Political Hydras, Part 1
(for Javier Fernández-Lasquetty Blanc)
“Such is its nature that, as fast as one doubt is cut away, innumerable others spring up like Hydra’s heads, nor could we set any limit to their renewal did we not apply the mind’s living fire to suppress them.”
—Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy (4.6)
Among my conservative friends, there persists a temptation to belittle postmodernism. We associate the movement with the political Left; our anxiety increases when we note that it has taken over academic, popular, and sports culture, as well as most major public and private institutions, including the armed forces, multinational corporations, and the press. But postmodernism is not really the source of our political malaise. It can even provide us with useful tools, and we can apply its methods without fear of becoming its faithful.
An early premise of postmodernism is that neither the elements nor the meanings of a text are obvious at first sight. This is not new. Earlier in the twentieth century, conservatives and radicals savaged modernists for adopting a similar stance. The nihilism we associate with modernism need not have ensued then any more than it should today. It makes good sense to read beyond the intentions of our interlocutors by digging deeper than usual into their communicative acts and their historical and cultural contexts. Sometimes what we discover will be commonplace; other times patterns will emerge that can be useful for resolving other problems.
Myths served a similar function for archaic humans. Patterns were revealed by millennia of attention to the different social contexts and secret designs behind life’s most traumatic events. As such, myths are indicators, heuristics, tools to navigate existence, and they will always be portable, comparable, and essential in any minimally successful human group. There is evidence that myths have served this function even among our more recent ancestors.
Gustave Moreau, Hercules and the Hydra of Lerna (1876)
Consider a Greek myth deployed by Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804) in one of the modern era’s most expressly political texts. In two of his essays for The Federalist Papers (1787–88), the American Founder compared his political rivals to a fearsome mythological creature known as the hydra (F29 and F80). The locus classicus of the hydra—a serpentine water monster with multiple heads, often seven—is the second labor of Hercules, in which the hero kills the Hydra of Lerna in the Argolis of the Peloponnese, i.e., in the area south of Corinth. Two other details are noteworthy: (1) Hercules needed the help of his nephew Iolaus to kill the Hydra, and (2) later in the mythological tradition the monster acquired the ability to generate two heads in the place of one that might be amputated.
In the pantheon of America’s Founders, few approach Hamilton’s stature. Among the most intellectual of the revolutionaries, he was the obvious winner of a foundational geopolitical and constitutional struggle with James Madison in The Federalist Papers. Madison surely played a pivotal role, as did Jay, roles which only grow over time; but in the early years of the Republic, it was Hamilton who held the better hand, and he pressed his advantage admirably. Today he counts among those most responsible for creating a constitutional system that would eventually gain the federal government the votes, money, military might, and jurisdictional authority to end, one way or another, the injustice of slavery in the American South.
After Aaron Burr killed him in a duel in 1804, Hamilton went on to become a national martyr. Like most martyrdoms, this comes not without its confusions. Burr was an ardent abolitionist and a rabid feminist, for example, which complicates the meaning of Hamilton’s death. Never mind. Lately, Hamilton has even won that greatest of postmodern honors: he’s now an icon of pop culture thanks to a Broadway musical. And so we’ve mythologized him yet again. The musical exaggerates some points, but it accurately affiliates Hamilton with abolitionism regardless of his race, his age, or the place of his birth. By definition a myth has its utility, and neither is it random or meaningless.
Among Hamilton’s greatest legacies, The Federalist Papers are also among the most sacred texts in U.S. history. I say ‘sacred’ here only in a sociological sense: something sacred can be used to make peace between two rivals before they turn to violence. The fact that the sacred purpose of The Federalist Papers failed after three generations—according to the eight hundred thousand killed in the Civil War (1861–65)—doesn’t lessen its urgency around 1787. Before resolving its internal differences, America had to persist as a nation. First, it was necessary to deal with geopolitics; then it would be possible to perfect the Union. Thus, Hamilton’s herculean defense of the new Constitution, which ensured the survival of the Republic, makes him both an epic and a priestly figure in the American imagination. He’s a hero, a liberator, and a sacrificial lamb. Ironically, perhaps, he also played the part of a skillful sacrificer along the way.
We find linguistic evidence that The Federalist Papers are a sacred text in the frequency of words that derive from either the Latin verb sacrare or the adjectives sacer, sacra, and sacrum. I count fifty-three cases: fourteen nouns (sacrifices, sacrifice, sacred), twelve infinitives (to sacrifice), twelve adjectives (sacred, sacrilegious, unsacrificed), six perfect tenses (are sacrificed, to be sacrificed, have been sacrificed), five progressives (sacrificing), two subjunctives (may sacrifice), one conditional (would sacrifice), and one preterit (was sacrificed).
The Federalist Papers signal one of their most specific sacrifices when Madison deploys the bizarre term “unsacrificed” while pondering the loss of the state legislatures’ power. The word is so counterintuitive that the Virginian has to link it to the noun “residue” in order to clarify that he means not “resuscitated” but “extra”: “as far as the sovereignty of the states cannot be reconciled to the happiness of the people, the voice of every good citizen must be, let the former be sacrificed to the latter. How far the sacrifice is necessary has been shown. How far the unsacrificed residue will be endangered is the question before us” (F45, my emphasis).
I have never come across the word “unsacrificed” anywhere in any language or text, sacred or otherwise. Madison’s clarification by way of “residue” is necessary because it’s not possible to undo a sacrifice without magic or divine intervention. That’s weird, too, because Madison is thus indicating that the sacrifice has only been partial, i.e., more like a compromise, a trade even. I suggest that there is trickery afoot in this passage, something like the staging of a radically archaic form of self-deception.
But we are also reading the residue of a sacred text, that is, we are before its aura, precisely because we are pondering the impossible position of its resurrected victim: Madison himself, i.e., the self-delusional voice of the southern statesman. In other words, thanks to Madison’s sacrifice, Hamilton gets precisely what he wants: a large and long-term dose of constitutional power over that of the state legislatures. Careful readers will realize that Hamilton’s true hydra is already being prepared for slaughter in The Federalist Papers.
This analysis surprises us only if we have not attended to this specific nexus of details. We miss them in a first pass because we’re reading for comprehension and we’re not yet open to different levels of meaning. Furthermore, to be able to locate the linguistic distortion of “unsacrificed” woven into a conflict that hinges on the power of the state legislatures in the early Republic requires attention to somewhat different fields of knowledge.
A text written by two authors with contrary philosophies in search of an alliance during an existential crisis will carry mystery. Above all, The Federalist Papers share a desperate search for coordination about a central anxiety. A political schism without a constitution might lead to mutual annihilation by way of civil war, or else another invasion by Europeans. The symbolisms of Hamilton and Madison are thus like two arrows destined to find each other midair. But we can only witness their encounter if we attend to the sacrificial rite at the heart of the text that has been constructed about them.
Most readers are inclined to think The Federalist Papers impossible to disentangle without legal training. In truth, this work should be read and taught as a foundational epic, a popular myth. Like Martín Fierro, the Poem of the Cid, or the Popol Vuh, The Federalist Papers have their heroes, villains, and monsters, their sacrificial rites. They even have their women.
Like other epic myths, The Federalist Papers manifest an internal struggle that signals the dialectical foundation of a new nation. An epic inevitably portrays a conflict between two founders, one with relative authority, the other more rebellious. The conflict takes many forms—brother vs. brother, father vs. son, uncle vs. nephew, captain vs. lieutenant—and it often reflects a global conflict between two regions, castes, or houses of nobility. Conflicts can overlap and coincide. Priests might control court; warriors will lead a rebellious province. Among the mythological elements of epics, we often find male pairs who resolve internal conflicts by uniting against a common enemy. In the foundation of the United States, for example, Hamilton (city/North) and Madison (country/South) play roles akin to those of Sergeant Cruz and Martín Fierro in Argentina, Alfonso VI and the Cid in Spain, or Xbalanqué and Hunahpú in Guatemala.
Given the mythical image we already have of Hamilton—founder, rival, martyr, and high priest—we might reconsider his two references to hydras in The Federalist Papers. In the first case, Hamilton accuses the antifederalists of being pusillanimous, puritanical even, in their opposition to the Constitution of 1787:
In reading many of the publications against the Constitution, a man is apt to imagine that he is perusing some ill-written tale or romance, which instead of natural and agreeable images, exhibits to the mind nothing but frightful and distorted shapes—“Gorgons, hydras, and chimeras dire”; discoloring and disfiguring whatever it represents, and transforming everything it touches into a monster. (F29)
The verse with three types of monsters is from Paradise Lost (1667) by the English reformist poet John Milton. It describes what Satan sees upon arriving in Hell after being expelled from the presence of God. Satan’s fall allows Milton to mark a singularity in the socio-theological order of late-Renaissance England, which finds itself cast out from Catholic Europe. It also allows the poet to configure a complex allegorical reading of the English Civil War, one which evokes the religious fanaticisms and political rebellions of Luther’s and Cromwell’s minions in ways that are painfully self-incriminating. It’s puritanical, austere.
The first hydra employed by Hamilton in The Federalist Papers, then, implies shared guilt for heresy, civil war, and recourse to dictatorship by way of Milton. We’re early in the text, and so the national dialogue remains amicable, among comrades. Hamilton can be heard rallying the rebel troops to unite. The reader can recall Federalist 1, for example, where Hamilton argues that constitutional liberalism requires civil dialogue: “nothing could be more ill-judged than that intolerant spirit which has, at all times, characterized political parties. For in politics, as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword.” In Federalist 29, Hamilton paints the hellish crisis within quotation marks, thereby keeping the hydra at bay in the context of tolerance and debate about undecidable theological and constitutional matters.
Of course, the allusion to hydras works in a less peaceful scenario too. Just so, the New Yorker later rechristens the hydra, making it into a specific monster in Federalist 80. Expending its metaphorical capital on loan from Milton, Hamilton asserts that the hydra represents the state legislatures most opposed to the federal government. The metaphor is now not so friendly or inclusive; it places the heads of Hamilton’s enemies closer to the guillotine of the federal jurisdiction he is marshalling in the last essays. Fifty-one essays earlier, a Miltonian hydra insinuated mild constitutional disagreement—a theological debate between federalists and antifederalists, all of them fallen. By contrast, Hamilton’s second hydra unveils the state legislatures as subject to the power of the federal government:
If there are such things as political axioms, the propriety of the judicial power of a government being coextensive with its legislative may be ranked among the number. The mere necessity of uniformity in the interpretation of the national laws decides the question. Thirteen independent courts of final jurisdiction over the same causes, arising upon the same laws, is a hydra in government from which nothing but contradiction and confusion can proceed. (F80)
Abolitionism, the first serious political pendulum in the early Republic, was gaining strength among the free states of the North, such that the slave states of the South already felt threatened. Was civil war inevitable? Nobody could know, but a grave national conflict already existed between two radically different types of state government.
Hamilton’s hydras in The Federalist Papers remain metaphorical; his liberalism can still claim to prefer dialogue over conflict. But the shift in tone between his two essays with hydras has turned the coming political contest into more than a philosophical spat. The judicial nature of the hydra in the symbolic threat at the close of The Federalist Papers suggests Hamilton already has in mind the goal of controlling a majority of the original thirteen states. By winning control of seven of them, abolitionists would control Supreme Court nominations and could move against slavery nationwide. In this sense, a seven-headed monster makes for a remarkably accurate symbolic axis about which to plot Hamilton’s struggle to behead the power of the slave-state legislatures.
The hydra myth is an elegant and accurate way to proceed generally. Always try to think about from whence violence against freedom emanates. Like Hercules, Hamilton has sagely set about acquiring the mace, dagger, and fire necessary to defeat the hydra. The New Yorker counts too on the assistance of various actors who are like “Iolaus”—other state legislatures, other departments of the federal government—to accomplish the task at hand.