EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the fourteenth 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.
In Federalist #9, Alexander Hamilton addressed the Anti-Federalist contention that a republican form of government cannot function if it spans too large a territory.
In Federalist #14, James Madison takes up the pen and circles back to this same issue. In the course of making his case, Madison explains the nature of the relationship between the state and the federal governments for the first time, insisting that the general government will remain limited to specific purposes, and the states will retain significant power. In Madison’s view, this structure will make it possible for the U.S. government to effectively exercise its authority over the full extent of the Union.
Before launching into his discussion, Madison offers a concise summary of the reasons so far offered for the “necessity of the Union.” It will serve as a “bulwark against foreign danger,” as a “conservator of peace among ourselves,” as a “guardian of commerce,” as “the only substitute for those military establishments which have subverted the liberties of the Old World,” and as a remedy for faction.
“All that remains, within this branch of our inquiries, is to take notice of an objection that may be drawn from the great extent of country which the Union embraces.”
Anti-Federalists relied heavily on the writings of Montesquieu to argue that a republican government can only operate successfully in a contracted area. Montesquieu believed the territory had to remain small enough for the people to assemble regularly. Hamilton countered this argument in Federalist #9 by quoting other writings where Montesquieu advocated for extended confederacies. Madison chose a different tact, tackling the revered political philosopher’s theory head-on.
Madison insists those holding this view confuse pure democracy and republican government. He points out that in a democracy, the people meet and exercise the government in person. In a republic, they assemble and administer it by their representatives and agents. Then, obviously referring to Montesquieu, Madison writes the following.
“To this accidental source of the error may be added the artifice of some celebrated authors, whose writings have had a great share in forming the modern standard of political opinions…Under the confusion of names, it has been an easy task to transfer to a republic observations applicable to a democracy only; and among others, the observation that it can never be established but among a small number of people, living within a small compass of territory.”
Madison argues that democracies can only function in smaller territories because all of the people must meet regularly, and the system cannot encompass more people than can reasonably get together at one time. But in a republic, the “distance from the centre which will barely allow the representatives to meet as often as may be necessary for the administration of public affairs,” serves as the only constraint.
Madison points out that up to that point, the representatives of the US Congress have had no problem fulfilling their duties, even those from far-away Georgia. He next launches into precise calculations of the size of the Union to show that it will not encompass too great a territory for operation of the constitutional government.
Madison then offers four reasons the proposed constitutional system can work in America despite the expansive territory.
- The federal government will remain limit and much of the governance will occur at the state level.
- When it comes to adding states in the far reaches of American territory, it will fall to “those whom further discoveries and experience will render more equal to the task.”
- Travel will become easier as the transportation system improves.
- States furthest away will be “immediately contiguous to foreign nations,” therefore most in need to the protection of the Union. That, Madison argues, makes up for the inconvenience of sending their representatives to the seat of government.
Madison’s first point has ramifications reaching far beyond the issue at hand, with important implications for today. Modern politicians and pundits operate as if the federal government possesses unlimited power to do virtually anything, with the authority to reach into every aspect of our lives. But Madison makes it clear that the Constitution was intended to create only a limited general government.
“The general government is not to be charged with the whole power of making and administering laws. Its jurisdiction is limited to certain enumerated objects, which concern all the members of the republic, but which are not to be attained by the separate provisions of any. The subordinate governments, which can extend their care to all those other subjects which can be separately provided for, will retain their due authority and activity.”
Madison believed most governance would remain primarily local. In his view, the limited nature of the federal government would mitigate the problems associated with administering a territory the size of the United States. But he miscalculated. With the federal government now expanded to encompass almost every governmental function, it obliterates Madison’s case. Today we see the inevitable results – one-size-fits-all solutions that don’t work imposed on 300-plus million people, staggering debt and inefficient programs.
Madison might have been right, but we will never know, because the system today bears no resemblance to the system he conceived.