The Federalist Papers are among Hamilton’s most important writings, so I’m going to take my time going through them. For the excerpts from Federalist Papers nos. 1-21, see last week’s post. In brief, the excerpts below made the cut for one of four reasons:
- Eternal relevance.
- Immediate relevance.
- Related to Hamilton’s ongoing battle with Governor of New York George Clinton.
- Sheer beauty of language.
Federalist Nos. 21-22: Other Defects of the Present Confederation
Published 12/12/1787 and 12/14/1787. One of the flaws of the Confederation was Congress’s inability to levy taxes. Here Hamilton argues that an import tax imposed by the national government would be more fair than arbitrary quotas collected from each state.
Imposts, excises, and, in general, all duties upon articles of consumption, may be compared to a fluid, which will, in time, find its level with the means of paying them. The amount to be contributed by each citizen will in a degree be at his own option, and can be regulated by an attention to his resources. The rich may be extravagant, the poor can be frugal; and private oppression may always be avoided by a judicious selection of objects proper for such impositions. (No. 21; more here)
Another defect of the Confederation that’s discussed at length in the Federalist Papers is the lack of a national judiciary power. Hamilton had seen the effects of this in New York State, where laws persecuting former loyalists had been passed in violation of the treaty signed with Great Britain. (See this post.)
A circumstance which crowns the defects of the Confederation remains yet to be mentioned, the want of a judiciary power. Laws are a dead letter without courts to expound and define their true meaning and operation. The treaties of the United States, to have any force at all, must be considered as part of the law of the land. Their true import, as far as respects individuals, must, like all other laws, be ascertained by judicial determinations. To produce uniformity in these determinations, they ought to be submitted, in the last resort, to one SUPREME TRIBUNAL. And this tribunal ought to be instituted under the same authority which forms the treaties themselves. These ingredients are both indispensable. If there is in each State a court of final jurisdiction, there may be as many different final determinations on the same point as there are courts. There are endless diversities in the opinions of men. We often see not only different courts but the judges of the same court differing from each other. To avoid the confusion which would unavoidably result from the contradictory decisions of a number of independent judicatories, all nations have found it necessary to establish one court paramount to the rest, possessing a general superintendence, and authorized to settle and declare in the last resort a uniform rule of civil justice. …
The treaties of the United States, under the present Constitution, are liable to the infractions of thirteen different legislatures, and as many different courts of final jurisdiction, acting under the authority of those legislatures. The faith, the reputation, the peace of the whole Union, are thus continually at the mercy of the prejudices, the passions, and the interests of every member of which it is composed. Is it possible that foreign nations can either respect or confide in such a government? Is it possible that the people of America will longer consent to trust their honor, their happiness, their safety, on so precarious a foundation? (No. 22, more here)
Federalist No. 23: The Necessity of a Government as Energetic as the One Proposed to the Preservation of the Union
Published 12/18/1787. Hamilton lists what he sees as the principal purposes for government: points to him for getting to the nitty-gritty.
The principal purposes to be answered by union are these the common defense of the members; the preservation of the public peace as well against internal convulsions as external attacks; the regulation of commerce with other nations and between the States; the superintendence of our intercourse, political and commercial, with foreign countries. (No. 23, more here)
Sidenote: As a laissez-faire capitalist, I disagree that commerce needs to be regulated. But I’m not sure yet (give me another couple months) whether Hamilton is in favor of regulation generally, or if he’s only in favor of it because he wants the national government to be able to override all the petty commercial restrictions that states such as Virginia, Maryland, and New York had been imposing on their neighbors in the mid-1780s. (See here.)
Federalist No. 24-25: The Powers Necessary to the Common Defense Further Considered
Published 12/19/1787 and 12/21/1787. Another eternally relevant statement, and Hamilton knows it:
For it is a truth, which the experience of ages has attested, that the people are always most in danger when the means of injuring their rights are in the possession of those of whom they entertain the least suspicion. (No. 25, more here)
I have perhaps been living in New York City too long, because I know a lot of people who need to be reminded that having an army even in peace is a Good Thing. In the following excerpt, Hamilton refutes the idea that there should be no standing army because the legislature and executive might use it to establish a tyranny.
If, to obviate this consequence, it should be resolved to extend the prohibition to the RAISING of armies in time of peace, the United States would then exhibit the most extraordinary spectacle which the world has yet seen, that of a nation incapacitated by its Constitution to prepare for defense, before it was actually invaded. As the ceremony of a formal denunciation of war has of late fallen into disuse, the presence of an enemy within our territories must be waited for, as the legal warrant to the government to begin its levies of men for the protection of the State. We must receive the blow, before we could even prepare to return it. All that kind of policy by which nations anticipate distant danger, and meet the gathering storm, must be abstained from, as contrary to the genuine maxims of a free government. We must expose our property and liberty to the mercy of foreign invaders, and invite them by our weakness to seize the naked and defenseless prey, because we are afraid that rulers, created by our choice, dependent on our will, might endanger that liberty, by an abuse of the means necessary to its preservation. (No. 25, more here)
Another timeless statement, regarding rules made to be broken and slippery slopes:
Wise politicians will be cautious about fettering the government with restrictions that cannot be observed, because they know that every breach of the fundamental laws, though dictated by necessity, impairs that sacred reverence which ought to be maintained in the breast of rulers towards the constitution of a country, and forms a precedent for other breaches where the same plea of necessity does not exist at all, or is less urgent and palpable. (No. 25, more here)
Could we have that on a banner, please? A GIF? A tweet? A YouTube video?
Federalist No. 26-28: The Idea of Restraining the Legislative Authority in Regard to the Common Defense Considered
Published 12/22/1787, 12/25/1787, 12/26/1787. This is part of a long discussion on the government’s right to raise an army.
Independent of all other reasonings upon the subject, it is a full answer to those who require a more peremptory provision against military establishments in time of peace, to say that the whole power of the proposed government is to be in the hands of the representatives of the people. This is the essential, and, after all, only efficacious security for the rights and privileges of the people, which is attainable in civil society.
If the representatives of the people betray their constituents, there is then no resource left but in the exertion of that original right of self-defense which is paramount to all positive forms of government, and which against the usurpations of the national rulers, may be exerted with infinitely better prospect of success than against those of the rulers of an individual state. (No. 28, more here)
Federalist No. 29: Concerning the Militia
Published 1/9/1788. Includes a discussion of the “necessary and proper” clause, but there’s a quote I like better in No. 33 (below).
Federalist No. 30-36: Concerning the General Power of Taxation
Published December 28, 1787, and January 1, 3, 3, 4, 5, and 8, 1788. Hamilton discusses at length why it’s necessary – and not dangerous – to give the federal government the power to collect its own revenues. Then Hamilton speaks to the ditherers:
The moment we launch into conjectures about the usurpations of the federal government, we get into an unfathomable abyss, and fairly put ourselves out of the reach of all reasoning. Imagination may range at pleasure till it gets bewildered amidst the labyrinths of an enchanted castle, and knows not on which side to turn to extricate itself from the perplexities into which it has so rashly adventured. Whatever may be the limits or modifications of the powers of the Union, it is easy to imagine an endless train of possible dangers; and by indulging an excess of jealousy and timidity, we may bring ourselves to a state of absolute scepticism and irresolution. (No. 31, more here)
Hamilton and Madison both attended the Constitutional Convention, and Madison took copious notes – but the “secrecy rule” (more here) forbade them from stating in print the arguments they had heard there. So throughout the Federalist Papers, Hamilton and Madison pretend to be speculating on why the delegates at the Constitutional Convention included certain provisions and worded them in specific ways. This discussion of the “necessary and proper” clause is one of the more obvious cases.
It conducts us to this palpable truth, that a power to lay and collect taxes must be a power to pass all laws NECESSARY and PROPER for the execution of that power; and what does the unfortunate and culumniated provision in question do more than declare the same truth, to wit, that the national legislature, to whom the power of laying and collecting taxes had been previously given, might, in the execution of that power, pass all laws NECESSARY and PROPER to carry it into effect? I have applied these observations thus particularly to the power of taxation, because it is the immediate subject under consideration, and because it is the most important of the authorities proposed to be conferred upon the Union. But the same process will lead to the same result, in relation to all other powers declared in the Constitution. And it is EXPRESSLY to execute these powers that the sweeping clause, as it has been affectedly called, authorizes the national legislature to pass all NECESSARY and PROPER laws. If there is any thing exceptionable, it must be sought for in the specific powers upon which this general declaration is predicated. The declaration itself, though it may be chargeable with tautology or redundancy, is at least perfectly harmless.
But SUSPICION may ask, Why then was it introduced? The answer is, that it could only have been done for greater caution, and to guard against all cavilling refinements in those who might hereafter feel a disposition to curtail and evade the legitimate authorities of the Union. The Convention probably foresaw, what it has been a principal aim of these papers to inculcate, that the danger which most threatens our political welfare is that the State governments will finally sap the foundations of the Union; and might therefore think it necessary, in so cardinal a point, to leave nothing to construction. Whatever may have been the inducement to it, the wisdom of the precaution is evident from the cry which has been raised against it; as that very cry betrays a disposition to question the great and essential truth which it is manifestly the object of that provision to declare. (No. 33, more here)
In defending the federal government’s need for its own source of revenue, Hamilton discusses why its expenses are not predictable. What is the largest government expenditure? Wars and rebellions. Another eternal truth:
Let us recollect that peace or war will not always be left to our option; that however moderate or unambitious we may be, we cannot count upon the moderation, or hope to extinguish the ambition of others. Who could have imagined at the conclusion of the last war that France and Britain, wearied and exhausted as they both were, would so soon have looked with so hostile an aspect upon each other? To judge from the history of mankind, we shall be compelled to conclude that the fiery and destructive passions of war reign in the human breast with much more powerful sway than the mild and beneficent sentiments of peace; and that to model our political systems upon speculations of lasting tranquillity, is to calculate on the weaker springs of the human character. (No. 34, more here)
One of the objections to allowing the federal government to impose taxes was that the legislature would not have representatives from every different walk of life, and therefore would not know how to impose taxes fairly. Hamilton argues that the self-interest of those running for office will ensure that everyone’s interests are considered. (This description of non-career politicians makes me wistful.)
Is it not natural that a man who is a candidate for the favor of the people, and who is dependent on the suffrages of his fellow-citizens for the continuance of his public honors, should take care to inform himself of their dispositions and inclinations, and should be willing to allow them their proper degree of influence upon his conduct? This dependence, and the necessity of being bound himself, and his posterity, by the laws to which he gives his assent, are the true, and they are the strong chords of sympathy between the representative and the constituent. (No. 35, more here)
After No. 36 appeared on January 8, 1788, Hamilton did not publish another essay until February 22 … and then he wrote all the other issues from 59 through 85, except Nos. 62, 63, and 64. Twenty-six essays in thirteen weeks.
- A table of contents of the Federalist Papers is here. Links to each of the essays are here. The dates of the original newspaper publication given above are taken from the Library of America edition of Hamilton’s writings, edited by Joanne Freeman.
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