What is Meant by Accident and Force in Federalist No. 1?

February 22, 2024   Joseph Kochanek

  • Rights and Liberties
  • Blog

What Is Meant by Accident and Force?

In the first paragraph of the first essay of the Federalist Papers, Hamilton opened the essay series with a vivid contrast intended to characterize the urgency of the moment: “It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” What does this mean? Well, this is about not just choosing who ruled, but choosing the form of government itself – reflection and choice about that. Think of a world in which the kind of government in our country might be a function of who successfully invaded last, or who was related to whom in the distant past. We don’t choose our conquerors, or the governments they impose: accident and force in those senses. On a first reading that seems a straightforward distinction. It is better to choose what government to create than to have that choice dictated by external factors. But how well does this describe the atmosphere in which the Constitution was written?

What Was Wrong with the Articles of Confederation?

Discussion of creating a new form of government in the USA in 1787 through reflection and choice meant discussion of doing away with the Articles of Confederation. Now, for all its flaws, the Articles of Confederation was the government of the USA during the Revolutionary War, and one can see how that could serve as the basis of an easy defense of it. In response to such a position, there were in the Federalist Papers a number of justifications given for the necessity adopting the Constitution. The weakness of the government under the Federalist Papers, the internal instability of the mid to late 1780s, the possibility of co-option of domestic governmental bodies by political interests and priorities of other countries; these and other reasons were offered throughout the Federalist Papers as reasons why states should move quickly to ratify the Constitution. At the same time, the very necessity of action may seem perversely to limit the scope of choice. When we say that people have no choice but to adopt a given course of action, we don’t mean that they can do nothing, but rather that there is only one plausible course of action. So there is something of a puzzle here: Hamilton uses the language of reflection and choice to describe the decision to ratify the Constitution, but the circumstances of the country suggest that there was little choice to be made.

How Free Are We to Choose?

The necessity of change in the form of government might be thought of as in response to some unchosen phenomenon. The need to form a more perfect union is in this sense a response to some imperfection. Reflection and choice work to improve for citizens the environment in which accident and force operate, by allowing citizens to push back on the contingencies and hazards of political life implied by accident and force. In this way we may think of reflection and choice as shaping and informing our responses to accident and force.