In Federalist #61 Hamilton reveals his theory of constitutional construction in a peculiar way. Hamilton’s view of the role constitutions should serve is consistent with what modern political scientists consider vital for a long-lasting constitution. Constitutions, if they are to last, must be broad and treated with reverence.
The topic of #61 is a carryover from #59 and #60; for the first of these I have already provided comments. The reason Hamilton cannot leave this topic alone is because his opponents will not. Much of the Federalist owes its structure to the fact that Publius was engaged in an ongoing public opinion campaign. If Publius felt that it lacked public support on a particular facet of the Constitution because of an objection raised by an Anti-Federalist then Publius would write another paper on the topic. Because many of the objections are being levied by those who favor a more decentralized structure than what the Constitution proposes; Hamilton uses the states to his advantage. In this paper He shows that, as has been customary throughout the Federalist, the provisions which are incorporated into the Constitution also appear in some of the state constitutions. This is a successful rhetorical strategy albeit one that lacks some logical and philosophical rigor. For instance, while Hamilton never reconciles the Constitution’s inconsistency with the U.S. Declaration with regard to the location of elections, he does make it a more palatable inconsistency to show that the people of New York have dealt with this in their own state without causing much of a problem.
Hamilton gives a straightforward defense of placing the power to determine when and how elections are held in the latter-third of #61, something for which the reader has been patiently awaiting. Putting this power into the hands of the national government is a matter of political expediency. If the power were left in the hands of the states there would be little or no consistency with regard to elections and members elected to the House and Senate would begin their terms anytime between January and December depending upon when their state held elections. One could easily imagine what types of problems this might cause. Of course, Hamilton knows that there is an easy objection to his claim: Why leave the decision to Congress? Why not specify in the Constitution when all elections for national office are to be held? Hamilton’s response is where we see his theory of constitutional construction come through.
Hamilton objects to the inclusion of such a specification in the Constitution because he is open to the possibility that events and changes may occur that would require an amendment to the Constitution as it relates to this matter. If there are such events on a regular basis, amending the Constitution on a regular basis will become necessary. Hamilton does not want to see this happen. For if Constitutions are specific in their provisions, and they contain too numerous provisions, they will require constant amendment. Being so specific is not what Constitutions are for, but rather laws. Constitutions provide the scaffolding and the laws provide the brick and mortar. Moreover, the more we amend Constitutions the more feeble they become, if not in actuality, then at least in perception, which then leads to an actual weakening. If citizens and officials perceive their Constitution as weak, then the whole system runs the risk of collapsing. A Constitution must be held in reverence by the people and officials; which means it should not be tinkered with too much after it is ratified. Hamilton knew this, and so did the Framers who approved of Article V which made the amendment process so difficult and thus unlikely.
Whether we agree or disagree with Hamilton’s position that the threat to a just government comes from below rather than above, we cannot deny that his understanding of constitutional construction is accurate.
Wednesday, July 21st, 2010
Kyle Scott, PhD teaches in the Political Science Department and Honors College at the University of Houston. His published research deals with constitutional interpretation and its relevance for contemporary politics. His most recent book, The Price of Politics, critically assesses the Supreme Court’s eminent domain decisions and explains the importance of property rights.