These days it seems that there is no aspect of American life uninfected by the virus of inordinate ambition. Was it ever thus? Not necessarily. However, since the first years of the constitutional republic, such ambition has certainly been in play. As Hamilton wrote:
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 … hope to aggrandize themselves by the confusions of their country. … (Federalist No. 1)
Contemporary stylistic sensibilities tempt us to think that this sentence is too long and filled with unnecessary verbiage. We therefore gloss over the phrase "may readily be distinguished," instead of preparing ourselves to notice and ponder the distinction to come. Thanks to the pervasive influence of certain specious academic dogmas and political ideologies, we reflexively conflate "obvious interest" and "perverted ambition," thinking that the first (interest) should be sufficient, without the attendant adjectives.
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But aren't people who have a vested interest in a community more likely to know and be wary of what might damage it? Therefore, aren't they the very people to consult about important events that affect it? Hamilton uses the word "obvious" to take account of the fact that common sense validates their interest as something encountered in the ordinary course of things. It is an aspect of propriety, which leads people to take better care what they regard as their own belongings. It is therefore a natural virtue or strength, even if, like all virtues, it can be damaging to others, and to the community as a whole, when taken to extremes.
People who have a vested interest may also be anchors of continuity and stability for human societies, both of which are essential aspects of their peace and security. Such people are liable to have reliable habits and dispositions, to which they will try to conform even during tumultuous emergencies. And without consulting their sense of the routine requirements of living, it would be impossible to prepare for emergencies. But as Hamilton points out, people driven by ambition may regard calamities as opportunities to effect the very changes required to achieve their aims. Such people think that crises are to be advantageously exploited, not fearfully endured.
In a sense Hamilton's distinction between vested interest and ambition corresponds to the difference between the haves and the have-nots, which Alexis de Tocqueville makes much of in his discussion of democracy. But is it simply the same? Tocqueville reduces the difference to riches and poverty. But people who have few material goods are also the ones least able to handle rapidly changing circumstances. In this sense, poorer folks usually have a vital interest in routine and stability, one that involves their very survival. The rich, on the other hand, living in more well-fortified circumstances, may treat the prospect of sudden storms as part of their routine. They may even value their cleansing effect.
People who have little are liable to be preoccupied with preserving what they have. But people who want much impatiently resist this preoccupation. The difference, in effect, between having and not having may therefore turn on the nature of the desire both commonly involve. Hamilton's reference to "perverted ambition" alludes to this difference. In most animals, for instance, what we would call sexual desire is strictly overruled by natural instincts. Therefore, it operates within the bounds required to preserve the species. But in human beings, memory and imagination interact with individual self-consciousness to divorce sexual desire from its specific natural intention, sometimes discarding it entirely (as in homosexual relations). Passion rules alone, so that catering to the desire diminishes the satisfaction derived from it.
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So human ambition devalues what it achieves. The more success one has, the less it satisfies. On this account, the experience of passion spurs ambitious people to desire greater and greater success. It makes perpetual "have-nots" of those who have the most success. Such unruly ambition implies an obligation nothing can fulfill. It's as if the ambitious person's success exacts an interest, that compounds continually, consuming more and more moral and material capital, until the most successful ambition must greet what it spawns as King Duncan greeted Macbeth: "More is thy due than more than all can pay."
There is not world enough, nor time, to satisfy the demands of such ambition. It might grow until it consumed the entire world, and still it would not be satisfied. Except for the fact that the striving it involves naturally comes to a mortal end, it would have destroyed humanity itself, long before now. We presently live in the age when it might well do so, and the world along with it. When will we Americans remember that, after World War II, and the advent of nuclear weapons, the character of our self-government is what postponed the fatal course of events that must inevitably lead to that destruction. Thank God, we were not then a nation ruled by characters beggared by perverted ambition. As a people, we ostensibly governed ourselves, according to an ambition constrained by reverence for God, the natural ruler of all creation.
In every respect, we are now poised to completely cast off that constraint. The rich, and powerfully ambitious few amongst us may be unwilling to admit it, but in fact it is the crisis of their "perverted ambition" that most truly threatens to consume us, and all the world. Having slipped what they contemn as the "surly bonds" of our God-endowed nature, they reach out their hands to smash the face of God. But they themselves will feel the blow, along with the rest of us, and all of nature as God has made us to know it. For our nature exists only in the mirror of God's self-reflection. Reject Him, and the only prayer we have left is the one that insanely mistakes assisted suicide for freedom. Better that we should follow the longing so many of us still have at heart – to Make America God's Again, thereby restoring "the last best hope" we are supposed to represent to all the world.