, eds., Hume and the Enlightenment (New York: Routledge, 2015). See also Giovanni Sartori, Parties and Party Systems: Volume 1: A Framework for Analysis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), 6-8.

[22]Giovanni Sartori, Parties and Party Systems: A Framework for Analysis (Colchester, UK: ECPR Press, 2005), 6-7.

[23]Jeremy D. Bailey and Haimo Li, “‘Decision, Activity, Secrecy and Dispatch’: The Intellectual Origins of Hamilton’s Rhetoric in Federalist No. 70,” History of Political Thought (A&HCI, Q1), Vol. 42, Number 2 (2021), 318-341.

[24]See, for example, Ralph Ketcham, Presidents Above Party: The First American Presidency, 1789-1829 (Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 2013), 206-207; Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (New York: Penguin, 2005), 323-324; John Greville Agard Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016), 528-529; Lance Banning, The Jeffersonian Persuasion: Evolution of a Party Ideology (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1980), 133-134; James Savage, Balanced Budgets and American Politics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2019), 94-95.

[25]McDonald, Alexander Hamilton: A Biography, 215-216.

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