Guest Essayist: Chris Burkett


In the previous essay we saw the Federalist’s critique of the Holy Roman Empire and its two principal vices: first, a lack of effective executive authority in the confederacy; and second, a lack of centralized control and effective checks by the national authority over the member states. Both of these defects were strongly prevalent in the American Union under the Articles of Confederation as well. Under the Articles of Confederation, ratified in 1781, there was no independent executive branch. Important matters affecting foreign policy and national security were handled by Congress, which created numerous “executive boards” to formulate and execute defense policies. This uncoordinated approach to fulfilling executive functions, as Alexander Hamilton observed, meant that “their decisions are slower, their energy less, their responsibility more diffused.” Hamilton continued, “Congress is properly a deliberative corps and it forgets itself when it attempts to play the executive. It is impossible such a body, numerous as it is, constantly fluctuating, can ever act with sufficient decision, or with system.”[1]

Congress also lacked any real power – especially a tax power – under the Articles of Confederation, and had no way to coerce or enforce their policies upon delinquent or disobedient states. “The next most palpable defect of the subsisting Confederation, is the total want of a SANCTION to its laws,” Hamilton wrote. “The United States, as now composed, have no powers to exact obedience, or punish disobedience to their resolutions.”[2] All revenue for the purposes of defensing the Union was raised through the voluntary compliance by the state legislatures, which was frequently lacking. Furthermore, the manner in which Congress was constituted gave the individual states great influence – if not complete control – over the affairs of Congress. Each state had one vote in Congress, and state legislatures selected their congressional delegations with authority to recall those delegations at any time. Supermajorities (nine out of thirteen state delegations) were required for Congress to enact important matters such as requisitions for revenue and making treaties. Despite specific restrictions on the states, the structure of government under the Articles of Confederation gave the individual states enormous influence and control over Congress; Congress, on the other hand, had no means by which to compel the states to comply with the Articles of Confederation. In other words, the Articles of Confederation had recreated the same fundamental defects of the constitution of the Holy Roman Empire. The result was a lack of unity, coordination, and effectiveness in doing those things vitally important for the good of the whole Union – or as James Madison put it, there was a complete “want of concert in matters where common interest requires it.”[3]

The framers of the Constitution remedied these defects by creating an independent executive with a large degree of discretionary power, especially in the area of foreign affairs. “Energy in the Executive is a leading character in the definition of good government,” Hamilton observed. “It is essential to the protection of the community against foreign attacks; it is not less essential to the steady administration of the laws.”[4] The unitary nature of the executive – as opposed to executive boards or committees – provides the office with the “energy” to act on important matters with “decision, activity, secrecy, and dispatch.” The Constitution deems the president “Commander in Chief” of the military forces of the nation, giving the office a further degree of discretion, free from the influence of a cumbersome Congress, in taking swift measures necessary for the security of the Union. Even the longer four-year term in office, combined with the mode by which the president is elected – through an electoral system rather than being appointed by Congress or the state legislatures – gives the executive a degree of independence to do those things necessary for the steady administration of the laws and the protection of the states from foreign threats.

The framers of the Constitution also found remedies to prevent the “inordinate pride of state importance” from hindering the national government’s efforts to promote the good of the whole Union.[5] By dividing Congress into two houses, the preponderance of state influence in national affairs is confined to the Senate, in which state legislatures would appoint the senators (as opposed to direct election by the people of members in the House of Representatives). Rather than each state having one vote in the Senate, the two senators do not need to agree or vote in the same way on any particular law or policy. The framers also overcame reliance on the voluntary compliance of the states to provide the needed revenue for national purposes by giving to Congress a real tax power. “There is no method of steering clear of this inconvenience,” Hamilton observed, “but by authorizing the national government to raise its own revenues in its own way.”[6] Even the “republican guarantee” clause in Article IV section three gives the national government the right to protect every state of the Union “against Invasion [and…] domestic violence.” “Without a guaranty,” Hamilton wrote, “the assistance to be derived from the Union in repelling those domestic dangers which may sometimes threaten the existence of the State constitutions, must be renounced. Usurpation may rear its crest in each State, and trample upon the liberties of the people, while the national government could legally do nothing more than behold its encroachments with indignation and regret.”[7]

Through these improvements, the Constitution of the United States provides the national government with the “energy’ needed to effectively repel foreign and domestic dangers, a higher degree of independence from state interference in national affairs, and the means to prevent the frequent dissentions, rebellions, and civil wars that constantly plagued the Holy Roman Empire.

Christopher C. Burkett is Associate Professor of History and Political Science, and Director of the Ashbrook Scholar Program at Ashland University.

 

[1] Alexander Hamilton to James Duane, 3 September 1780.

[2] The Federalist No. 21.

[3] James Madison, “Vices of the Political System of the United States,” 1787

[4] The Federalist No. 70

[5] The Federalist No. 21

[6] The Federalist No. 21

[7] The Federalist No. 21

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