Guest Essayist: Joerg Knipprath, Professor of Law at Southwestern Law School

In Federalist 43, Madison continues his examination of Congress’s enumerated constitutional powers, presenting a miscellany of provisions. Tucked away at the end of this rather lengthy essay, as if Publius half hopes the reader will be too fatigued to notice, is a matter of signal importance, the provision that only nine states’ approval was necessary to establish the Constitution. Publius dismissed this matter as inconsequential in the extended discussion of the legitimacy of the Constitution in Federalist 40.

One problem for the Philadelphia Convention was that it ignored the requirement in the Articles that any amendment (and certainly a wholesale replacement) had to be by unanimous consent of the states. Madison could have justified the nine-state requirement by declaring that the Constitution was a new project entirely severed from the Articles, and that the old system was dissolved when the Framers met in convention. Dissolving the bonds and returning to a “state of nature” had been the basis for the revolutionary founding under the Declaration of Independence. If the states were once again in a state of nature towards each other, unbound from the prior rules, the approval of the nine states, binding them alone, was proper. Every state that wanted to join had to agree, thereby preserving the social contract fiction of individual and unanimous consent.

For solid reasons, Madison does not select that option. For one, to do so would implicitly endorse charges that the Convention was incompetent to act beyond its mandate because the Constitution would be “revolutionary.” For another, in Federalist 40, Publius emphasized the continuity between the Articles and the Constitution. Likewise, Madison in the current essay describes the change as one merely of political form of an existing civil society, not as the foundation of a new commonwealth. All require obeying the Articles’ unanimity provision for constitutional change.

He is left, then, with intellectually more meager rationalizations. One of these is such strained legalism mixed with a splash of late-18th century American constitutional theory about the deficiency of the legislative amendment process under the Articles that he introduces the concoction with a self-conscious “Perhaps.”

The other is one of unvarnished pragmatism, untethered to any constitutional support. He appeals to the “absolute necessity of the case” (Rhode Island, not having sent delegates, was unlikely to approve); the lesson of “our own experience” (Maryland’s four-year long failure to adopt the Articles during the crucial period of the Revolution); “the great principle of self-preservation”; and the “safety and happiness of society…at which all political institutions aim, and to which all such institutions must be sacrificed” (the ends justify the means, just as in Federalist 40). The lesson here is that necessity creates its own legitimacy, and matters of extreme national interest and safety cannot be burdened by constitutional technicalities. In political theory this is the doctrine of “reason of state,” something that executives long have understood.

A few brief points about some other provisions mentioned. Several involve the organic connection between the national and state governments. The sections regarding admission of new states and control over territory belonging to the United States were intended to give express authority to what the Confederation had done in regards to the western territories. They provide a constitutional basis for the acquisition and integration of the new lands that marked the westward expansion across the continent.

The guarantee to each state of a republican form of government assumes that each state will meet the minimum of avoiding monarchy or hereditary aristocracy. Beyond that, republics can take varied forms, and Publius pledges the federal government to avoid interfering with the states’ choices among them. There are many who have argued that the Supreme Court’s reapportionment decisions violate that pledge.

The protection against invasion commits the Union to a fundamental covenantal obligation. Though “invasion” usually suggests military force, it can mean any threat to the stability of the state from outside its borders, particularly an armed threat. Arizona, facing spill-over from the Mexican drug cartel violence, as well as a more general criminality from illegal entrants onto its territory, might plausibly argue that the federal government has breached that covenant and forced the state to act on “the great principle of self-preservation.”

There are provisions related to the capacity of the national government to exist as a practical sovereign, such as the creation of a federal district as the seat of government. It is noteworthy that this section draws a clear distinction between “district” and “states.” Recent statutory proposals to extend voting representation in Congress to the residents of the District of Columbia must founder on that distinction and on the Constitution’s textual requirement that voting and representation (beyond the “municipal” government of the district) rests on residing in a “state.” Perhaps a cession of most of D.C. (excepting the main government district) to Maryland would solve the problem.

Requiring approval of amendments by three-fourths of the states (and introduction by two-thirds of the states or of the members of each house of Congress) represents a confluence of experience and constitutional theory. Early state declarations of independence and constitutions, both of which altered the existing constitutional orders in those states, were commonly done by majority votes of the legislatures. Such practices reflected the constitutional theory inherited from Great Britain that the legislature virtually represented the general will of the commons expressed through the instruments of parliamentary sovereignty.

However, those practices conflicted with the developing American doctrine that constitutional changes were “explicit and authentic acts” of popular sovereignty superior to ordinary laws. Legislation was, after all, merely an act by the people’s agents in a body created under a constitution. In that view, constitutions were not only descriptions of how things were run, but commands of how they must be run. Constitutions were law, created by the ultimate earthly lawmakers, the people. Since direct participation of the entire people was unrealistic, constitutions were to be proposed by special assemblies and approved by popular vote or a supermajority of representatives. The Constitution relies almost entirely on the supermajority vote principle.

The requirements for amendment were also recommended by experience. Legislative majorities are transient and, therefore, likely to lead to considerable instability and flux in constitutional structure. The experience with continuous constitutional agitation in the states during the 1770s and 1780s alarmed the Framers. At least equally alarming, however, was the hurdle presented by the unanimity requirement of the Articles. While its conformance to emerging American constitutional theory was pristine, it was a practical disaster by frustrating needed reformation. The Framers, being nothing if not practical in their project, sought to craft a method for amendment that was neither prone to instability by too frequent amendment nor to paralysis through too-stringent requirements. Debate continues about whether their solution has worked well, given the relative infrequency of formal amendment, or is too constraining and has resulted in giving the unelected courts too great a role in altering constitutional norms.

Friday, June 25th, 2010

An expert on constitutional law, Prof. Joerg W. Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law.  Prof. Knipprath has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums.  His website is


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