Political Discourse: Thoughts from Alexander Hamilton

In Federalist No. 1, Alexander Hamilton explains how we should be talking about important public matters. How do we deal with disagreement? How should we deal with disagreement? What does it take to have civil political discourse?

Happy will it be if our choice should be directed by a judicious estimate of our true interests, unperplexed and unbiased by considerations not connected with the public good.

Hamilton knew that the ideal would be that everyone could consider public matters purely devoted to the public good. There are several problems with that, though. The biggest of these problems is that there is often profound disagreement on what the public good is.


Everyone has biases or prejudices. Hamilton identifies some key obstacles to having a civil discussion in light of our differences:

Among the most formidable of the obstacles which the new Constitution will have to encounter, may readily be distinguished the obvious interest of a certain class of men in every State to resist all changes which may hazard a diminution of the power, emolument and consequence of the offices they hold under the State-establishments – and the perverted ambition of another class of men, who will either hope to aggrandise themselves by the confusions of their country, or will flatter themselves with fairer prospects of elevation from the subdivision of the empire into several partial confederacies, than from its union under one government.

The biggest problem is people who resist any reduction of their own power or standing in society. Having an honest discussion is hard if people are more worried about their place in society than about the public good. Imagine that passing a law would hurt you personally (perhaps by charging you more taxes or reducing a benefit you receive). How might this influence how you discuss the law?

First, it might be hard for you to see the potential benefits of the law. In this case, your personal interest prevents you from seeing the public good. This is not a moral deficiency. Instead, it is a mistake, and it could be completely honest.

Second, if you see public benefits of the law, you might still argue against the law simply because it would hurt you. In this case, your personal interest drives you to be deceptive in discussions about the law. This goes beyond a mistake and is a moral deficiency.

This was a problem during the drive to ratify of the Constitution. People with high status in the state societies could be worried about the Constitution reducing their social status. It can be a challenge for anyone to set aside their own interests or prestige and seek the public good.

This remains an issue driving much discourse today. People will resist change if they perceive that it might reduce their own standing in the community. The challenge for us in political conversation today is to be open to admitting mistake and to set aside personal interest for the benefit of the public good.

Hamilton mentions another group of people here. There could be those who seek to advance their ambitions. These people may think that doing so would be easier without the Constitution in place. In today’s world, we also can have people who advocate policy on the basis of how they can benefit from it. This also may be by mistake or by deception as noted above.

Ad Hominem Attacks

We cannot be sure of someone else’s motivations. We cannot logically say that a policy is bad just because the person advocating it would have their interests advanced by the policy. It is possible that the person’s interests agree with the public good. Whether or not a policy agrees with the public good has nothing to do with who is advocating it.

In today’s context, when we make decisions about a policy based on who advocates it, we make a fundamental mistake. If we decide the value of a policy based on who supports it, we are putting more importance on the speaker than on the ideas. Perhaps, we like a politician named James. James proposes a policy, and we decide that the policy is good because James supports it. Perhaps we don’t like a politician named Sally. If Sally had proposed the same policy as James, would our opinion change? When we ally ourselves to specific politicians, leaders, or influencers, we promote tribalism instead of good policy. When we are caught in a tribal environment, valuable political discussion becomes very difficult and perhaps impossible.

Too often, we end up focusing on the person making an argument instead of the argument. This usually happens when we don’t like the person making an argument. It is not useful. In fact, it is a recognized a logical fallacy. An ad hominem attack is an error in logic. We make such an error when we attack an argument on the basis of some supposed problem with the person making it. In reality, the characteristics of the person making an argument are irrelevant to the validity of the argument. Ad hominem attacks are most typically the result of someone not being able to form a rational counter-argument.

By using pen names, the authors of the Federalist sought to remove personalities from the discussion. Ad hominem attacks are nearly impossible if you don’t know who you are arguing with.

How Should We Treat Opponents?

Hamilton writes:

I am well aware it should be disingenuous to resolve indiscriminately the opposition of any set of men (merely because their situations might subject them to suspicion) into interested or ambitious views: Candor will oblige us to admit, that even such men may be actuated by upright intentions; and it cannot be doubted that much of the opposition which has made its appearance, will spring from sources, blameless at least, if not respectable, the honest errors of minds led astray by preconceived jealousies and fears. So numerous indeed and so powerful are the causes, which serve to give a false bias to the judgment, that we upon many occasions, see wise and good men on the wrong as well as on the right side of questions, of the first magnitude to society. This circumstance . . . would furnish a lesson of moderation to those, who are ever so much persuaded of their being in the right, in any controversy.

The 18th century English may be confusing. So, what is Hamilton saying here?

First, it is dishonest to say that those opposed to the Constitution are acting out of greed or to seek power. As Hamilton admits, those who oppose the Constitution may do so for honorable reasons. This is true even for those whose position in society may make their motivations appear suspect. How often today do we assume ill-intention of those with whom we disagree?

Second, opponents of the Constitution may simply be making honest errors. Personal prejudice may lead them to make errors of judgment. How often today do we assume that a difference of opinion must be grounded in dishonesty instead of honest error?

Third, Hamilton observes that good and honorable people can be on different sides of an issue. Hamilton urges us to recognize that those who disagree with us may be honorable and well-intentioned. We moderate our tone and attitude when we do this. Real conversation can then happen.

How much improved would our current political discourse be if we followed Hamilton’s admonition here?

Would we be better off if we could accept the notion of “honest errors,” instead of assuming anyone we disagree with must be lying?

Could our discourse be more civil and less angry if we accepted that people with whom we disagree are likely motivated “by upright intentions?”

Would we improve our discourse if we accepted as a core principle that our political opponents may be “wise and good?”

No Side Has a Monopoly on Virtue (or Vice)

Hamilton continues:

[A] further reason for caution . . . might be drawn from the reflection that we are not always sure that those who advocate the truth are influenced by purer principles than their antagonists. Ambition, avarice, personal animosity, party opposition, and many other motives, not more laudable than these, are apt to operate as well on those who support as upon those who oppose the right side of a question.

We engage in political discussion to bring others to our side of an issue. Perhaps, we need to focus not on demonizing our opposition but on exchanging ideas and focusing on ideas, not persons.

Hamilton observes that

in politics, as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution.

An old dictum, attributed to various people, suggests the same thing: “Convince a man against his will, he’s of the same opinion still.” It is impossible to persuade someone to agree with us if we treat that person as dishonest or dimwitted.

Eleanor Roosevelt echoed this general sentiment many decades later when she said, “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” Let us strive to have great, not small, minds.