EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the 15th 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 turns the defense of the proposed Constitution in a new direction in Federalist #15.
The first 14 essays focused primarily on, as Hamilton put it, “the importance of Union to your political safety and happiness.”
“I have unfolded to you a complication of dangers to which you would be exposed, should you permit that sacred knot which binds the people of America together be severed or dissolved by ambition or by avarice, by jealousy or by misrepresentation.”
In Federalist #15, he turns his attention to the inadequacy of the Articles of Confederation and the need for the general government to wield more power.
By this point, few Americans denied that the Articles at least needed amending, even those most fearful of “nationalist intentions.” But Hamilton once again demonstrates his aptitude for hyperbole in describing the Articles’ defects.
“We may indeed with propriety be said to have reached almost the last stage of national humiliation. There is scarcely anything that can wound the pride or degrade the character of an independent nation which we do not experience.”
But as Philip B. Kurland and Ralph Lerner point out in The Founders’ Constitution, America enjoyed substantial achievements under the Articles, including “carrying the war for independence through to victory, forming a diplomatic corps of genuine distinction and providing for the orderly organization and incorporation of a vast public domain.”
Hamilton ignores the successes and paints the United States as a nation nearing collapse. He proceeds to highlight some of the problems facing America through a series of rhetorical questions. Some of the issues he mentions include the debt owed to both foreign countries and American citizens stemming from the Revolution, the fact that the British continue to hold forts and territories in America despite the Treaty of Pairs, Spanish efforts to block navigation of the Mississippi River, the lack of a strong military structure, lack of public and private credit, struggling commerce, sinking land values and the lack of respect for American ambassadors abroad.
“To shorten an enumeration of particulars which can afford neither pleasure nor instruction, it may in general be demanded, what indication is there of national disorder, poverty, and insignificance that could befall a community so peculiarly blessed with natural advantages as we are, which does not form a part of the dark catalogue of our public misfortunes?”
In Hamilton’s view, the “great and radical vice in the construction of the existing Confederation” is the inability of Congress to enforce its will.
“The United States has an indefinite discretion to make requisitions for men and money; but they have no authority to raise either, by regulations extending to the individual citizens of America.”
Hamilton argues that the United States under the Articles of Confederation is really nothing more than a league of independent states. He sees the Constitution as a uniting force, creating a true “government.”
“We must resolve to incorporate into our plan those ingredients which may be considered as forming the characteristic difference between a league and a government; we must extend the authority of the Union to the persons of the citizens, –the only proper objects of government.”
Having painted this dark picture of America’s condition, Hamilton goes for the jugular and puts the blame squarely on “those very maxims and councils which would now deter us from adopting the proposed Constitution.”
In Federalist #14, Madison downplayed the authority of the federal government, emphasizing that it was to be limited to certain enumerated powers. Hamilton takes the opposite tact and puts his preference for nationalism on full display.
“While they admit that the government of the United States is destitute of energy, they contend against conferring upon it those powers which are requisite to supply that energy. They seem still to aim at things repugnant and irreconcilable; at an augmentation of federal authority, without a diminution of State authority; at sovereignty in the Union, and complete independence in the members.”
Statements like this should have served as a warning when Hamilton later joined Madison in assuring Americans the federal government would remain limited and states would retain the bulk of their powers.
Hamilton goes on to point out that only two ways exist to execute laws – courts or armies – or as he puts it, “by the COERCION of the magistracy, or by the COERCION of arms.” Since under the Articles of Confederation, the general government lacks the means to “coerce” by magistracy, the sword remains the only option. But the proposed Constitution provides a framework for the federal government put its decisions into action, short of relying on arms.
Beneath the rampant hyperbole, Hamilton’s core assertion holds merit.
“In our case, the concurrence of thirteen distinct sovereign wills is requisite, under the Confederation, to the complete execution of every important measure that proceeds from the Union. It has happened as was to have been foreseen. The measures of the Union have not been executed…Each State, yielding to the persuasive voice of immediate interest or convenience, has successively withdrawn its support, till the frail and tottering edifice seems ready to fall upon our heads, and to crush us beneath its ruins.”
But Hamilton fails to address the other side of the coin – could the problem have been remedied by an amending the Articles, or was it necessary to create an entirely new framework?