Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

FEDERALIST PAPERS 69 (The Great Books and Leadership)

In Federalist Paper 69 Alexander Hamilton defends the “executive authority” laid out in the U.S. Constitution. We call this executive authority our President. Hamilton says, “The first thing which strikes our attention is, that the executive authority, with few exceptions, is vested in a single magistrate.” Hamilton is concerned that other Americans will be concerned about too much power being granted to this “single magistrate.” And he’s right. There is cause for concern when too much power is granted to any single individual. Americans may think: we just fought a war to throw off the domination of a king. Now it looks like we’re only exchanging an old foreign king for a new American king. Hamilton takes great pains to distance the idea of a President from the idea of a king. He says there’s no more resemblance of an American President to an English king than there is of the President’s “resemblance to the Grand Seignior, to the khan of Tartary, to the Man of the Seven Mountains, or to the governor of New York.” If we’re going to have a government at all then someone has to be in charge. It doesn’t matter if we call our leader President, or king, or Grand Seignior (a member of the landed gentry of Canada), khan, governor, or The Man. The question is: how much power does “someone” need to get the job done? That’s what Federalist 69 is about: the power of the President. We’ll briefly consider three selections from the Great Books on this theme of power in the executive authority.
First let’s consider what could happen if the executive authority has too much power. In Heart of Darkness (GB Series 1) we read about a remarkable character named Kurtz. Kurtz goes deep down the Congo River, far out of reach of the law, to make his fortune in the ivory trade. Without any law to check him Kurtz soon turns into a cruel tyrant and starts ruling over the natives like some sort of god. He puts human skulls on stakes around his headquarters. These skulls are a reminder that Kurtz is in charge. He is the executive authority. And if you get out of line this is what could happen to you too. Rule by terror is one form of executive authority.
On the other end of the spectrum is what can happen if the executive authority has too little power. Shakespeare’s King Lear (GB Series 5) is a good example. Lear wants to be king but he doesn’t want all the burdens and responsibilities that go along with it. He only wants the benefits. So he abdicates his “executive” power to his two daughters and their husbands. He only retains the title of king without the power to go along with it. When events begin to go bad in his (former) kingdom Lear discovers he’s powerless to do anything about it. Without military or police power Lear can do nothing to stop the bad guys (and his daughters) from wreaking havoc on his (former) loyal subjects. Chaos comes when there’s too little executive authority.
A third example of executive authority can be found in The Iliad by Homer (GB Series 3). In the Heart of Darkness Kurtz didn’t need any help; he was a one man show. King Lear needed lots of help but he couldn’t get it. In The Iliad King Agamemnon is somewhere in the middle. He’s the top commander of the Greek army. But Agamemnon needs the cooperation of other Greek commanders to remain in charge. Without their help he can’t control his own army, much less defeat the Trojans. Agamemnon is a “commander” who can only command up to a certain point. If he crosses that line then the other Greek commanders may decide to pack up and go home. The third form of authority is not an absolute power to rule by terror; nor is it an inability to get anything accomplished at all. In America political power relies on subtle coercion and persuasion. This is the kind of limited power Hamilton is talking about. In America Presidential executive authority is a delicate balancing act. Not too much; not too little; but just right.


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