Friday, May 28th, 2010
When Alexander Hamilton attended the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, he was thirty-six years old. Despite his young age he was a leading statesman, who was knowledgeable not only regarding current events at home and abroad but also the classics and the historical lessons that they contain. The future, first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton incorporated his political observations and knowledge into The Federalist.
Hamilton penned more than half of The Federalist essays. In them, he pointed out the defects of the Articles of Confederation and argued that the Constitution and the powers that it enumerated to the national government were necessary for the Union’s survival. To remain under the Articles, Hamilton contended, meant certain death for the Union, for the states would continually act in their self-interest and ignore the Union’s interest. Laying the foundation for his reasoning in subsequent commentaries (24-29), the New York lawyer put forth this particular argument in Federalist 23: “The Necessity of a Government as Energetic as the One Proposed to the Preservation of the Union.”
When debating Anti-Federalists–those who questioned or opposed the Constitution’s ratification–Hamilton and other Federalists used the word “energetic” to describe a government that had power to fulfill its given responsibilities such as providing for a national defense. An “energetic” government was not one that encroached on individual rights. It meant simply giving life to a dormant national government and allowing it to exercise and fulfill its responsibilities.
In Federalist 23, Hamilton asks what are the proper duties of a national government. He contends they are providing for the common defense, preserving public peace, regulating interstate commerce and foreign trade, and conducting foreign affairs. For the remainder of the essay, Hamilton emphasizes why it is essential for the national government to provide for the common defense and what means are necessary for it to ensure the Union’s longevity.
To charge someone with a responsibility yet not empower them to perform their duty is imprudent. That is what Hamilton believed. In Federalist 23, he writes that if the national government is given the task of providing for the common defense then it should have the necessary authority to do so. Even the framers of the Articles, Hamilton points out, understood this necessity: they allowed Congress to ask the states for unlimited requests for men and money to wage war; however, they erroneously trusted states to provide adequate goods and munitions and men for the national government to use at its discretion. States many times ignored requests.
The assumptions of the framers of the Articles, Hamilton declares, were “ill-founded and illusory,” and he claims that states worked strictly for their self-interests. To make the Union last, a change in governmental structure, Hamilton contends, was imperative: power and the means necessary must be given to the national government to provide for a common defense. To meet this particular end, Hamilton argues that the federal government should, in effect, bypass the states and “extend the laws of the federal government to the individual citizens of America.”
In regards to national defense, Hamilton believes it is “unwise and dangerous” to not give the national government power to provide for a common defense: the powers “ought to exist without limitation, because it is impossible to foresee or define the extent and variety of national exigencies, or the correspondent extent and variety of the means which may be necessary to satisfy them.” He reminds his political opponents that to withhold such means and power from the national government is counterproductive and welcomes national instability. (Hamilton was aware of the lingering Anti-Federal skepticism and considered many of their objections to be merely nitpicking).
The change in government was needed to preserve national interests, and the proposed federal government was worthy of the people’s trust. Hamilton and other Federalists believed, write constitutional scholars Colleen A. Sheehan and Gary L. McDowell, that “interest, reputation, and duty would bind the representatives to the Constitution and public opinion.” That belief is expressed and implied in Federalist 23.
Although Anti-Federalists and Federalists waged a genuine and intense intellectual battle, both were concerned with protecting American liberties. In many ways, they were champions of freedom and had much in common. Both considered constitutions essential to the existence of a free society, and both believed that restraints should be placed on government. Both would be horrified how far many modern-day lawmakers and constitutional theorists have strayed from original intent.
–Troy Kickler, Ph.D., is Director of the North Carolina History Project and Daren Bakst, J.D., L.L.M., is Director of Legal and Regulatory Studies at the John Locke Foundation.