EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the 19th 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.
Like the previous essay, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison coauthored Federalist #19, with Madison again taking the lead.The essay continues the theme developed over the last four papers, highlighting the “insufficiency of the present confederation to preserve the Union.”
In Federalist #18, Madison argued allowing the states to retain too much autonomy, coupled with a weak general central government, would ultimately lead to internal divisions and strife that would undermine the system. To make the case, he compared and contrasted the Amphictyonic and the Achaean leagues in ancient Greece to demonstrate how a closer union can preserve a republic. He utilized argumentation by implication. While Madison didn’t come right out and say it, he attempted to lead his readers to an undeniable conclusion – failure to ratify the Constitution will lead to similar downfalls as those suffered by these Greek leagues.
In Federalist #19, Madison followed the same formula, turning to the German confederation to make a similar argument. Madison and Hamilton strongly implied that the German empire’s federal system was similar in structure to the American republic under the Articles of Confederation.
“Its powers are vested in a diet representing the component members of the confederacy; in the emperor, who is the executive magistrate, with a negative on the decrees of the diet; and in the imperial chamber and the aulic council, two judiciary tribunals having supreme jurisdiction in controversies which concern the empire, or which happen among its members.
“The diet possesses the general power of legislating for the empire; of making war and peace; contracting alliances; assessing quotas of troops and money; constructing fortresses; regulating coin; admitting new members; and subjecting disobedient members to the ban of the empire, by which the party is degraded from his sovereign rights and his possessions forfeited. The members of the confederacy are expressly restricted from entering into compacts prejudicial to the empire; from imposing tolls and duties on their mutual intercourse, without the consent of the emperor and diet; from altering the value of money; from doing injustice to one another; or from affording assistance or retreat to disturbers of the public peace. And the ban is denounced against such as shall violate any of these restrictions. The members of the diet, as such, are subject in all cases to be judged by the emperor and diet, and in their private capacities by the aulic council and imperial chamber.”
As Madison saw it, the fundamental problem with this setup was in the relative weakness of the central authority and its inability to directly impose its will on the various “states.” In fact, the individual members of the German confederacy remained sovereign. The essayist contended that with a weak central authority, it became impossible to control the various members, leading to internal fighting and making it difficult to respond in unison to external threats.
“The fundamental principle on which it rests, that the empire is a community of sovereigns, that the diet is a representation of sovereigns and that the laws are addressed to sovereigns, renders the empire a nerveless body, incapable of regulating its own members, insecure against external dangers, and agitated with unceasing fermentations in its own bowels.
“The history of Germany is a history of wars between the emperor and the princes and states; of wars among the princes and states themselves; of the licentiousness of the strong, and the oppression of the weak; of foreign intrusions, and foreign intrigues; of requisitions of men and money disregarded, or partially complied with; of attempts to enforce them, altogether abortive, or attended with slaughter and desolation, involving the innocent with the guilty; of general inbecility, confusion, and misery.”
Madison characterized the German confederacy as “a feeble and precarious Union.”
He also offered the Swiss cantons and Poland as examples of shaky systems lacking central control. Of Poland he wrote, “Equally unfit for self-government and self-defense, it has long been at the mercy of its powerful neighbors; who have lately had the mercy to disburden it of one third of its people and territories.”
As was the case in Federalist #18, our essayists don’t come right out and compare the American Articles of Confederation with these other systems, but they beg the reader to draw that conclusion. The message is if the American states don’t ratify the Constitution, the union will go the way of the Germans, Poles and Swiss with instability, weakness and external dangers.
There is certainly some truth in Madison’s characterization of the German confederation. There were internal divisions. But he focused solely on the weakness of their system and failed to consider the strengths of decentralization.
The fall of the Roman empire led to widespread decentralization throughout Europe. From the time of the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, Germany was made up of as many as 234 “countries,” 51 free cities, and about 1,500 independent knightly manors. Out of this multitude of independent political units, only Austria counted as a great power. Only Prussia, Bavaria, Saxony, and Hanover could be considered major political players.
Johann Wolfgang Goethe didn’t see this as a splintered, weak confederation. He wrote glowingly of German unity.
“I do not fear that Germany will not be united; our excellent streets and future railroads will do their own. Germany is united in her patriotism and opposition to external enemies. She is united, because the German Taler and Groschen have the same value throughout the entire Empire, and because my suitcase can pass through all thirty-six states without being opened. It is united, because the municipal travel documents of a resident of Weimar are accepted everywhere on a par with the passports of the citizens of her mighty foreign neighbors. With regard to the German states, there is no longer any talk of domestic and foreign lands. Further, Germany is united in the areas of weights and measures, trade and migration, and a hundred similar things which I neither can nor wish to mention.”
Out of this decentralized system strong economies developed and flourished. Some have dubbed it the “European miracle.” As historian Ralph Raico put it, “It was in Europe — and the extensions of Europe, above all, America — that human beings first achieved per capita economic growth over a long period of time.”
Although geographical factors played a role, the key to western development is to be found in the fact that, while Europe constituted a single civilization — Latin Christendom — it was at the same time radically decentralized. In contrast to other cultures — especially China, India, and the Islamic world — Europe comprised a system of divided and, hence, competing powers and jurisdictions.
After the fall of Rome, no universal empire was able to arise on the Continent. This was of the greatest significance. Drawing on Montesquieu’s dictum, Jean Baechler points out that ‘every political power tends to reduce everything that is external to it, and powerful objective obstacles are needed to prevent it from succeeding’ (Baechler 1975, 79). In Europe, the ‘objective obstacles’ were provided first of all by the competing political authorities. Instead of experiencing the hegemony of a universal empire, Europe developed into a mosaic of kingdoms, principalities, city-states, ecclesiastical domains, and other political entities.”
The lack of a central authority meant a “curtailment of predatory government tax behavior” and “limits to arbitrariness set by a competitive political arena,” which proved to be fertile ground for economic advancement.
“With the freer disposition of private property came the possibility of ongoing innovations, tested in the market. Here, too, the rivalrous state system was highly favorable. The nations of Europe functioned ‘as a set of joint-stock corporations with implicit prospectuses listing resources and freedoms’ in such a way as to insure ‘against the suppression of novelty and unorthodoxy in the system as a whole’ (Jones 1987, 119). A new social class arose, consisting of merchants, capitalists, and manufacturers ‘with immunity from interference by the formidable social forces opposed to change, growth, and innovation’ (Rosenberg and Birdzell 1986, 24).”
The lack of strong central control in Europe had both its benefits and its pitfalls, as is true with all political systems. Madison emphasized the weaknesses of the German confederacy to agitate for more centralization in America. He raises some valid points. Very real problems existed in these European systems. But in retrospect, we can just as easily argue the benefits of more decentralized governance with a weak central authority. It’s not clear that Madison’s critique of the German, Polish and French systems was entirely fair, and it seems to have been tailored less toward a fair reading of history and more toward political propaganda.