EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the 16th 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 #16, Alexander Hamilton continues a subject he introduced in the 15th essay – the inadequacy of the Articles of Confederation and the need for the federal government to wield more power.
Having generally laid out major deficiencies of the Articles in Federalist #15, Hamilton narrows the focus in this essay, arguing that the federal government needs the power to act directly upon the American people, not just on state governments. While his aim was to convince Americans to embrace a stronger national government, he unwittingly uncovers the key to checking federal power through state nullification at the end of the paper.
Under the Articles of Confederation, the Congress could only address requisitions to the states. It could not directly tax people, property or commerce, nor could it enforce laws on the people themselves. If the states refused to fulfill a requisition, Congress was essentially powerless to enforce its will. Hamilton called this system “the parent of anarchy.”
“It has been seen that delinquencies in the members of the Union are its natural and necessary offspring; and that whenever they happen, the only constitutional remedy is force, and the immediate effect of the use of it, civil war.”
Hamilton has a penchant for keeping debates narrowly constrained. In typical fashion, he offers only two possible outcomes given the current state of the confederacy. It will ultimately lead to war, because the federal government will have to use to force to impose its will on reticent states in order to meet its obligations, or federal power will simply erode away and the Union will dissolve.
Of course, complying states could use force to “encourage” reticent states pull their own weight. But Hamilton rightly points out this won’t likely happen.
“Its more natural death is what we now seem to be on the point of experiencing, if the federal system be not speedily renovated in a more substantial form. It is not probable, considering the genius of this country, that the complying States would often be inclined to support the authority of the Union by engaging in a war against the non-complying States. They would always be more ready to pursue the milder course of putting themselves upon an equal footing with the delinquent members by an imitation of their example. And the guilt of all would thus become the security of all.”
Hamilton argues if states don’t use force on each other, they will ultimately do their own bidding, disregarding the federal government. As a result, the general government’s power will erode until completely eradicated.
He goes on to suggest the unthinkable – empowering the federal government to maintain a large standing army to compel state compliance. Of course, virtually nobody at that time would have entertained such an idea.
Hamilton proceeds to the only logical solution, setting up a stark choice. Either keep system as is with the federal government trying to compel states, requiring a large army and force, or a create a national government that operates on the people directly.
“It seems to require no pains to prove that the States ought not to prefer a national Constitution which could only be kept in motion by the instrumentality of a large army continually on foot to execute the ordinary requisitions or decrees of the government. And yet this is the plain alternative involved by those who wish to deny it the power of extending its operations to individuals.”
Having established the choice so as to make the answer self-evident, Hamilton lays out the authority he believes the national government must be able to exercise.
“It must carry its agency to the persons of the citizens. It must stand in need of no intermediate legislations; but must itself be empowered to employ the arm of the ordinary magistrate to execute its own resolutions. The majesty of the national authority must be manifested through the medium of the courts of justice. The government of the Union, like that of each State, must be able to address itself immediately to the hopes and fears of individuals; and to attract to its support those passions which have the strongest influence upon the human heart. It must, in short, possess all the means, and have aright to resort to all the methods, of executing the powers with which it is intrusted, that are possessed and exercised by the government of the particular States.”
Hamilton then cites objections to state legislatures playing a role in bringing federal measures into effect. In so-doing, he unwittingly lays the foundation of state nullification.
“If the interposition of the State legislatures be necessary to give effect to a measure of the Union, they have only NOT TO ACT, or to ACT EVASIVELY, and the measure is defeated.”
Hamilton got what he wanted in one sense. State legislatures have no say in approving or disapproving federal measures. The federal government acts directly on the American people. But states still play a significant role in enforcing the federal government’s will.
While state legislatures do not approve federal measures directly, the federal government almost always depends on state resources and personnel to carry them into effect. By refusing to act, states have the power to defeat federal measures for all practical purposes.