EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the 20th 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 #20, James Madison, with some input from Alexander Hamilton, wraps up a series of essays all addressing the “insufficiency of the present confederation to preserve the Union.” In the process, he reveals a fundamental problem with all constitutional systems that plagues the United States today.
In this essay, Madison specifically builds further on the foundation he laid in previous two. In Federalist #18, Madison argued allowing the states to retain too much autonomy, coupled with a weak 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. In Federalist #19, Madison followed the same formula, turning to the German confederation to make a similar argument. In Federalist #20, Madison reiterates the same points, this time focusing on the United Netherlands.
The United Netherlands, also commonly called the Dutch Republic, formed around 1581. It was a lose confederation of seven sovereign provinces.Madison spends several paragraphs outlining the theoretical power of the United Netherlands’ central government and its executive magistrate in somewhat glowing terms. Then he hits his readers with the cold water of reality.
“Such is the nature of the celebrated Belgic confederacy, as delineated on parchment. What are the characters which practice has stamped upon it? Imbecility in the government; discord among the provinces; foreign influence and indignities; a precarious existence in peace, and peculiar calamities from war.”
In other words, the confederacy had a paper government. In Madison’s view, it lacked any real authority to enforce its will. As a result, the provinces could pretty well do as they please, and they often simply ignored the will of the central authority. He then describes the chaotic results of this lack of centralized control. His underlying message was the same as in the previous two essays – if the states don’t ratify the proposed Constitution and place more power in the general government, it will suffer the same fate. Failure to ratify could lead to imbecility in the government.
The core message Madison carried through Federalist essays 18, 19 and 20 is that unions composed of co-equal or sovereign states have inherent weaknesses that lead to ineffectual government. In the worst case, they can give rise to foreign predation and even civil war. They need a strong general government.
“I make no apology for having dwelt so long on the contemplation of these federal precedents. Experience is the oracle of truth; and where its responses are unequivocal, they ought to be conclusive and sacred. The important truth, which it unequivocally pronounces in the present case, is that a sovereignty over sovereigns, a government over governments, a legislation for communities, as contradistinguished from individuals, as it is a solecism in theory, so in practice it is subversive of the order and ends of civil polity, by substituting VIOLENCE in place of LAW, or the destructive COERCION of the SWORD in place of the mild and salutary COERCION of the MAGISTRACY.”
Madison’s argument is purely rhetorical and somewhat hyperbolic. He ignores some of the benefits accruing from the Dutch confederacy’s decentralized nature. With little centralized planning and regulation, its economy thrived. Beginning in the late 16th, and continuing through the 17th century, the United Netherlands was the world’s economic powerhouse. It dominated trade as it developed a vast colonial empire. At one time, the Dutch Republic operated the largest fleet of merchantmen in the world. It was also a center for banking and was home to the world’s first stock exchange.
For whatever problems the perceived weaknesses in the Dutch system created, it allowed for the development of an economically prosperous and relatively free society.
Even as Madison tried to highlight the problems with weak central governments, he swerved into a broader truth – constitutions in general don’t do a very good job of restraining government on their own – even if they empower the central authority. Madison’s characterization of the failings of the United Netherlands sounds a lot like the modern day United States.
“In critical emergencies, the States-General are often compelled to overleap their constitutional bounds…A weak constitution must necessarily terminate in dissolution, for want of proper powers, or the usurpation of powers requisite for the public safety. Whether the usurpation, when once begun, will stop at the salutary point, or go forward to the dangerous extreme, must depend on the contingencies of the moment. Tyranny has perhaps oftener grown out of the assumptions of power, called for, on pressing exigencies, by a defective constitution, than out of the full exercise of the largest constitutional authorities.”
Ironically, even with the Constitution Madison was pushing for in place, we see these same problems he described in the Dutch Republic. The federal government often overleaps constitutional bounds in critical emergencies. D.C. engages in rampant usurpation of powers. Tyranny grows out of the federal government’s assumption of authority. The feds constantly exceed their limits. Imbecilic government runs rampant.
It seems the issue with usurpation and abuse of power weren’t simply functions of a weak system in the United Netherlands. It arose from a more fundamental problem with government. They all push beyond the limits of their power – whether those powers are broad or carefully circumscribed. It requires constant vigilance to hold them in check.