EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the thirteenth 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.
Federalist #13 is the shortest, and probably the most straight-forward essay in the series to this point.
In Federalist #12, Alexander Hamilton argues that the taxing powers delegated to the general government under the Constitution would solve the revenue problem then facing the United States. In Federalist #13, Hamilton takes up the other side of the economic equation – government expenses.
Hamilton once again approaches the argument assuming the worst – that without ratification of the Constitution, the United States will necessarily divide into multiple confederacies. But as I pointed out in my article on Federalist #2, the idea of breaking up the Union was an extreme position, even among Anti-Federalists. It was a position propagated by supporters of the Constitution as something of a scare tactic to paint the opposition as “extreme.”
Nevertheless, Hamilton plunges forward creating a false choice: either “the States are united under one government,” or “divided into several confederacies.” He ignores the outcome favored by the majority of Anti-Federalists, either a union continuing under an amended Articles of Confederation, or ratification of the Constitution with a bill of rights and clarification of certain provisions.
Hamilton argues that it would prove less costly to maintain one national government under the Constitution than multiple governments if divided. He points out the obvious. Americans will have to support multiple bureaucracies, or national civil lists, as he calls them, if they divide into separate confederacies. That, of course, means double or triple the cost.
Hamilton claims the scenario most favored by those advocating disunion consists of three separate confederacies, and points out that each would be larger than the Kingdom of Great Britain. He argues that once a state reaches a certain size, the “energy of government” and “forms of administration” are the same as for even larger territories.” In other words, the scale of government will not need to increase significantly beyond the scope necessary to administer a confederacy in order to direct the entire Union.
“No well-informed man will suppose that the affairs of such a confederacy can be properly regulated by a government less comprehensive in its organs or institutions than that which has been proposed by the convention.”
Hamilton then touches on a legitimate Anti-Federalist concern – that the federal government could not effectively govern such a large territory.
“Civil power, properly organized and exerted, is capable of diffusing its force to a very great extent; and can, in a manner, reproduce itself in every part of a great empire by a judicious arrangement of subordinate institutions.”
Hamilton next switches gears slightly and considers another hypothetical scenario to show that America will end up with central governments administering large territories, even with disunion resulting from failure to ratify the Constitution.
“If we attend carefully to geographical and commercial considerations, in conjunction with the habits and prejudices of the different States, we shall be led to conclude that in case of disunion they will most naturally league themselves under two governments.”
Hamilton creates a clear implication: failure to ratify the Constitution will still ultimately lead to a situation the Anti-Federalists claim to oppose. They doubt a central government can successfully administer a large republic, but disunion will likely lead to two large republics under two central governments..
And that means much higher government costs.
“Nothing can be more evident than that the thirteen States will be able to support a national government better than one half, or one third, or any number less than the whole. This reflection must have great weight in obviating that objection to the proposed plan, which is founded on the principle of expense; an objection, however, which, when we come to take a nearer view of it, will appear in every light to stand on mistaken ground.”
He wraps up his argument with some specific examples of increased expenses if America divides, noting that along with multiple bureaucracies, it will require a large number of people to guard against illicit trade between the confederacies, and a large military establishment in each jurisdiction due to “jealousies and conflicts” between the states or confederacies.
“We shall clearly discover that a separation would be not less injurious to the economy, than to the tranquility, commerce, revenue, and liberty of every part.”