EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the 17th 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 #15 and Federalist #16, Alexander Hamilton begins building the case for a stronger general government in light of the perceived weakness of the Articles of Confederation.
In Federalist #17, he attempts to address an objection he knew would certainly come up – the possibility that the new government would grow too strong. That would “enable it to absorb those residuary authorities, which it might be judged proper to leave with the States for local purposes.”
Hamilton makes two assertions to ally these fears, both of which seem ludicrous in retrospect. His audience may have found his arguments compelling in 1787, but time proved him dead wrong.
First he argues those who seek positions in the federal government simply won’t have any interest in state or local issues, essentially implying they will view those objects as beneath them.
“Allowing the utmost latitude to the love of power which any reasonable man can require, I confess I am at a loss to discover what temptation the persons intrusted with the administration of the general government could ever feel to divest the States of the authorities of that description. The regulation of the mere domestic police of a State appears to me to hold out slender allurements to ambition.”
Hamilton goes on to say possessing such powers “would contribute nothing to the dignity, to the importance, or to the splendor of the national government.”
Tucked away in his dissertation, Hamilton provides some important insight into exactly what powers were to remain with the states – thus beneath the purview of more lofty federal councils.
“The administration of private justice between the citizens of the same State, the supervision of agriculture and of other concerns of a similar nature, all those things, in short, which are proper to be provided for by local legislation, can never be desirable cares of a general jurisdiction.”
Of course today, the federal government involves itself deeply in all of these things, and many more.
The size and scope of the federal government today reveals just how badly Hamilton missed the boat. He either underestimated the lust for power of those seeking federal office, or he failed to recognize the enormous amount of political influence politicians garner by involving themselves in more local issues. It was foolish of Hamilton to believe federal authorities would resist the temptation to expand their sphere of influence.
This segues into Hamilton’s second point: that Americans will maintain a tighter attachment to their state governments because of their proximity. He argues that due to its distance from the people and the fact that it will remain focused on more general concerns such as “commerce, finance, negotiation, and war,” the people will never develop a strong loyalty to the federal government.
“It will always be far more easy for the State governments to encroach upon the national authorities than for the national government to encroach upon the State authorities. The proof of this proposition turns upon the greater degree of influence which the State governments if they administer their affairs with uprightness and prudence, will generally possess over the people.”
When we examine Hamilton’s propositions together, the fallacy of his thinking becomes clear. On the one hand, he argues that the states will, by their very nature, wield more influence.
“There is one transcendant advantage belonging to the province of the State governments, which alone suffices to place the matter in a clear and satisfactory light,–I mean the ordinary administration of criminal and civil justice. This, of all others, is the most powerful, most universal, and most attractive source of popular obedience and attachment.”
Hamilton also assumes the federal government will lack influence in relation to the states because it doesn’t involve itself in these local matters simply because they “hold out slender allurements to ambition.”
But what if federal officials do want to extend their power and influence? Hamilton’s own views reveals the ease in doing so.
Following his logic, federal officers only need to insert themselves into the “ordinary administration of criminal and civil justice” and take over the “domestic police” in order to gain whatever influence and public attachment the federal government lacks.
Keep in mind “police powers” in a constitutional context include not only the enforcement of criminal law, but exercising the full scope of authority to regulate behavior and keep order so as to provide for the health, safety, morality and general welfare the people.
Why wouldn’t they do this? It clearly holds significant “allurement to ambition.” It provides a pathway to power.
In fact, this is exactly what the federal government has done. It has extended its influence over virtually every element of American life. As a result, it has transferred the obedience and attachment of Americans to itself – the exact opposite of what Hamilton promised.
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