Federalist No. 14 was written by James Madison who does a masterful job of picking up where Hamilton left off in his defense of the Union. The prose is a little clearer and, although it is subtle, the language a bit more flowery. In this essay Madison addresses those who claim that such a large country cannot be governed by a republic. Unlike Hamilton, Madison doesn’t even mention Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, which is the basis of their case. Instead he methodically dismembers opponents’ arguments much as they would dismember the Union.
The Federalist No. 14
Objections to the Proposed Constitution From Extent of Territory Answered
by James Madison
To the People of the State of New York:
WE HAVE seen the necessity of the Union, as our bulwark against foreign danger, as the conservator of peace among ourselves, as the guardian of our commerce and other common interests, as the only substitute for those military establishments which have subverted the liberties of the Old World, and as the proper antidote for the diseases of faction, which have proved fatal to other popular governments, and of which alarming symptoms have been betrayed by our own. All that remains, within this branch of our inquiries, is to take notice of an objection that may be drawn from the great extent of country which the Union embraces. A few observations on this subject will be the more proper, as it is perceived that the adversaries of the new Constitution are availing themselves of the prevailing prejudice with regard to the practicable sphere of republican administration, in order to supply, by imaginary difficulties, the want of those solid objections which they endeavor in vain to find.
In previous essays we have examined many of the benefits of maintaining the Union. We have demonstrated that it is a bulwark against foreign danger, the best means of keeping the peace between ourselves, and the guardian of our commerce and common interests. Furthermore, it is the only substitute for the military establishments which have subverted the liberties of the Old World. And finally, it is the only way to avoid the factions (which we have begun to see traces of even here) that have proven fatal to other democratic governments. The only line of inquiry that remains for us in defense of the Union is to address the imaginary difficulties put forth by adversaries to the new Constitution who claim that the sphere of republican administration has practical limits. This common misconception is all that is left to those in want of solid objections (which cannot be found).
The error which limits republican government to a narrow district has been unfolded and refuted in preceding papers. I remark here only that it seems to owe its rise and prevalence chiefly to the confounding of a republic with a democracy, applying to the former reasonings drawn from the nature of the latter. The true distinction between these forms was also adverted to on a former occasion. It is, that in a democracy, the people meet and exercise the government in person; in a republic, they assemble and administer it by their representatives and agents. A democracy, consequently, will be confined to a small spot. A republic may be extended over a large region.
In preceding papers we have addressed the error of thinking that a republican government can only function in a narrow district. This theory seems to owe its rise and prevalence chiefly to confusing a republic with a democracy, and consequently attributing the weaknesses of the latter to the former. We have also covered the real differences between these two forms of government in earlier essays. In a democracy the people meet and exercise the government in person; in a republic, they assemble and administer it by their representatives and agents. A democracy, consequently, will be confined to a small spot. A republic may be extended over a large region.
To this accidental source of the error may be added the artifice of some celebrated authors, whose writings have had a great share in forming the modern standard of political opinions. Being subjects either of an absolute or limited monarchy, they have endeavored to heighten the advantages, or palliate the evils of those forms, by placing in comparison the vices and defects of the republican, and by citing as specimens of the latter the turbulent democracies of ancient Greece and modern Italy. Under the confusion of names, it has been an easy task to transfer to a republic observations applicable to a democracy only; and among others, the observation that it can never be established but among a small number of people, living within a small compass of territory.
This confusion over the differences between these two forms of government has been cleverly exploited by some celebrated and influential authors. These authors have been instrumental in helping to form the standard of modern political opinions. As subjects of absolute or limited monarchies, they have worked to emphasize the advantages and minimized the evils of those forms of government. They’ve accomplished this by comparing them with the supposed evils and vices of republics. However, what they cite for example are the turbulent democracies of ancient Greece and modern Italy. By confusing the names, it has been easy to attribute the observations really attributable to a democracy only, to a republic. The main observation is that this form of government can never be established except for in a society with a small number of people, living in a small territory.
Such a fallacy may have been the less perceived, as most of the popular governments of antiquity were of the democratic species; and even in modern Europe, to which we owe the great principle of representation, no example is seen of a government wholly popular, and founded, at the same time, wholly on that principle. If Europe has the merit of discovering this great mechanical power in government, by the simple agency of which the will of the largest political body may be concentred, and its force directed to any object which the public good requires, America can claim the merit of making the discovery the basis of unmixed and extensive republics. It is only to be lamented that any of her citizens should wish to deprive her of the additional merit of displaying its full efficacy in the establishment of the comprehensive system now under her consideration.
The source of this false perception may be rooted in the fact that most of the popular governments of antiquity were democratic. Even in modern Europe, to which we owe the great principle of representation, there is no example of a government wholly popular, and founded, at the same time, wholly on that principle. If Europe deserves the credit for discovering that the will of the largest political body may be focused on whatever is deemed “for the public good”, then America can claim the refinement of this by accomplishing it on the basis of unmixed and extensive republics. It is a shame that any of America’s citizens should seek to deprive her of the glory she would merit in demonstrating the superiority of this innovation by the establishment of the Constitution.
As the natural limit of a democracy is that distance from the central point which will just permit the most remote citizens to assemble as often as their public functions demand, and will include no greater number than can join in those functions; so the natural limit of a republic is that distance from the centre which will barely allow the representatives to meet as often as may be necessary for the administration of public affairs. Can it be said that the limits of the United States exceed this distance? It will not be said by those who recollect that the Atlantic coast is the longest side of the Union, that during the term of thirteen years, the representatives of the States have been almost continually assembled, and that the members from the most distant States are not chargeable with greater intermissions of attendance than those from the States in the neighborhood of Congress.
The natural limit of a democracy is the distance from the central point which will allow the most remote citizens to assemble whenever their public functions demand it, and will include only as many as can participate. Similarly, the natural limit of a republic is the distance from the center which will allow the representatives to meet as often as necessary to administer government. Can it be said that the limits of the United States exceed this distance? Not really. The longest side of the Union is the Atlantic coast, and yet for the last 13 years, representatives of all the States have been continually assembled. Furthermore, the members from the most distant States haven’t been absent from deliberations any more than those from the States in the neighborhood of Congress.
That we may form a juster estimate with regard to this interesting subject, let us resort to the actual dimensions of the Union. The limits, as fixed by the treaty of peace, are: on the east the Atlantic, on the south the latitude of thirty-one degrees, on the west the Mississippi, and on the north an irregular line running in some instances beyond the forty-fifth degree, in others falling as low as the forty-second. The southern shore of Lake Erie lies below that latitude. Computing the distance between the thirty-first and forty-fifth degrees, it amounts to nine hundred and seventy-three common miles; computing it from thirty-one to forty-two degrees, to seven hundred and sixty-four miles and a half. Taking the mean for the distance, the amount will be eight hundred and sixty-eight miles and three-fourths. The mean distance from the Atlantic to the Mississippi does not probably exceed seven hundred and fifty miles. On a comparison of this extent with that of several countries in Europe, the practicability of rendering our system commensurate to it appears to be demonstrable. It is not a great deal larger than Germany, where a diet representing the whole empire is continually assembled; or than Poland before the late dismemberment, where another national diet was the depositary of the supreme power. Passing by France and Spain, we find that in Great Britain, inferior as it may be in size, the representatives of the northern extremity of the island have as far to travel to the national council as will be required of those of the most remote parts of the Union.
In order to be fair in our analysis of this subject, the practicality of administering a republic, let’s look at the actual dimensions of the Union. According to the peace treaty, the country’s longitudinal boundaries are: the Atlantic on the east and the Mississippi River on the west. The southern boundary lies on the latitude of 31 degrees. The northern boundary falls on irregular line running in some instances beyond the forty-fifth degree, in others falling as low as the forty-second. Part of Lake Erie lies below that line. The distance between the thirty-first and forty-fifth degree is 973 common miles. The distance between the thirty-first and forty-second degree is 764.5 miles. Averaging these two distances yields 868.75 miles which we will use as the mean height of the Union. The average distance between the Atlantic and the Mississippi probably does not exceed 750 miles. So, comparing these dimensions with countries in Europe, we can see that it is not much larger than Germany, where a diet representing the whole empire is continually assembled. It is roughly equivalent in size to Poland, prior to its dismemberment, where they also relied on a national diet for governance. We won’t consider France and Spain and move on to Great Britain. Although Great Britain is smaller in area, representatives of the northern edges of the island have as far to travel to the national council as will be required of those of the most remote parts of the Union.
Favorable as this view of the subject may be, some observations remain which will place it in a light still more satisfactory.
Although you might not think so, there is still more to say in support of our argument.
In the first place it is to be remembered that the general government is not to be charged with the whole power of making and administering laws. Its jurisdiction is limited to certain enumerated objects, which concern all the members of the republic, but which are not to be attained by the separate provisions of any. The subordinate governments, which can extend their care to all those other subjects which can be separately provided for, will retain their due authority and activity. Were it proposed by the plan of the convention to abolish the governments of the particular States, its adversaries would have some ground for their objection; though it would not be difficult to show that if they were abolished the general government would be compelled, by the principle of self-preservation, to reinstate them in their proper jurisdiction.
In the first place, we need to remember that the general government is not to be charged with the whole power of making and administering laws. Its jurisdiction is to be limited to certain enumerated powers. These powers are those of national concern which cannot practically be administered individually by the States. The subordinate governments will retain their authority and jurisdiction over the things which can be separately provided for on a local basis. If the plan proposed by the Convention entailed the abolition of the State governments, then its adversaries might have some basis for their objections. However, it would not be difficult to show that even if they were abolished, the general government would have to reinstate them in order for itself to function.
A second observation to be made is that the immediate object of the federal Constitution is to secure the union of the thirteen primitive States, which we know to be practicable; and to add to them such other States as may arise in their own bosoms, or in their neighborhoods, which we cannot doubt to be equally practicable. The arrangements that may be necessary for those angles and fractions of our territory which lie on our northwestern frontier, must be left to those whom further discoveries and experience will render more equal to the task.
Second, it should be pointed out that the primary purpose of the federal Constitution is to secure the union of the thirteen original States. We know that this is practical (as it has already been done!) In likewise the Constitution facilitates the addition of any other States which may come into existence at their borders. We have no reason to doubt the practicality of that either. We will leave the logistics of adding territories which may be at the periphery on the northwestern frontier to those whom further discoveries and experience will render more equal to the task.
Let it be remarked, in the third place, that the intercourse throughout the Union will be facilitated by new improvements. Roads will everywhere be shortened, and kept in better order; accommodations for travelers will be multiplied and meliorated; an interior navigation on our eastern side will be opened throughout, or nearly throughout, the whole extent of the thirteen States. The communication between the Western and Atlantic districts, and between different parts of each, will be rendered more and more easy by those numerous canals with which the beneficence of nature has intersected our country, and which art finds it so little difficult to connect and complete.
Third, travel and communication throughout the union is only going to get easier, by virtue of new infrastructure. Roads will everywhere be shortened, and kept in better order. There will be more and better places in which travelers can stay. Navigation along the Atlantic seaboard will be open throughout the entire extent of the thirteen States. Communication between the Western and Atlantic districts, and between the different parts of each will be facilitated by the addition of numerous canals which can be easily built to intersect with the abundant rivers with which nature has so graciously blessed us.
A fourth and still more important consideration is, that as almost every State will, on one side or other, be a frontier, and will thus find, in regard to its safety, an inducement to make some sacrifices for the sake of the general protection; so the States which lie at the greatest distance from the heart of the Union, and which, of course, may partake least of the ordinary circulation of its benefits, will be at the same time immediately contiguous to foreign nations, and will consequently stand, on particular occasions, in greatest need of its strength and resources. It may be inconvenient for Georgia, or the States forming our western or northeastern borders, to send their representatives to the seat of government; but they would find it more so to struggle alone against an invading enemy, or even to support alone the whole expense of those precautions which may be dictated by the neighborhood of continual danger. If they should derive less benefit, therefore, from the Union in some respects than the less distant States, they will derive greater benefit from it in other respects, and thus the proper equilibrium will be maintained throughout.
Finally, and most importantly, the benefits and costs of a strong union will balance each other out. Every state will have to make some sacrifices for the general protection of all. The States which are farthest from the heart of the Union might get less benefit from the day to day aspects of Union, but by virtue of their location at the country’s edges will be more exposed to foreign encroachments. Therefore, there will be occasions when they will need more of the Union in the form of strength and resources than other States. While it might be inconvenient for States like Georgia or those forming our northeastern or western borders to send their representatives to the seat of government, they would find it more so to fight alone against an invading enemy, or even to singly support the amount of expenditure needed to take precautions against an ever-present risk. If these States get less out of union in one way, they make up for it in another. Over all, the benefits of union are fairly evenly distributed.
I submit to you, my fellow-citizens, these considerations, in full confidence that the good sense which has so often marked your decisions will allow them their due weight and effect; and that you will never suffer difficulties, however formidable in appearance, or however fashionable the error on which they may be founded, to drive you into the gloomy and perilous scene into which the advocates for disunion would conduct you. Hearken not to the unnatural voice which tells you that the people of America, knit together as they are by so many cords of affection, can no longer live together as members of the same family; can no longer continue be the mutual guardians of their mutual happiness; can no longer be fellow citizens of one great, respectable, and flourishing empire. Hearken not to the voice which petulantly tells you that the form of government recommended for your adoption is a novelty in the political world; that it has never yet had a place in the theories of the wildest projectors; that it rashly attempts what it is impossible to accomplish. No, my countrymen, shut your ears against this unhallowed language. Shut your hearts against the poison which it conveys; the kindred blood which flows in the veins of American citizens, the mingled blood which they have shed in defense of their sacred rights, consecrate their Union, and excite horror at the idea of their becoming aliens, rivals, enemies. And if novelties are to be shunned, believe me, the most alarming of all novelties, the most wild of all projects, the most rash of all attempts, is that of rendering us in pieces, in order to preserve our liberties and promote our happiness. But why is the experiment of an extended republic to be rejected, merely because it may comprise what is new? Is it not the glory of the people of America, that, whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience? To this manly spirit, posterity will be indebted for the possession, and the world for the example, of the numerous innovations displayed on the American theatre, in favor of private rights and public happiness. Had no important step been taken by the leaders of the Revolution for which a precedent could not be discovered, no government established of which an exact model did not present itself, the people of the United States might, at this moment have been numbered among the melancholy victims of misguided councils, must at best have been laboring under the weight of some of those forms which have crushed the liberties of the rest of mankind. Happily for America, happily, we trust, for the whole human race, they pursued a new and more noble course. They accomplished a revolution which has no parallel in the annals of human society. They reared the fabrics of governments which have no model on the face of the globe. They formed the design of a great Confederacy, which it is incumbent on their successors to improve and perpetuate. If their works betray imperfections, we wonder at the fewness of them. If they erred most in the structure of the Union, this was the work most difficult to be executed; this is the work which has been new modelled by the act of your convention, and it is that act on which you are now to deliberate and to decide.
I put these considerations before you, in full confidence that your good sense will guide you in the right direction. You’re too smart to be fooled by the clever arguments of those who predict gloom and peril and advocate for disunion as the only solution. Don’t listen to the unnatural voice which tries to convince you that the people of America, knit together as they are by so many cords of affection, can no longer live together as members of the same family. Don’t listen to those who say that the people can no longer continue as the mutual guardians of their mutual happiness and can no longer be fellow citizens of one great, respectable, and flourishing empire. Ignore the petulant insistence of those who say that the form of government recommended for your adoption is a novelty in the political world; that it has never yet had a place even in the theories of the wildest con men; that it rashly attempts what it is impossible to accomplish. No, my fellow citizens, shut your ears to this evil talk. It’s poisonous. Remember the kindred blood which flows in the veins of American citizens, the mingled blood which they have shed in defense of their sacred rights. It is this blood that has consecrated their Union. The mere idea of their becoming aliens, rivals, enemies, should excite horror in the minds of its citizens. If this is a novelty, and all novelties are to be avoided, then how much more rash is the supremely novel approach of dismembering us in order to protect our liberties and promote our happiness? Why should we reject the experiment of an extended republic merely because it may be something new? Isn’t it to our credit as Americans that while we have looked at the opinions of former times and nations, we have not suffered in blind veneration for antiquity? Instead we have relied upon common sense, the knowledge of our own situation and the lessons learned from our own experience. Posterity will be indebted to us for this manly spirit which serves as an example to the world of the kinds of political innovations produced in America, where private rights and public happiness are paramount. The leaders of the Revolution set a precedent by going where no one had gone before. There was no model for what they did. If that fact had stopped them, then we wouldn’t be where we are today. Instead we would, at best, be stuck with one of the older forms of government which crush the liberties of mankind. Fortunately for us, and indeed we think, the whole human race, the leaders of the Revolution pursued a new and more noble course. They accomplished a revolution which has no parallel in the annals of human society. They created governments which have no model on the face of the globe. They formed the design of a great Confederacy, which it is incumbent on their successors to improve and perpetuate. If their work was imperfect, we can wonder at how few were the faults. If they erred most in the structure of the Union, it was after all, the most difficult part. This is the very part that the convention seeks to model. It is that act on which you are now to deliberate and to decide.