Federalist No. 15 – The Insufficiency of the Present Confederation to Preserve the Union, For the Independent Journal (Hamilton)
Tuesday, May 18th, 2010
Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist 15 is a gloomy counterweight to Madison’s optimistic Number 14. Madison ended No. 14 praising the noble course set by the founders of the new nation. Hamilton’s No. 15 is like a splash of cold water, reminding citizens of the moment’s terrible perils.
And the troubles are many. The nation’s present configuration is inadequate to the task. The central government cannot govern, and thus cannot honor its debts, defend its territory, engage in diplomacy, or unite its constituent state governments.
And therin lies the rub, not just for Hamilton and the founders, but for generations afterward. How should the central national government relate to the states? The states are the unit of government charged with the ratification of the constitution. But Hamilton knows that a “mere” confederation of states will not survive, not in the dangerous world of the late 18th century. The central government needs sufficient power to govern the nation as one unit, when solidarity is required. Recalcitrant states must be brought to heel to honor their obligations. That meant, in contrast to the Article of Confederation, extending the federal government’s power to impose obligations upon real citizens as individuals, not just intangible state governments.
This is a big step. Hamilton’s challenge is to appeal to his reader’s fear of irresponsible state governments. He can then position the national government as a solution to that problem, rather than as a tyrant to be feared itself. But among his readers are also the political leaders within New York, so he must argue carefully. He isn’t attempting to convince his New York readers they need to fear for irresponsibility in their own state government. He doesn’t need to accuse them of fecklessness. It is enough that other states will take advantage of a weak central government to pursue short term agendas to the ultimate detriment of all.
As we know, debate over the size and scope of the federal government persisted after the ratification, even to this day. From our vantage point, it may seem odd to entertain the notion that the central government could be too weak. Federal statutes and regulations reach deeply into American society, and into areas of governance traditionally left to state and local governments, such as criminal law, education and corporate governance. But in 1787, the prospect that the United States could become a “failed” state was real. However one feels about the size of government today, reading Hamilton should remind us that “ordered liberty” requires some authority to maintain the order.
Federalist 15 makes interesting reading in light of the financial crisis in Europe. Although the EU has an executive, the power of the central government is fragile and nothing like that established by the Constitution. Is the European Union sufficiently powerful to bring fiscal order to its constituent nations? Or will the lack of fiscal discipline in Greece, to name but one member, pull the EU down, destroy the Euro, and provoke domestic crisis throughout Europe? Can Europe impose a federal solution? I suspect that the EU may fail, because its constituent nations will be unwilling to yield the necessary sovereignty to create a sufficient federal government.
Professor Allison Hayward teaches election law at George Mason School of Law and is also a fellow with the Center for Competitive Politics
16 Responses to “May 18 – Federalist No. 15 – The Insufficiency of the Present Confederation to Preserve the Union, For the Independent Journal (Hamilton) – Guest Blogger: Professor Allison Hayward, George Mason School of Law and fellow with the Center for Competitive Politics”
Susan Craig says:
May 18, 2010 at 10:01 am
Honor and restraint seem to be the necessary ingredient that both Madison and Hamilton imply. Especially in this quote from #15: “should you permit that sacred knot which binds the people of America together be severed or dissolved by ambition or by avarice, by jealousy or by misrepresentation.” Unfortunately quite a few of the list seem to be rampant in today’s world. I think the most damaging is misrepresentation (aka lying). Presenting your self or your program in language that obfuscates the intent. Most recent example “Employee free choice Act”. How ironic the “Big Government” of 1787 is now looked on as the ideal of the “Small Government” people. As we traveled from 1787 to now it seems that we suffered from the belief that if this much is good maybe a little more will be better.
Susan Craig says:
May 18, 2010 at 10:37 am
Found an interesting chart defining the ‘factions’
The Parties as they were constituted at inception:
Republicans (aka Anti-Federalist)——————–Federalist
radical Whig—————————————-moderate Whig (can anyone define Whig belief)
balanced budget————————————deficit (as a tool for credit)
egalitarian—————————————— enlightened paternalist
strict construction———————————–broad interpretation
became modern Dems——————————–became the modern Reps
Does it strike you that there is coming another 180?
Charles Babb says:
May 18, 2010 at 11:21 am
Professor Hayward, your analysis of Federalist No. 15 is very enlightening.
However, Publius may have been short sighted in his view. The balance of power still seems to be a problem. In 1787, the States were “recalcitrant” of their fiduciary and other responsibilities to the Confederacy. The Constitution seems to have solved that problem, but will it solve today’s dilemma caused by a Federal governments bribing the States into prostituting away (using the citizens tax dollars) the liberties of their citizens, with it’s tentacles wrapped firmly around our throats in many areas. Especially in the area of education. They realize that a people made dumb as sheep, are easily led to slaughter.
Today we have a federal government that refuses to enforce the laws it has passed; but wants to bring legal action against a State which, in desperation for life, limb and property, tries to take upon itself that task of citizen security, for which the federal government is now recalcitrant. The federal legislature is so enthralled with a power grab that all they can talk about is creating “comprehensive legislation”, rather than insisting on the enforcement of the laws already on the books. K_I_S_S.
Friends, passion has caused me to exceed the bonds of strict adherence to the analysis of FEDERALIST No. 15, I beg your indulgence.
MAY GOD BLESS AMERICA
Ron Meier says:
May 18, 2010 at 12:24 pm
We are going through this exercise of reading the Federalist Papers @ a time in world history when we get see first hand what our founders were talking about in the first 20 or so papers. As Professor Hayward notes, we are watching a Confederation in Europe crumble before our very eyes, and we can refer back to the various FPs to understand why.
At the same time, we are seeing in our own country the very thing that the States and citizens were worried about with respect to our Federal government attempting to consolidate power by having complete control over two of the three branches of government and attempting to neutralize the ability of the states, particularly Arizona, from protecting their own interests.
It’s great that we are able to analyze what we see, hear, and read more rationally, rather than just passionately, as a consequence of reading the FP. The language of the authors of the FP makes reading and understanding somewhat arduous, but enlightening when the gist of each article comes through.
Carolyn Attaway says:
May 18, 2010 at 12:24 pm
I found Paper 15 to be very relevant to current events. I could not help but think of all the situations that are occurring in and around America today, as I read Hamilton’s debate for a Federal Government.
The third paragraph had excerpts that jumped from the page which served as reminders of why we need a sound and common sense Federal Government, and not one set on pushing its own agenda. Hamilton states “We may indeed with propriety be said to have reached almost the last stage of national humiliation. There is scarcely anything that can wound the pride or degrade the character of an independent nation which we do not experience….Do we owe debts to foreigners and to our own citizens contracted in a time of imminent peril for the preservation of our political existence?….We have neither troops, nor treasury, nor government….Is commerce of importance to national wealth?….Is respectability in the eyes of foreign powers a safeguard against foreign encroachments? The imbecility of our government even forbids them to treat with us.”
These statements, though written at an earlier time to defend the need of a Federal Government, can be looked upon today as a defense to rid ourselves of the status quo in Congress. Hamilton tries to convince the people of New York of the need for a basic Federal Government whereas today it has become overbearing and oppressive. The Congress has allowed the United States to be humiliated, and has apologized for her standing as a Superpower to other countries. They have endangered our AAA rating in the financial markets by increasing our debt to foreign powers as well as to their own citizens.
We may have military power, but it is constantly being undermined by accusations and political correctness. We have no treasury, and our federal government is quickly becoming imbecilic. I believe Congress has forgotten the reason behind its creation.
Hamilton writes: “Government implies the power of making laws. It is essential to the idea of a law, that it be attended with a sanction; or, in other words, a penalty or punishment for disobedience. If there be no penalty annexed to disobedience, the resolutions or commands which pretend to be laws will, in fact, amount to nothing more than advice or recommendation.” I realize that this statement was intended for the States in trying to form a Union, but I cannot help but see the hypocrisy in this statement when in it is applied to the Federal Government in relation to the immigration laws and dealing with enemy combatants.
One of the main reasons for a Federal Government was, and is, National Security. Our Congress views the laws to these issues as recommendations, to be applied to their best advantage, when in fact, it should be their number priority.
I heard the following on the news yesterday, “Most of the illegals caught crossing are from Mexico or South America, but thousands are classified as OTMs, “other than Mexicans,” including hundreds from nations that sponsor terror. These are the records we obtained at this federal detention center near Phoenix, Arizona. We find illegals from Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Sudan, and Yemen in custody. This congressional report on border threats confirms members of Hezbollah have crossed the southwest border. It also contains photos of military jackets found on the border. The Arab insignia reads: “Martyr: Way to eternal life.” The other depicts a plane crashing into the Twin Towers. The congressional report also reveals the route Middle Easterners take. They travel from Europe to South America to the tri border region where they learn to speak Spanish, then travel to Mexico and blend in with other illegals heading to this country. Former Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano is now secretary of Homeland Security. We wanted to ask her about the border threat, but our request for an interview was never answered.” (Link: http://www.wsbtv.com/news/23434381/detail.html)
Instead of securing our borders, Congress is inviting illegal immigrants to the bounty produced by hardworking citizens, and admonishes those who question their actions.
May 18, 2010 at 1:15 pm
Thank you, Professor Hayward for your thoughts on Hamilton’s No. 15. I was struck by the tone of the paper, and more specifically, the words and phrases Hamilton used to describe the situation back in the early winter of 1787. The “troubles are many.” They probably were, but I couldn’t help picture Hamilton as Professor Harold Hill in the Music Man singing “We Got Trouble.” In writing about the “material imperfections” and “those defects in the scheme of our federal government” under the Articles of Confederation, Hamilton does seem to be a tad hyperbolic: “impending anarchy,” “national humiliation,” “imbecility of our government,” “mimic sovereignty,” “melancholy situation,” “brink of a precipice,” “plunge us into the abyss,” “destitute of energy,” “political monster,” “desperate extremity,” and “the frail and tottering edifice.” He sums it all up by basically saying that anything that could have gone wrong has gone wrong. Here is a master salesman at work.
Hamilton knows the stakes and is not shy in making the hard sell. America is in dire straits and anyone who opposes the plan of union can be characterized “by ambition or by avarice, by jealousy or by misrepresentation.” The negative aspects of our human nature never seem to be present in the supporters of the plan. They all have the Wisdom of Solomon, the calm patience of Job, and the self-sacrifice of Jesus. Let’s be honest, Hamilton knew his duly revered General Washington would most likely be chosen as the first president and that he, Hamilton, would be in the first administration. It is to be remembered that it was Hamilton’s plan at the Constitutional Convention that had a president for life with supreme veto power over any and all laws.
So, even if his Bill of Particulars, “enumeration of particulars,” presents a convincing indictment against the existing Confederation, Publius should still be tasked to justify his solution to “this desperate extremity.” Publius has 70 more papers to make his case. Will the new plan of union truly protect the governed so they may enjoy the prime object of government, ordered liberty?
One is tempted to ask, “Who decides what, and how much, order?” In the end, force or the threat of force must become a real possibility. Washington said, “Government is not reason, it is not eloquence—it is force! Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.”
Thank you Professor Hayward for bringing in the current EU troubles. This seems to be analogous to what Hamilton said about the law must have sanctions. How is the EU to act against Greece but by force (“military execution”) or the threat of force, if Greece decides not to honor her agreements.
In No. 15 there exists a rallying cry for our times: “[L]et us make a firm stand for our safety, our tranquility, our dignity, our reputation. Let us at last break the fatal charm [of Statism of all kinds] which has too long seduced us from the paths of felicity and prosperity.”
Carolyn Attaway says:
May 18, 2010 at 1:44 pm
Thank you Dave for mentioning the statement in your last paragraph. I too feel this is a rallying cry for our times. I highlighted it in my reading of Paper 15 and drew an arrow to the last sentence six paragraphs down: “we must extend the authority of the Union to the persons of the citizens, –the only proper objects of government.” As citizens of the United States, I believe it is our task to keep our government in check, and be more active in our involvement than just voting.
May 18, 2010 at 2:19 pm
Carolyn I couldn’t agree more. When I read “Do we owe debts to foreigners and to our own citizens contracted in a time of imminent peril for the preservation of our political existence?”, I instantly thought of China and how much of our debt they hold. We are literally selling away our power. I was also struck by this statement: “We have neither troops, nor treasury, nor government”. Yes, we have a very strong military; but for how much longer when every democratic administration that comes into power further defunds the troops? I, too, immediately thought of the immigration issues with Hamilton’s writing “Government implies the power of making laws. It is essential to the idea of a law, that it be attended with a sanction; or, in other words, a penalty or punishment for disobedience. If there be no penalty annexed to disobedience, the resolutions or commands which pretend to be laws will, in fact, amount to nothing more than advice or recommendation.” I believe that this quote stands for many laws on our books that are simply NOT being enforced. Every time a politician brings up gun control and how “we need more laws” all I can do is think about the many laws we already have controlling the ownership of firearms….they just aren’t being enforced. Why is it that those in Washington just don’t seem to comprehend that criminals don’t care about laws? They have already broken laws…that is why they are CRIMINALS. Further revoking the rights of law abiding citizens will NEVER change that.
Lynne Newcomer says:
May 18, 2010 at 3:22 pm
Thank you Professor Hayward for your quidence on this paper.
I do so agree with so much that has been written by everyone that it would waste time to name everyone.
Simply… with regard to AZ, we are either a Nation of laws or we are not.The Gov of AZ.showed remarkable fortitude to stand up to Washington.She is no fool she knew she would meet with much hateful speech etc, but went on and is weathering the storm hip- hip- hurray.The fact that Washington is lowering the standards of civil, and acceptable dialogue is surely regretable but the sanctions are going to come their way,and they will come from the voting booth.We are a smart people and we know the Pres,and Congress ore failing to do their jobs.
I like the EU example, the officers of the EU,seem to be toothless and of a more ceremonial nature.I do hope that they find their way .
May 18, 2010 at 3:49 pm
Carolyn, what I think everyone can accept is that a sovereign implies some control over the individual. The sticking point for the Anti-federalists (and for me I’ve lately learned) seemed to be how justly and efficiently a distant, centralized power would govern. We’ve seen some elaboration and we’ll see a lot more of the compromise reached between the consolidators and confederals. The consolidators placed their trust in the State. Those advocating for more of a true federal system wanted a buffer between the national government and the individual. There would be two sovereigns over the individual, each with their own sphere of authority. General, national concerns would fall under the purview of the general government, and the local, private, every-day concerns would be handled by the state or local government. I think it’s quite workable in a republic of virtue, in spite of Hamilton’s slam of an imperium in imperio as a “political monster.”
The irony should not be lost on any of us reading No. 15–Hamilton was indicting the weak national system of the government under the Articles of Confederation and yet almost every malady he mentions could apply today in spite of a very strong leviathan, national government. Publius is constantly urging opponents of the plan to open their eyes to the light of reason and experience and see that an energetic, wide-ranging central power will cure all their ills. We’ve gone wrong somewhere. Would that there were a modern-day Publius to counsel us on how we’ve gotten off course and what we can do to get back on the right course.
I do know our state governments have let us down. Here’s a sampling of excerpts we will read in the next few weeks showing the buffer role of the states I mentioned:
We may safely rely on the disposition of the State legislatures to erect barriers against the encroachments of the national authority. (No. 85)
The executive and legislative bodies of each State will be so many sentinels (No. 84)
But ambitious encroachments of the federal government on the authority of the State governments would not excite the opposition of a single State, or of a few States only. They would be signals of general alarm (No. 46)
schemes of usurpation will be easily defeated by the State governments (No. 46)
I should not have rambled on so. All I wanted to say is that I agree with you in the role of the individual, but the states have a responsibility and they seem to be shirking it.
Jimmy Green says:
May 18, 2010 at 4:32 pm
The theme of the States surrendering some power to the Federal Government via the Constitution to strengthen their security and prosperity through a Union of these same states is a continual
theme in the federalist papers.
While I generally agree with the adage of “united we stand divided we fall”
I would be more interested in Hamilton’s views on what should occur if the Federal government fails to uphold its enumerated powers.
What are the states rights if the federal government abrogates or is lacking or deficient in its constitutional powers.
I’ve seen mentions of the Arizona law in some people’s writings. What would Hamilton think the proper response of a state to the Federal Governments lack of securing the borders? There are many such examples but as the federalist papers are to explain why the states should unite one is left to wonder what Hamilton’s view are on states rights as a consequence of the failures of the Fed.
Shannon Castleman says:
May 18, 2010 at 4:38 pm
Dave, indulge away. Great points. Those who have brought up the EU are right on. True, we have a front row seat , as though we went back in a time mchine, to watch the disintegration the former empire across the pond.
But the Professor’s statement brought it to a new light for mr when she said that the EU actually needs to be stronger (like hamilton wanted for the US). It was hard for m to grasp as I always viewed individually the nations of Europe to be too much beholden to central government.
But now I see the reasoning behind that.
I am learning so much.
Carolyn Attaway says:
May 18, 2010 at 5:26 pm
Maggie, I agree with you about being over regulated by our government. If I hear of one more law that strips away our right to make choices, I think I will scream. Oops! Sorry! I have already done that. This latest push to take away McDonalds right to put a toy in their happy meal because parents shouldn’t be burdened with having to tell their children NO, I think takes the cake. If I wanted a nanny, I would have hired one.
I agree as well that our 1st and 2nd amendment rights are under major attack, but the people in Congress who are suppose to care, just roll over and admit defeat. I am soooo ready for November.
Dave, you have me in your corner in the belief that States have been giving away their rights piecemeal by piecemeal. Many are starting to wakeup in lieu of all the costs that they will be burdened with, I just hope it is not to late. Regarding your wish for a modern-day Publius, Gov. Chris Christie is on the right track, and if he succeeds in lifting up New Jersey, we may have someone other Governors may try to imitate.
Carolyn Merritt says:
May 18, 2010 at 7:51 pm
Thank you Professor Hayward for your enlightening analysis of Federalist 15. Hamilton could have written this paper for what is happening to our Country today. We are heaviily in debt, our military is being undermined by Congress and this President; toll roads, power companies, oil companies owned by foreign countries; we print money just as fast as this government can spend it and worse of all – our respect around the World is diminishing because of all the apologists in the current admininstration.
I liked Hamilton statement “Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without constraint.”
Amen Charles: “May God Bless America.”
Constituting America says:
May 19, 2010 at 12:23 am
Relevancy today. It is very clear in Federalist Paper No. 15 that cohesion between the states was necessary in order to preserve our union in a viable way.
Our guest scholar, Professor Allison Hayward, (I thank you Professor Hayward for your wonderful essay!) speculates about the future of today’s European Union, “I suspect that the EU may fail, because its constituent nations will be unwilling to yield the necessary sovereignty to create a sufficient federal government.”
The potential failure of the European countries to render themselves to a singular government speaks volumes about why the United States was able to succeed. Americans had the foresight and the fortitude to unite after the Revolution, rendering brilliant results. Thus, two miracles birthed the United States of America, one the success of the Revolutionary war, the other the success of the United States Constitution.
Homage must be paid to our Constitutional forefathers who tirelessly, tenaciously and methodically gave their time and talents to achieve the three pertinent steps: the Constitutional Convention, the rendering of the Constitution and the eventual ratification. This was no easy feat, yet it proved to be our rallying point and the launching pad for realizing the potential of our countrymen and the wealth of the land.
Yet, today, we must question if the confines of our great Constitution have been stretched beyond what our forefathers intended. A federal government to persevere and preserve is very different than a federal government to control and contrive.
Here are some of Alexander Hamilton’s words that I find relevant today and thought provoking:
“I have unfolded to you a complication of dangers to which you would be exposed, should you permit that sacred knot, which binds the people of America together, to be severed or dissolved by ambition or by avarice, by jealousy or by misrepresentation.”
“We may indeed, with propriety, be said to have reached almost the last stages of national humiliation. There is scarcely any thing that can wound the pride, or degrade the character, of an independent people, which we do not experience.”
“Do we owe debt to foreigners, and to our own citizens, contracted in a time of imminent peril, for the preservation of our political existence?”
“Is public credit an indispensable resource in a time of public danger?”
“Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice, without constraint.”
“The rulers of the respective members, whether they have a constitutional right to do it or not, will undertake to judge of the propriety of the measures themselves. They will consider the conformity of the thing proposed or required to their immediate interests or aims; the momentary conveniences or inconveniences that would attend its adoption.”
Are we not experiencing all of the above today?
May 18, 2010
Constituting America says:
May 19, 2010 at 12:55 am
Have you been watching Janine’s Behind the Scenes Videos? They are fantastic! Last night Juliette Turner, Constituting America Youth Director, talked about the We The People 9.17 Contest, and how important it is that young people understand the Constitution and founding principles of our country! Check out these fun, short videos – where else can you see pets reading the Federalist Papers, or meet Longhorns with names like Revolution or America’s Pride? You’ll see some beautiful Texas landscapes, and if you click on the right one, you’ll even get to hear Janine sing the Star Spangled Banner!
Thank you to Professor Allison Hayward of George Mason University! Your thorough explanation, and tie-in to Europe’s present day troubles, made Federalist No. 15 come alive! Thank you also to all who posted today. If you are reading, and haven’t written your comments in our blog, please join the conversation! We need your voice and view!
I echo Professor Hayward’s observation that Hamilton’s Federalist No. 15 is a bit of a downer after Madison’s optimistic essay yesterday. Madison’s Federalist No. 14 made my heart swell with pride to be a citizen of the United States of America. Federalist No. 15 reminds us that our country soared to greatness, strength and respect from humble beginnings. In 1788 the prospect of failure was very real. Hamilton does a brilliant job describing the environment, and paints a bleak picture, “the last stage of national humiliation”: lack of respect in the world, debt, no troops, declining commerce and land values, lack of private credit – the list goes on and on. The country was at a low point.
But out of this low point, rose our great Nation – rebuilt upon the framework of the United States Constitution. In fact, if all had been going well in the late 1780’s, the beautiful, unique, perfectly balanced republic that emerged might never have been born.
That is the lesson I take from Federalist No. 15. And one I have learned from Constituting America’s co-chair and my good friend, Janine Turner, who is an inspiration to me. Janine often speaks about how tough times etch our character and shape us into who God wants us to be. The tough times in Hamilton’s day produced the United States Constitution.
Our country is again going through tough times. Hamilton’s words throughout Federalist No. 15 could easily be describing our present day circumstances. But look what these tough times have already wrought: a renewed passion and engagement of the citizens of the United States! There is an energy and thirst for knowledge taking hold across the country that I have not felt before in the 25 years in which I have been involved in politics.
Where will this lead? What lies ahead? When we Americans join together, with our spirit of enterprise, ingenuity and passion, only good things will result. We are once again on the “precipice” Alexander Hamilton speaks of, but I predict we will not plunge into the abyss. Instead, we will emerge stronger, fortified, with a renewed, patriot’s zeal and commitment to our country’s founding principles.
I look forward to the readings that lie ahead, sharing with you and others, and putting what I am learning to use!
Good night and God bless!
May 18, 2010
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