EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the ninth in a series of articles giving an introduction to the Federalist Papers, a collection of 85 articles and essays written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay promoting the ratification of the United States Constitution.
Alexander Hamilton delves into political science and launches into a defense of the Constitution itself in Federalist #9. In so-doing he begins to reveal that the system we have in America today wasn’t the plan that was promised.
He sets out to show that “A FIRM Union will be of the utmost moment to the peace and liberty of the States, as a barrier against domestic faction and insurrection.” But the bulk of the paper focuses on the utility of a republican confederacy and seeks to undermine two Anti-Federalist arguments – that a republican form of government cannot succeed in an area as vast as America and that the Constitution would serve to consolidate the states into one political entity.
Hamilton sets things up by referring to the “petty republics of Greece and Italy” as an example of what will happen if the American states fail to maintain a strong union, saying their condition brings up “sensations of horror and disgust.” He implies that frequent upheavals in these early republics reflected on the weakness and isolated nature of their governments. Hamilton’s history relies on sweeping generalizations, but it serves his purposes well, setting up the rest of the essay.
At this point, he makes a subtle shift. Throughout the first eight papers, he and John Jay focused primarily on the need to maintain the union. Of course, the assumption that failure to ratify the Constitution would lead to disunion was the underlying argument. Now Hamilton moves into a more specific defense of the proposed Constitution.
First, he points out that America has an opportunity to overcome the weakness in past republican systems and become “the broad and solid foundation of other edifices” because “the science of politics…has received great improvement.” Some of the improvements Hamilton focuses on also happen to be features in the proposed Constitution, including legislative checks and balances, courts composed of judges holding office during good behavior and elected representation. Hamilton wrote that “these are wholly new discoveries, or have made their principal progress towards perfection in modern times.”
He then adds another innovation to his list, and transitions into a rebuttal of a major Anti-Federalist contention – that America covers too much territory to successfully maintain a republican form of government.
Hamilton first asserts that the utility of a confederacy to suppress faction, to guard the internal tranquility of the states, and to increase their external force and security is not a new idea He then transitions to the Anti-Federalist opposition based primarily on the writings of Montesquieu. Professor Thomas L. Pangle, Ph.D explains this position.
“Antifederalists cite Montesquieu on the necessity of a contracted territory for a republican government, small enough so that people can assemble, and even more important so that those who stand for election, are familiar to, resemble, and remain within examination of the citizens. Administrative officials were seen as the people’s public servants.”
Hamilton counters his opponents by citing Montesquieu as he promotes confederacy.
“This form of government is a convention by which several smaller STATES agree to become members of a larger ONE, which they intend to form. It is a kind of assemblage of societies that constitute a new one, capable of increasing, by means of new associations, till they arrive to such a degree of power as to be able to provide for the security of the united body.
“As this government is composed of small republics, it enjoys the internal happiness of each; and with respect to its external situation, it is possessed, by means of the association, of all the advantages of large monarchies.”
Hamilton next turns to a second Anti-Federalist fear. Opponents believed the Constitution would lead to consolidation of the states under an increasingly powerful national government. Some went as far as to assert it would ultimately swallow up the states. Keep in mind, Hamilton preferred this outcome. He favored national power. But when promoting the Constitution, he assures readers it will not lead to such a system.
“The proposed Constitution, so far from implying an abolition of the State governments, makes them constituent parts of the national sovereignty, by allowing them a direct representation in the Senate, and leaves in their possession certain exclusive and very important portions of sovereign power. This fully corresponds, in every rational import of the terms, with the idea of a federal government.”
Of course, the American system today vindicates many of the Anti-Federalists’ fears. While the states still exist, in practice the national government has swept them into virtual irrelevance, with almost all power and authority centered in Washington D.C.
It’s important to remember this was not the system of government the American people wanted or approved. Hamilton and other advocates swore it would never come to this.
The government you see today was not the plan.