EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the seventh 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 #7, Alexander Hamilton builds on the theme he established in Federalist #6 – that the states cannot peacefully coexist individually or as separate confederacies and need a strong national government hand to guide them.

In the previous paper, Hamilton focused primarily on how the personal passions and agendas of various leaders would lead to conflict. In Federalist #7, Hamilton turns his attention to specific issues he believes will drive a wedge between the states if not united.

“IT IS sometimes asked, with an air of seeming triumph, what inducements could the States have, if disunited, to make war upon each other? It would be a full answer to this question to say–precisely the same inducements which have, at different times, deluged in blood all the nations in the world.”

Hamilton spends the bulk of the Federalist #7 addressing the first source of conflict he identifies –  territorial disputes. He calls them “one of the most fertile sources of hostility among nations.”

“Perhaps the greatest proportion of wars that have desolated the earth have sprung from this origin.”

He points out that there remains “discordant and undecided claims” between several states, and contends disunion would certainly lead to others, especially in the western territories. “We perceive an ample theatre for hostile pretensions, without any umpire or common judge to interpose between the contending parties,” Hamilton writes.

Here we see Hamilton’s preference for strong, central government coloring his work. He believes people, and states, need a strong hand to guide them, protect them and settle disputes. To emphasize his point, he turns to a historical example, referencing the only land dispute settled by the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation.

Pennsylvania and Connecticut both claimed an area known as the Wyoming Valley, and the conflict led to the “Pennamite-Yankee War.” King Charles II granted the area to Connecticut in 1662 and included the same land in a grant to William Penn in 1681. Later, both Connecticut and Pennsylvania purchased the same land through treaties with Indians. There existed an actual overlapping land claim, and both states had valid arguments. King George III eventually confirmed Connecticut’s claim in 1771, but the Pennsylvanians refused to leave.

In 1782, the Continental Congress overturned the king’s ruling and upheld Pennsylvania’s claim to the area. Connecticut Yankees were not pleased and fought several skirmishes when Pennsylvanians tried to force them from the land. The situation wasn’t fully resolved until 1799.

Hamilton used this well-known conflict and the fact that the Congress resolved it to make his case for a strong central government. He had little faith that states could work out differences otherwise.

“States, like individuals, acquiesce with great reluctance in determinations to their disadvantage.”

Hamilton also mentions a conflict closer to home to buttress his argument. There was a contentious dispute between New York and Vermont due to the fact that New Hampshire governor Benning Wentworth issued land grants between 1749 and 1764. Many of these grants were on the New York side of the Green Mountains. Hamilton writes that those with knowledge of the conflict “can attest the danger to which the peace of the Confederacy might have been exposed, had this State attempted to assert its rights by force.”

Hamilton moves on to point out other potential sources of conflict, including “the competitions of commerce,” how to pay off public debt of the union, and “laws in violation of private contracts.”

The reference to contracts reveals how Hamilton’s personal views often colored his commentary. Historian J.R. Pole writes, “Hamilton regarded the keeping of contracts as one of the cardinal principles of civilized society.” (1) So, he turns to another well-known recent event to emphasize the need for a strong central government to advance his personal interest.

“We have observed the disposition to retaliation excited in Connecticut in consequence of the enormities perpetrated by the Legislature of Rhode Island.”

Rhode Island issued large amounts of paper currency that devalued, angering creditors in neighboring states. Hamilton viewed the state’s promise to redeem state-issued currency as a contract. What Hamilton meant by Connecticut’s retaliation remains unclear, but Hamilton was clear on the potential threat.

“…In similar cases, under other circumstances, a war, not of PARCHMENT, but of the sword, would chastise such atrocious breaches of moral obligation and social justice.”

Hamilton concludes the paper by referring back to the previous arguments laid out by John Jay, reiterating that if not united, the states would “be gradually entangled in all the pernicious labyrinths of European politics and wars; and by the destructive contentions of the parts into which she was divided, would be likely to become a prey to the artifices and machinations of powers equally the enemies of them all.”

  1. Pole, J. R. The Federalist. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub., 2005. Pg. 34
Mike Maharrey

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