In 1784, the citizens of New York wanted to appropriate the property of those still loyal to the English Crown. So far as the victorious patriots were concerned, loyalist sympathies posed an internal threat to the fledgling republic — grounds that justified the suspension of their property rights.
But a young Alexander Hamilton had a different idea.
He agreed that “cases indeed of extreme necessity are exceptions to all general rules,” but clarified that “[these exceptions] only exist when it is manifest the safety of the community is in imminent danger.” Certainly, one can imagine the kind of threat these Loyalists, many of whom armed, financed, housed and even fought with British regulars in the effort to quell the rebellion, posed to the Americans. These people had been complicit in acts of violence against the Patriot cause; one might easily speculate that they might commit similar acts of sabotage or resistance against both the American government and people. By all means, these must have been the cases of extreme necessity that Hamilton mentioned. Hamilton, however, was less than convinced.
“Speculations of possible danger,” Hamilton argued, “never can be justifying causes of departures from principles … which constitute the essential distinction between free and arbitrary governments.” According to Hamilton, the speculation of the possibility of violence could never justify the chilling of the rights free governments were obliged to uphold. Hamilton continued, “Those eternal principles of social justice forbid the inflicting [of] punishment upon citizens by an abridgement of rights, or in any other manner, without conviction … by regular trial and condemnation.”
This tolerance helped establish a crucial security against oppression in the early days of the republic. Too often, Hamilton feared, we say our principles “do not apply to a situation like ours,” but when we say this, Hamilton believed, we “[open] a wilderness” wherein we do not respect our own principles. In this wilderness, we subject ourselves to arbitrary government prone to violent changes in public sentiment. Under this system, we will all eventually find our throats positioned under the executioner’s blade.
I believe the College community currently stands at a Hamiltonian crossroads. All of us, whether in the ideological majority or minority, have something to learn from Hamilton’s words. He cautioned us against dismissing our principles too quickly in the face of a perceived threat. He called on us to ask the question: Which is more dangerous – giving the dissenting voice a platform, or denying the minority any tolerance for disagreement? The prevailing ideas and beliefs held at the College may well be morally righteous, but the social and academic suppression of thought diversity is not.
While the College’s official stance on thought diversity adheres to Hamilton’s principles of tolerance, I believe our culture diverges from them. People who hold dissenting views are reluctant, and most often silent, when it comes to offering a thought in class or casual discussion that might be construed as evidence of political allegiance. Again, while there may be no institutional repercussions for speaking one’s mind, the social consequences can be severe. This is intolerance, and if the majority wishes to preserve its freedom to speak and advocate without fear of retribution, it must show the same respect to those who dissent.
But Hamilton also called on those in the minority to be more courageous. Instead of stewing in frustration and anger, Hamilton took pen to paper and defended his position. Though some students here may feel intimidated, they cannot allow this to censor them without forfeiting their integrity. There can be no excuse for silence, and it is important to recognize the minority voice’s responsibility for its own condition. If more would take the risk to question the mainstream ideas on campus, our intellectual climate would change for the better, and we could bring civil discourse back to our college.
Kenneth Marshall ’20 is from Ridgewood, N.J.