EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the 18th 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 and James Madison share authorship of Federalist #18, with Madison taking the lead. The essay continues the theme of the last three, highlighting the “insufficiency of the present confederation to preserve the Union.”
To bolster the argument of the preceding three papers, Madison provides an in-depth history lesson featuring the ancient Greeks. He compares and contrasts the Amphictyonic and the Achaean leagues to demonstrate how a closer union can preserve a republic.
The essay serves as an argument by implication. While Madison doesn’t come right out and say it, he attempts to lead his readers to undeniable conclusion – failure to ratify the Constitution will lead to similar downfalls as those suffered by these Greek leagues.
Madison starts with the Amphictyonic council, highlighting its failures as a warning to Americans. Early on, he draws a parallel between this Greek confederacy and the United States under the Articles of Confederation.
“In theory, and upon paper, this apparatus of powers seems amply sufficient for all general purposes. In several material instances, they exceed the powers enumerated in the articles of confederation. The Amphictyons had in their hands the superstition of the times, one of the principal engines by which government was then maintained; they had a declared authority to use coercion against refractory cities, and were bound by oath to exert this authority on the necessary occasions.”
But Madison points out that reality diverged greatly from this theory, and hints that the same fate will befall the United States if it remains bound by only by the Articles.
“The powers, like those of the present Congress, were administered by deputies appointed wholly by the cities in their political capacities; and exercised over them in the same capacities. Hence the weakness, the disorders, and finally the destruction of the confederacy. The more powerful members, instead of being kept in awe and subordination, tyrannized successively over all the rest.”
Madison sums up the Amphictyonic experiment with the words of French Historian Abbe Milot arguing “if the Greeks had been as wise as they were courageous, they would have been admonished by experience of the necessity of a closer union.” The implication being that America should follow the path of wisdom.
Madison blames the ultimate fall of the council on the tepidness of its government, not unlike the American system under the Articles of Confederation.
“As a weak government, when not at war, is ever agitated by internal dissentions, so these never fail to bring on fresh calamities from abroad.” He goes on to write, “Had Greece, says a judicious observer on her fate, been united by a stricter confederation, and persevered in her union, she would never have worn the chains of Macedon; and might have proved a barrier to the vast projects of Rome.”
Madison contrasts the failure of the Amphictyonic Council with the relative success of the Achaean League.
“The Union here was far more intimate, and its organization much wiser, than in the preceding instance. It will accordingly appear, that though not exempt from a similar catastrophe, it by no means equally deserved it.”
Madison points out what he considers key differences, noting of primary importance that the cities making up the league did not maintain complete sovereignty as did those of the Amphictyonic system. He acknowledges that much of the government structure remains shrouded in mystery, but certain attributes stand out.
“One important fact seems to be witnessed by all the historians who take notice of Achaean affairs. It is, that as well after the renovation of the league by Aratus, as before its dissolution by the arts of Macedon, there was infinitely more of moderation and justice in the administration of its government, and less of violence and sedition in the people, than were to be found in any of the cities exercising SINGLY all the prerogatives of sovereignty. The Abbe Mably, in his observations on Greece, says that the popular government, which was so tempestuous elsewhere, caused no disorders in the members of the Achaean republic, BECAUSE IT WAS THERE TEMPERED BY THE GENERAL AUTHORITY AND LAWS OF THE CONFEDERACY.” [Emphasis original]
Madison’s argument boils down to this: allowing the states to retain too much autonomy, coupled with a weak general central government, will ultimately lead to internal divisions and strife that will undermine the system. He doesn’t say so outright, but Madison implies this fate awaits the United States if it does not ratify the proposed Constitution.
He concludes writing, “it emphatically illustrates the tendency of federal bodies rather to anarchy among the members, than to tyranny in the head.” In other words, the danger lies not in an overreaching general government, but weakness, dissension and conflict among the members.
Federalist #18 reveals the depth of historical knowledge Madison possessed and the amount of thought he and other founding fathers put into the “science” of government. While compelling on the surface, the analysis in the essay fails to account for the many cultural, geographic and historical differences that could have contributed to the failure of these Greek republics.
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