Guest Blogger: Professor Will Morrisey, William and Patricia LaMothe Chair in the United States Constitution at Hillsdale College

Friday, June 4th, 2010

The Federalist #28: Federalism and Rebellion

Publius has turned to the justification of “energy” or power in the federal government—in particular, the power of military self-defense.  In #27 he began consideration of perhaps the most sensitive topic in any federal system, namely, military defense against internal rebellions.  He argued that union finds its primary bulwark in peaceful habits of cooperation.  Frequent appeals to armed enforcement of the union will only weaken the union–either by fostering resentments piqued by fresh injuries or by transforming that union into a tyranny that rules by nothing more than force.  The careful limitation of federal powers—“the enumerated and legitimate objects of [the government’s] jurisdiction”—coupled with the structural device of divided and separated powers within the federal government itself, should work to strengthen the Union over time.

Nonetheless, times will come when only force can preserve the Union.  Publius addresses this likelihood in Federalist #28, making this paper one of his most candid and tough-minded performances.

Recall the fundamental law of contract enunciated in #22: no party to a contract may unilaterally and legally violate the contract.  This maxim of course provided the crux of the Founders’ argument in the Declaration of Independence; King and Parliament had violated the unalienable rights of the colonists by unilaterally altering the terms of their governing charters, leading ultimately to acts of war against the colonists by the King, funded by the Parliament.  The revolution occurred not because the colonists rebelled but because the British government had.

At least as often, some part of the people will rebel.  Indispensable to good government, rule by law will not always suffice.  Rebellion causes an immediate emergency but, more importantly, it “eventually endangers all government”; rebellion in one place can spread to others, plague-like.  Publius remarks that this will hold regardless of whether the country remains united, inasmuch as an America divided into one, a few, or many sovereignties will still suffer the occasional insurrection.

As a revolutionary warrior, Publius maintains the right to revolution against tyranny.  The “original right of self-defense,” part of our natural right to life, always remains “paramount” to “all positive forms”—i. e., all conventional, man-made forms—“of government.”  The human institution of government rightly serves God’s `institution’ of human nature, and when the human contradicts the divine, the divine rightly asserts priority.  This much we know from the Declaration of Independence: In some circumstances the rule of law rightly gives way to illegal but just force.

Publius then advances a much more surprising argument, one based on prudential reasoning not logical deduction from first principles.  Usurpation of citizens’ rights by “the national rulers” will find stiffer resistance than usurpation by the rulers of the member states.  The lesser governments within the states—townships, counties—have relatively weak governments and so would likely lose any contest of arms to a state-capital cabal, especially if the state government controlled the militia.  A usurpatory federal government, however, would face opposition by the states—by experienced public officials with every motive to remain alert to encroachments on their constitutional rights.  The federal government under the new Constitution will check usurpatory moves by the states; the states will retain the power to check federal usurpation.  “The people, by throwing themselves into either scale, will infallibly make it preponderate.”  By ratifying this Constitution the people will do just that, peacefully, but they could also do so in war, if they judge it necessary—as they had, in 1776.

Here the argument of Federalist #10 for the value of an extensive republic reappears.  There, extensiveness of territory diluted factions: groups of citizens acting some way “adverse to the rights of other citizens”—individuals—or to the “permanent and aggregate rights of the community”—the society as a whole.  Here we see the reverse situation; a group of citizens acting in defense of their rights, in accordance with the permanent and aggregate rights of the community, will find refuge in the size of America.  States distant from the usurpers who’ve seized the capital city would have time and space in which to organize themselves military and fight back.

This raises an obvious question: What if an unjust group or faction controlled distant states?  Could the federal government suppress the rebellion?  Publius cannot predict the outcome of such a struggle.  If asked, he could only say that under the weak government of the Articles, no such just suppression could occur at all.

Professor Will Morrisey is the William and Patricia LaMothe Chair in the United States Constitution at Hillsdale College

13 Responses to “June 4th, 2010Federalist No. 28 – The Idea of Restraining the Legislative Authority in Regard to the Common Defense Considered, for the Independent Journal (Hamilton) – Guest Blogger: Professor Will Morrisey, William and Patricia LaMothe Chair in the United States Constitution at Hillsdale College

  1. Susan Craig says:

    This paper seems by implication to say that the 2nd amendment was an understood given if not a directly stated right of the people. I wonder why in this contract in its unamended form only specified the obligations and duties of one side but only implied those of the other side?

  2. Will Morrisey says:

    Susan, if I understand your question correctly, I think that the Founders agreed that the right to self-defense was a natural right, thus `given’ by God. One of the early commentators on the U. S. Constitution, St. George Tucker, writes, “The right of self defence is the first law of nature: in most governments it has been the study of rulers to confine this right within the narrowest limits possible.” Under the Articles, this right simply could not be infringed by the national government. The Framers of the new Constitution were trying to strengthen that government, so they emphasized the need for a government capable of defending itself against rebellion. By 1789, when Congress debated the Second Amendment, the opposite worry prevailed. Worried about the prospect of a standing army, the Congress thought that militias regulated by the civil governments of each state would obviate the need for such a force. They hoped that militias would suffice to repel any invasion. We see this as late as 1829 in William Rawle’s book, “A View of the Constitution of the United States.” He argues, “Although in actual war, the services of regular troops are confessedly more valuable; yet, while peace prevails, and in the commencement of a war before a regular force can raised, the militia form the palladium of the country. They are ready to repel invasion, to suppress insurrection, and preserve the good order and peace of government.” A few years later, Joseph Story adds, to these points the need of the citizens to defend themselves against “domestic usurpations by rulers.” Notice that these commentators expect that any “regular” army would need to be “raised”; there would be no regular standing army.

    Or am I missing the point of your question?

  3. Billie says:

    This explains a lot. I sometimes have wondered about the rationale about the dispute over the standing military force. On the one hand, I believe in a strong national defense. But I’ve thought about the fact that the same force could ultimately be turned against the nation. I don’t really fear it per se, but it is sort of a quandary as to what to do about it. But Professor Morrisey explains it quite well.

  4. Jimmy Green says:

    Hamilton’s understanding of times when the national government will use force to quell insurrections or other internal calamities is understandable given the times he lived in. I think the last time federal force was used was the war between the states from 1861-1865. Not sure if that’s a civil war or the south loosing their own revolutionary war.
    The civil rights movements of the 1960’s used federal troops in Little Rock I think, but that was not out of sedition or succession concerns.

    Hamilton’s views on the necessity of force to preserve the union seems common sense. It’s the couple of centuries of hindsight we have that keeps getting in the way.
    His view of stopping an usurpation in a state as harder then a federal usurpation because of limited territory or geographical areas seems secondary to the usurpers partial or complete control of the militias and belief of the citizens in the usurpers. You know the old “divide and conquer” routine. An usurpation of power by the Federal government likewise seems to be more based on convincing the people that no real usurpation has taken place and then placating them with cheap beer and all the gladiatorial games in the form of ESPN you can watch. At least for the men. Otherwisw entitlements and free medical care for all.

    It think he believes that if the states invade our rights through an usurpation of power then the strength of the Federal Government will set things right and of course the States will set the Federal Government proper if their invading our rights. We decide which one is right or wrong. You have to love how this works in theory.
    The last paragraph mentions peoples apprehension of a strong standing federal army as suffering from a cureless disease. Nice to know political humor transcends the ages.

    You have to appreciate the fine line Hamilton is walking to find the correct balance between having the proper sized standing national army to safeguard the Union and the people of any rogue despotic state. Yet weak enough such that the states and people can throw off the tyranny of that army under a despotic federal government. In actuality we have had no real fear from our standing army and I think Hamilton was right, at least for now. However as people loose confidence in the government things may start to change.

  5. Susan Craig says:

    Partially professor, in most contracts, and I consider the Constitution a contract between government and the people, the rights, privileges and duties of both parties are spelled out up front in the body of the contract. In the Constitution what is expected and permitted on Governments part is very narrowly proscribed but it wasn’t until the first 10 amendments that the other side of this contract was address with any specificity.

  6. Howdy from Texas! I want to thank Mr. Will Morrisey for joining us today and for his wonderful interpretation of Federalist Paper No. 28. I underscored Alexander Hamilton’s quote, “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 usurpation of the national rulers, may be exerted with an infinitely better prospect of success, than against those of the rulers of an individual state.”

    I find this to be relevant to today in the respect that so many representatives in our United States Congress are betraying their constituents and they are doing so with arrogance, and a condescension, that is disturbing. I refer once again to the often-repeated phrase of Publius, “the genius of the people.” Our current Congress is paying little heed to this phrase and their underestimation of the patriots of America, and that Americans rule through her elected officials, is an action that, I believe will hinder and surprise many currently elected officials in November.

    Publius is reaffirming the collective strength of the people and their right to take action. This is a comforting reinforcement for the passions of the many Americans who are now finding their voice and utilizing it. As predicted by Alexander Hamilton, the unity of the states, the brothers and sisters of America, as opposed to individual states, are reaping resounding results.

    “The usurpers, clothed with the forms of legal authority, can too often crush the opposition in embryo,” is another source of wisdom from Alexander Hamilton. Relevant to today too often lawyers seem to be “usurping” our democratic process and the United States Constitution. Teams of lawyers are constantly poised and ready to redefine the process of protest by squelching it before it has begun with intimidation and coercive measures. Double speak and mind games prevail.
    Americans are tiring of this game and the continual twisting of the true intentions of our Constitution and our rights.

    However, in order to be a true guardian of the gate, we must carry forth our journey to be a people who protest with a basis of formidable knowledge in our principles. Knowledge is power.

    Alexander Hamilton states in this paper, “The obstacles to usurpation, and the facilities of resistance, increase with the increased extent of the state: provided the citizens understand their rights and are disposed to defend them.”

    “Understand their rights and are disposed to defend them.” Hence, if Americans do not know their rights then they will not know when they are being taken away.
    The counter measures of our current culture are imperative. The Constitution needs to be the theme that is prevalent and prevails, as does the readiness and willingness of Americans to stand up, take a stance and go the extra mile. When we are too tired, or too busy, or too distracted by the mundane, this is when it is of the most importance to rally our wills and wits to carry on and carry forth the torch of our forefathers and foremothers who sacrificed so much and stopped at nothing to underscore and manifest what was right, what was worthy and what was the true intent of our God.

    God Bless you for your willingness and courage,

    Janine Turner
    June 4, 2010

  7. yguy says:

    “in most contracts, and I consider the Constitution a contract between government and the people, the rights, privileges and duties of both parties are spelled out up front in the body of the contract. In the Constitution what is expected and permitted on Governments part is very narrowly proscribed but it wasn’t until the first 10 amendments that the other side of this contract was address with any specificity.”

    I don’t think this is the right way to look at the BoR, the preamble to which describes it as a collection of “further declaratory and restrictive clauses”; and certainly any obligations conferred by those amendments fall entirely on government entities. The contractual obligations of the people WRT the government are fulfilled in their entirety when We the People provide the government with the wherewithal to carry out our orders.

  8. Will Morrisey says:

    Susan and yguy raise an interesting question regarding modern `social contract’ theory. Prior to any contract between the people and the government must be a contract among the people themselves. This idea may be seen in the Preamble: “We the People of the United States… do ordain and establish this Constitution….” A given population in effect contracts with itself–individuals and families contract with one another–to establish the several levels of legal institutions by which they govern themselves. In so doing, they empower and limit these various governments, in each case (to quote another document familiar to all of us here) “laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” If we think of the question in this way, the amendments amount to refinements of–and later on, perhaps, near-contradictions of–the original contract. The difference in emphasis that Susan points to in the first ten amendments strikes me as part of an attrempt by the Jeffersonians (many of them former anti-federalists) to ensure that certain natural rights (freedom of religion and of speech, self-defense, etc.) were given the formal or “positive” status of civil rights.

  9. Susan Craig says:

    Thank you Professor Morrisey, you have given me food for thought.

  10. Greg Zorbach says:

    Many contributors to this blog have marveled at the wisdom of Publius and the Founding Fathers in crafting and implementing our Constitution with all of its carefully devised checks and balances and protections for our individual liberties. It has come up more than once (especially in Janine’s comments) about how amazing it is that so many of the arguments for limited government and those protections of our freedom make it seem as if Publius was looking well into the future to our troubled times.
    In these last few papers, Publius addressed the widespread fear of a standing army at the time of the formation of the Constitution. Hamilton argued that the states would be a effective counter to federal overreach in this and other areas of potential intrusion into our liberty. As Jimmy points out: “You have to love how this works in theory.” The argument has proved to be unnecessary on the issue of a standing army and sadly not true in most other areas of individual liberty. The states have failed miserably in that duty to counter the federal government’s relentless intrusions into individual freedom.
    As Cathy points out: “Our forefathers rightly feared a standing army, due to abuses and usurpations of power the British Army had imposed on them.” On the other hand, the standing army fears in America have been proven to be completely ungrounded.
    During each of my several visits to the Vietnam Memorial I became more and more convinced that the real long-term value of that ‘conflict’ was the validation of civilian control of the military and the irrationality of those ancient fears of a standing army (‘cureless disease’ indeed). In our country’s long history of military engagements I don’t believe that there has ever been a situation that came closer to justifying a military ‘coup’ or something similar. The disastrous meddling in military missions and even sorties by Johnson and McNamara was nothing short of treasonous by the metric of the number of lives needlessly lost, both among our personnel and the Vietnamese, not to mention the stain our country still carries of that defeat . The details are easy enough to verify. I don’t know for sure (I was just a junior Navy pilot) but I would bet the farm that among the more principled senior officers I got to know and admire in my subsequent career there were many who would lay awake at night agonizing over the tragic choices and the possibilities.
    It didn’t happen. Not even under those most trying of circumstances. There is nothing to fear from our standing army or armed services. Never has been.
    Several very good points have been made about historical uses of federal troops: Alabama and the Civil War. (I’m married to a southerner, so I know the ‘war of southern independence’ arguments.) However, the southern states did participate in the rebellion against England. And they did enter into a legal and binding contract of confederation and then did vote for ratification of the Constitution. I always felt that calling the Civil War the ‘war of southern independence’ was just a clever way of avoiding the real moral issue at stake.
    As for any theoretical rebellion, the problem arises of how do you define terms like tyranny and despotism? Maybe its like pornography: “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.” Many people seem to be seeing it these days.
    As to the states’ abdication of their role as protectors of its citizens from an overreaching federal government, we may be seeing a turnaround with this legal opposition to Obamacare. To date, more that 20 states’ Attorney Generals have joined in the lawsuit challenging its constitutionality. Several more states (whose constitutions require that such a challenge to federal law originate in the state legislature) have began the process to join in. Those numbers get pretty close to the 38 required to call for a constitutional convention.

  11. yguy says:

    ‘The difference in emphasis that Susan points to in the first ten amendments strikes me as part of an attrempt by the Jeffersonians (many of them former anti-federalists) to ensure that certain natural rights (freedom of religion and of speech, self-defense, etc.) were given the formal or “positive” status of civil rights.’

    I don’t think I could disagree more adamantly. WRT federal powers, 1A and 2A can reasonably be considered extensions of A1S9, which includes limitations on the federal legislative power under the necessary and proper clause. The preexisting rights are alluded to in those amendments to clarify the limits on government, not to place such rights on a par with “positive rights” like suffrage which require governmental validation.

    IOW, while the federal government is generally tasked with protecting the rights you mention, it is not under the color of 1A or 2A that this is accomplished, but by obedience to the Constitution in general in pursuance of the objectives stated in the Preamble.

  12. Susan Craig says:

    I have a tendency to wince when people talk of civil rights as opposed to ‘natural’ or God given rights. A Civil right is not immutable and can be changed at the pleasure of the governing power, whereas a ‘natural’ or God given right is and can not be rescinded or amended by a governing power.

  13. Roger Jett says:

    The following quotes come from a transcription of an old “Break Point” radio broadcast by Chuck Colson entitled “Rights Talk”:
    “Where once we had spoken of government aid programs, we began speaking of entitle-
    ment progams. Suddenly, it wasn’t just an act of compassion to help the poor, the sick, or the elderly. It was a right to which they were entitled. rights came to mean basisc needs, which in turn gave way to wishes” …”every right I claim imposes an obligation on someone else. If patients have a right to medical treatment, then doctors have an obligation to administer it. If criminals have a right to a lawyer, then the state has an obligation to supply one. If people have a right to financial security, then the government has an obligation to dole out welfare benefits. For each new right that is created, a whole network of laws and regulations is written to enforce the corresponding obligation” …”Notice the irony here. The old concept of rights was designed to limit state power- to define areas free from govern-
    ment interference. But the new concept of rights expands state power” …”A larger and larger portion of our lives is vulnerable to government control- exactly what the old kind of rights were designed to prevent”… ” What a sad irony: As Americans demand more and more rights, we enjoy fewer and fewer freedoms” … “The entitlement mentality is threatening the fundamental freedoms that were once the whole point of human rights”.
    We in America have become far too preoccupied with our “rights” and have lost sight of our responsibilities that preserve our “freedoms”


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