In Federalist No. 15, Hamilton expresses concern that he may be perceived as belaboring a point about which no one seriously disagrees. However, he persists and contends that he still has more to say about why the Union needs to be retained. It’s almost as though someone complained to him about writing so many essays on the same topic. He appears defensive when he explains that there is nothing more important that can be discussed.
Fortunately, Hamilton does cover some new ground in his observations on foreign policy. Like Washington, Hamilton is under no illusion that governments do anything for reasons other than self-interest.
IN THE course of the preceding papers, I have endeavored, my fellow citizens, to place before you, in a clear and convincing light, the importance of Union to your political safety and happiness. 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 be severed or dissolved by ambition or by avarice, by jealousy or by misrepresentation. In the sequel of the inquiry through which I propose to accompany you, the truths intended to be inculcated will receive further confirmation from facts and arguments hitherto unnoticed. If the road over which you will still have to pass should in some places appear to you tedious or irksome, you will recollect that you are in quest of information on a subject the most momentous which can engage the attention of a free people, that the field through which you have to travel is in itself spacious, and that the difficulties of the journey have been unnecessarily increased by the mazes with which sophistry has beset the way. It will be my aim to remove the obstacles from your progress in as compendious a manner as it can be done, without sacrificing utility to despatch.
Throughout the course of the preceding papers I have tried to show you, my fellow citizens, how important the Union is to your political safety and happiness. I have laid out, in a clear and convincing light, the dangers to which you would be exposed should it be dissolved by any of the forces arrayed against it. We cannot permit the sacred tie that binds us together to be severed by ambition, avarice, jealousy or misrepresentation. I am now proposing to continue this discussion through further inquiry, which will further confirm the truth of the matter via more facts and arguments as yet not explored. Should this journey be thought tedious or irksome, you should recall that the you are on a quest for information on the most important subject that can engage the attention of a free people. Although this quest has been made difficult by those who engage in sophistry, it is my aim to remove the obstacles to understanding as well as I can without sacrificing utility to speed.
In pursuance of the plan which I have laid down for the discussion of the subject, the point next in order to be examined is the “insufficiency of the present Confederation to the preservation of the Union.” It may perhaps be asked what need there is of reasoning or proof to illustrate a position which is not either controverted or doubted, to which the understandings and feelings of all classes of men assent, and which in substance is admitted by the opponents as well as by the friends of the new Constitution. It must in truth be acknowledged that, however these may differ in other respects, they in general appear to harmonize in this sentiment, at least, that there are material imperfections in our national system, and that something is necessary to be done to rescue us from impending anarchy. The facts that support this opinion are no longer objects of speculation. They have forced themselves upon the sensibility of the people at large, and have at length extorted from those, whose mistaken policy has had the principal share in precipitating the extremity at which we are arrived, a reluctant confession of the reality of those defects in the scheme of our federal government, which have been long pointed out and regretted by the intelligent friends of the Union.
The next item in my plan for the discussion of this subject is the “insufficiency of the present Confederation to the preservation of the Union.” One might ask what need there is to prove a point that no one seriously disputes, a point with which all men of every class agree, and which is even admitted to by both friends and opponents of the new Constitution. While this may indeed be the case, there are differences, even if all agree that there are material imperfections in our national system, and that something must be done to rescue us from impending anarchy. This much is not up for debate. These facts have made themselves painfully evident to the people at large, and even to those whose mistaken policies have been primarily responsible for the situation in which we now find ourselves. Even these people reluctantly acknowledge the defects in the scheme of our present federal government, defects that have long been pointed out and regretted by intelligent friends of the Union.
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. Are there engagements to the performance of which we are held by every tie respectable among men? These are the subjects of constant and unblushing violation. 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? These remain without any proper or satisfactory provision for their discharge. Have we valuable territories and important posts in the possession of a foreign power which, by express stipulations, ought long since to have been surrendered? These are still retained, to the prejudice of our interests, not less than of our rights. Are we in a condition to resent or to repel the aggression? We have neither troops, nor treasury, nor government.1 Are we even in a condition to remonstrate with dignity? The just imputations on our own faith, in respect to the same treaty, ought first to be removed. Are we entitled by nature and compact to a free participation in the navigation of the Mississippi? Spain excludes us from it. Is public credit an indispensable resource in time of public danger? We seem to have abandoned its cause as desperate and irretrievable. Is commerce of importance to national wealth? Ours is at the lowest point of declension. 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. Our ambassadors abroad are the mere pageants of mimic sovereignty. Is a violent and unnatural decrease in the value of land a symptom of national distress? The price of improved land in most parts of the country is much lower than can be accounted for by the quantity of waste land at market, and can only be fully explained by that want of private and public confidence, which are so alarmingly prevalent among all ranks, and which have a direct tendency to depreciate property of every kind. Is private credit the friend and patron of industry? That most useful kind which relates to borrowing and lending is reduced within the narrowest limits, and this still more from an opinion of insecurity than from the scarcity of money. To shorten an enumeration of particulars which can afford neither pleasure nor instruction, it may in general be demanded, what indication is there of national disorder, poverty, and insignificance that could befall a community so peculiarly blessed with natural advantages as we are, which does not form a part of the dark catalogue of our public misfortunes? This is the melancholy situation to which we have been brought by those very maxims and councils which would now deter us from adopting the proposed Constitution; and which, not content with having conducted us to the brink of a precipice, seem resolved to plunge us into the abyss that awaits us below. Here, my countrymen, impelled by every motive that ought to influence an enlightened people, let us make a firm stand for our safety, our tranquility, our dignity, our reputation. Let us at last break the fatal charm which has too long seduced us from the paths of felicity and prosperity.
We 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 have responsibilities as a nation which are unfulfilled? We do, and they are a source of national embarrassment. We owe debts to foreigners and to our own citizens. These obligation were contracted when our political existence was in peril. They remain unpaid and without any provision yet made to do so. We have valuable territories and important posts in the possession of a foreign power which, by express stipulations, ought long since to have been surrendered. We are in no position to do anything about this aggression. We have neither troops, treasury, or government. We can’t even, in good faith, complain about it, since we ourselves are guilty of violating the same treaty. Why should we expect free access to the navigation of the Mississippi? Spain excludes us from it. Public credit is an indispensable resource during times of public danger. Yet we appear to have abandoned, even the pretense of retaining it. If trade is important to national wealth, why have we allowed our commerce to sink to its lowest level? Respectability in the eyes of foreign powers is a safeguard against foreign encroachments. Yet the imbecility of our government precludes them from treating with us. Our ambassadors abroad are perceived as a sham. Is not the plummeting value of land a symptom of national distress? The price of improved land in most parts of the country is much lower than can be accounted for by the quantity of waste land at market. It can only be fully explained by the lack of private and public confidence. This lack of faith is alarmingly prevalent among all ranks, and causes property values of every kind to depreciate. Private credit is the friend and patron of industry. Yet, its availability has been reduced tremendously, more because investors feel insecure, than due to a scarcity of money. To summarize this list of unpleasant realities, we might simply ask: “What is the cause of such national disorder, poverty and insignificance? How could this befall a country as peculiarly blessed with natural advantages as we are?” This depressing state of affairs is due to having followed the advice and direction of those who would now deter us from adopting the proposed Constitution. These people, not content with having conducted us to the brink of a precipice, seem resolved to plunge us into the abyss that awaits us below. This is where we need to make our stand. We possess every reason that ought to influence an enlightened people. We must stand for our safety, our tranquillity, our dignity, and our reputation. Let us at last break the fatal charm which has too long seduced us from the paths of happiness and prosperity.
It is true, as has been before observed that facts, too stubborn to be resisted, have produced a species of general assent to the abstract proposition that there exist material defects in our national system; but the usefulness of the concession, on the part of the old adversaries of federal measures, is destroyed by a strenuous opposition to a remedy, upon the only principles that can give it a chance of success. While they admit that the government of the United States is destitute of energy, they contend against conferring upon it those powers which are requisite to supply that energy. They seem still to aim at things repugnant and irreconcilable; at an augmentation of federal authority, without a diminution of State authority; at sovereignty in the Union, and complete independence in the members. They still, in fine, seem to cherish with blind devotion the political monster of an imperium in imperio. This renders a full display of the principal defects of the Confederation necessary, in order to show that the evils we experience do not proceed from minute or partial imperfections, but from fundamental errors in the structure of the building, which cannot be amended otherwise than by an alteration in the first principles and main pillars of the fabric.
It has been said that facts are stubborn things which cannot be resisted. But instead of opposition, they have produced a curious phenomenon – a concession as to their validity which is useless. This concession is useless because the old adversaries of a federal system continue to oppose the only remedy likely to address the issues. While they admit that the government of the United States is powerless in essential areas, they refuse to grant it those powers which are necessary. They want to have their cake and eat it too. They seek to augment federal authority, but not at the expense of State authority. They want the Union to be sovereign, but at the same time they want the States to retain their sovereignty through the complete independence of each. They would create a political monster – a government within a government. It is for this reason that we must explain the principal defects of the Confederation, to show that the problems we are experiencing don’t result from minute or partial imperfections. The evils we are suffering stem from fundamental errors in the structure that cannot be fixed other than by an alteration of the first principles and main pillars of that system.
The great and radical vice in the construction of the existing Confederation is in the principle of LEGISLATION for STATES or GOVERNMENTS, in their CORPORATE or COLLECTIVE CAPACITIES, and as contradistinguished from the INDIVIDUALS of which they consist. Though this principle does not run through all the powers delegated to the Union, yet it pervades and governs those on which the efficacy of the rest depends. Except as to the rule of appointment, the United States has an indefinite discretion to make requisitions for men and money; but they have no authority to raise either, by regulations extending to the individual citizens of America. The consequence of this is, that though in theory their resolutions concerning those objects are laws, constitutionally binding on the members of the Union, yet in practice they are mere recommendations which the States observe or disregard at their option.
The biggest problem in the construction of the existing Confederation is in the principle of LEGISLATION for STATES or GOVERNMENTS, in their CORPORATE or COLLECTIVE CAPACITIES. This differs from legislation that can be applied to the INDIVIDUALS of which they consist. Though this principle does not run through all the powers delegated to the Union, it is the common principle on which all the rest depend. Other than the rule of appointment, the United States has indefinite discretion to requisition men and money, but the government has no authority to raise either, because they cannot extend regulations to the individual citizens of America. And so, even though, in theory their resolutions are laws which are constitutionally binding on the members of the Union, in practice, they are merely recommendations which the States observe or disregard as they see fit.
It is a singular instance of the capriciousness of the human mind, that after all the admonitions we have had from experience on this head, there should still be found men who object to the new Constitution, for deviating from a principle which has been found the bane of the old, and which is in itself evidently incompatible with the idea of GOVERNMENT; a principle, in short, which, if it is to be executed at all, must substitute the violent and sanguinary agency of the sword to the mild influence of the magistracy.
This is an amazing example of how irrational people can be. Even after first hand experience of the consequences of such a system, there are still those who object to the new Constitution because it deviates from the very thing which has been the downfall of the old system. This principle is obviously incompatible with the very idea of GOVERNMENT. This notion, if it is to be executed at all, cannot be achieved peacefully.
There is nothing absurd or impracticable in the idea of a league or alliance between independent nations for certain defined purposes precisely stated in a treaty regulating all the details of time, place, circumstance, and quantity; leaving nothing to future discretion; and depending for its execution on the good faith of the parties. Compacts of this kind exist among all civilized nations, subject to the usual vicissitudes of peace and war, of observance and non-observance, as the interests or passions of the contracting powers dictate. In the early part of the present century there was an epidemical rage in Europe for this species of compacts, from which the politicians of the times fondly hoped for benefits which were never realized. With a view to establishing the equilibrium of power and the peace of that part of the world, all the resources of negotiation were exhausted, and triple and quadruple alliances were formed; but they were scarcely formed before they were broken, giving an instructive but afflicting lesson to mankind, how little dependence is to be placed on treaties which have no other sanction than the obligations of good faith, and which oppose general considerations of peace and justice to the impulse of any immediate interest or passion.
Of course, treaties and alliances are commonplace things. They exist for precisely defined purposes, limited by time, place and circumstance in an attempt to remove all ambiguity and future discretion. Such agreements depend on the good faith of all parties. Such compacts exist among all civilized nations, but are subject to the usual forces of circumstance and may be observed or broken as the interests and passions of the powers involved dictate. In the early part of the present century, such compacts were all the rage in Europe. The politicians deluded themselves into hoping for benefits that were never realized. Intending to establishing a balance of power and peace in that part of the world, they worked themselves into a lather, forming complex triple and quadruple alliances. But, no sooner had these been formed, than they were broken. This should be a lesson to mankind. There is little faith to be placed on treaties which depend solely on obligations of good faith. Something as nebulous as a desire for peace and justice will rarely stand against the impulses of immediate interest or passion.
If the particular States in this country are disposed to stand in a similar relation to each other, and to drop the project of a general DISCRETIONARY SUPERINTENDENCE, the scheme would indeed be pernicious, and would entail upon us all the mischiefs which have been enumerated under the first head; but it would have the merit of being, at least, consistent and practicable Abandoning all views towards a confederate government, this would bring us to a simple alliance offensive and defensive; and would place us in a situation to be alternate friends and enemies of each other, as our mutual jealousies and rivalships, nourished by the intrigues of foreign nations, should prescribe to us.
If the individual States in this country were to consider themselves equal and independent and give up on any kind of Union that entailed a general DISCRETIONARY SUPERINTENDENCE, it would be a bad thing in general. It would cause all the mischiefs which have been previously enumerated. But, at least it would simplify things, reducing relations between the States to simple offensive and defensive alliances. The States would alternately be friends or enemies as circumstances dictated. We’d be no different than any other set of foreign nations, subject to the same intrigues, mutual jealousies, and rivalries.
But if we are unwilling to be placed in this perilous situation; if we still will adhere to the design of a national government, or, which is the same thing, of a superintending power, under the direction of a common council, we must resolve to incorporate into our plan those ingredients which may be considered as forming the characteristic difference between a league and a government; we must extend the authority of the Union to the persons of the citizens, — the only proper objects of government.
If we are unwilling to be in such a dangerous situation, and we still want a national government, which is really the same thing as a superintending power under the direction of a common council, then we have to form a government that differs from a league. Our plan of government must extend the authority of the Union over its citizens — the only proper objects of government.
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. This penalty, whatever it may be, can only be inflicted in two ways: by the agency of the courts and ministers of justice, or by military force; by the COERCION of the magistracy, or by the COERCION of arms. The first kind can evidently apply only to men; the last kind must of necessity, be employed against bodies politic, or communities, or States. It is evident that there is no process of a court by which the observance of the laws can, in the last resort, be enforced. Sentences may be denounced against them for violations of their duty; but these sentences can only be carried into execution by the sword. In an association where the general authority is confined to the collective bodies of the communities, that compose it, every breach of the laws must involve a state of war; and military execution must become the only instrument of civil obedience. Such a state of things can certainly not deserve the name of government, nor would any prudent man choose to commit his happiness to it.
Government implies the power of making laws. It is essential to the idea of a law that there be a penalty or punishment for disobedience. If there is no penalty or punishment for disobedience, then the law is no better than mere advice or recommendation. The penalty can only be enforced in one of two ways: through the courts and their executors, or by military force. In other words by the COERCION of the judicial system, or by the COERCION of arms. The first applies only to men; the last against groups – political organizations, communities, or States. The courts themselves really have no power to enforce their rulings. People may complain about their dereliction of duty, but in the end, their sentences can only be implemented under the threat of force. In an association of separate communities, each under their own jurisdiction, every breach of laws between them will result in a state of war and martial law would become the only means of enforcing civil obedience. One can hardly call this government. No one in his right mind would opt for such a system.
There was a time when we were told that breaches, by the States, of the regulations of the federal authority were not to be expected; that a sense of common interest would preside over the conduct of the respective members, and would beget a full compliance with all the constitutional requisitions of the Union. This language, at the present day, would appear as wild as a great part of what we now hear from the same quarter will be thought, when we shall have received further lessons from that best oracle of wisdom, experience. It at all times betrayed an ignorance of the true springs by which human conduct is actuated, and belied the original inducements to the establishment of civil power. Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice, without constraint. Has it been found that bodies of men act with more rectitude or greater disinterestedness than individuals? The contrary of this has been inferred by all accurate observers of the conduct of mankind; and the inference is founded upon obvious reasons. Regard to reputation has a less active influence, when the infamy of a bad action is to be divided among a number than when it is to fall singly upon one. A spirit of faction, which is apt to mingle its poison in the deliberations of all bodies of men, will often hurry the persons of whom they are composed into improprieties and excesses, for which they would blush in a private capacity.
There was a time when people naively proposed that the States would never try to circumvent federal authority. These people claimed that a sense of common interest would ensure full compliance with all of the constitutional mandates of the Union. Just as this expectation seems ridiculous today, in retrospect, so will the current proposals being advocated from the same quarter be tomorrow. Experience tells us otherwise. Such unrealistic expectations betray a fundamental lack of understanding about human nature. They are at odds with the very reasons for establishing civil authority, in the first place. What is the purposed of government, anyway? Government is necessary because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without constraint. Have we suddenly discovered that groups of people behave in a more altruistic way than do individuals? History seems to demonstrate the exact opposite, and the reasons are obvious. People are less concerned about their individual reputations when the responsibility for a bad choice or action can be spread among many. Factions are much more likely whenever there is a deliberation among a group of people. These factions will make men prone to hasty decisions in the form of improprieties and excesses, that individually, they would be embarrassed to to make.
In addition to all this, there is, in the nature of sovereign power, an impatience of control, that disposes those who are invested with the exercise of it, to look with an evil eye upon all external attempts to restrain or direct its operations. From this spirit it happens, that in every political association which is formed upon the principle of uniting in a common interest a number of lesser sovereignties, there will be found a kind of eccentric tendency in the subordinate or inferior orbs, by the operation of which there will be a perpetual effort in each to fly off from the common centre. This tendency is not difficult to be accounted for. It has its origin in the love of power. Power controlled or abridged is almost always the rival and enemy of that power by which it is controlled or abridged. This simple proposition will teach us how little reason there is to expect, that the persons intrusted with the administration of the affairs of the particular members of a confederacy will at all times be ready, with perfect good-humor, and an unbiased regard to the public weal, to execute the resolutions or decrees of the general authority. The reverse of this results from the constitution of human nature.
Those who exercise sovereign power tend to be impatient with external attempts to restrain it or direct its operation. Consequently, whenever a political association comprised of lesser States is formed, it is difficult to maintain because the individual participants tend to seek their own path. It is not hard to see why this is the case. It happens because of the love of power. Subordinate power is always the rival of that power to which it is subordinate. This is why there is no reason to expect that the representatives of any particular member of the confederacy will, with perfect good-humor, and an unbiased regard to the public welfare, jump to execute the resolutions or decrees of the general authority. In fact the reverse is true, it’s human nature.
If, therefore, the measures of the Confederacy cannot be executed without the intervention of the particular administrations, there will be little prospect of their being executed at all. 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. All this will be done; and in a spirit of interested and suspicious scrutiny, without that knowledge of national circumstances and reasons of state, which is essential to a right judgment, and with that strong predilection in favor of local objects, which can hardly fail to mislead the decision. The same process must be repeated in every member of which the body is constituted; and the execution of the plans, framed by the councils of the whole, will always fluctuate on the discretion of the ill-informed and prejudiced opinion of every part. Those who have been conversant in the proceedings of popular assemblies; who have seen how difficult it often is, where there is no exterior pressure of circumstances, to bring them to harmonious resolutions on important points, will readily conceive how impossible it must be to induce a number of such assemblies, deliberating at a distance from each other, at different times, and under different impressions, long to co-operate in the same views and pursuits.
So then, if the policies of the Confederacy are to be executed, they will by necessity need to be executed by a central authority – or not at all. Otherwise, the leaders of the individual members will seek to make their own judgements regarding the efficacy and propriety of these edicts – whether or not it is constitutional to do so. They will decide whether to adhere or execute them, based on their immediate interests, and the cost of doing so. They will act in self-interest without knowledge of or concern for national interests and reasons of state. Without that knowledge, and with an inherent focus on local matters, it’s hard to see how good decisions can be made. It will be the same story with every member’s leadership. They will all be subject to the discretion of ill-informed prejudiced opinion. Anyone who has ever attended or who is familiar with what goes on in popular assemblies knows of what I speak. When there is no external pressure stemming from an emergency, to force harmonious resolutions on important points, cooperation between members will be almost impossible- especially when separated by distance and circumstance.
In our case, the concurrence of thirteen distinct sovereign wills is requisite, under the Confederation, to the complete execution of every important measure that proceeds from the Union. It has happened as was to have been foreseen. The measures of the Union have not been executed; the delinquencies of the States have, step by step, matured themselves to an extreme, which has, at length, arrested all the wheels of the national government, and brought them to an awful stand. Congress at this time scarcely possess the means of keeping up the forms of administration, till the States can have time to agree upon a more substantial substitute for the present shadow of a federal government. Things did not come to this desperate extremity at once. The causes which have been specified produced at first only unequal and disproportionate degrees of compliance with the requisitions of the Union. The greater deficiencies of some States furnished the pretext of example and the temptation of interest to the complying, or to the least delinquent States. Why should we do more in proportion than those who are embarked with us in the same political voyage? Why should we consent to bear more than our proper share of the common burden? These were suggestions which human selfishness could not withstand, and which even speculative men, who looked forward to remote consequences, could not, without hesitation, combat. Each State, yielding to the persuasive voice of immediate interest or convenience, has successively withdrawn its support, till the frail and tottering edifice seems ready to fall upon our heads, and to crush us beneath its ruins.
In our case, in order to get anything done, thirteen distinct sovereign have to agree upon it. It should have been obvious that this would happen. Nothing that Union has tried to do has been implemented. The States have grown more and more recalcitrant and the wheels of government have ground to a halt. Congress has almost no power to hold things together, even long enough to give the States time to agree on a more substantial substitute for the present shadow of a federal government. We didn’t get to this point all at once. Initially there was only an uneven degree of compliance with the requisitions of the Union. Then the States that provided more used the example of those that didn’t do their fair share to justify reducing their obligation. They ask: Why should we do more in proportion than others who shirk their obligations? Why should we consent to bear more than our proper share of the common burden? Human selfishness cannot be overcome. This sense of near-term injustice cannot be overlooked, even by the most farsighted. Each State has, because of short term imperatives, successively withdrawn its support of the Union. Now it is but a frail and tottering edifice which seems ready to fall upon our heads, and to crush us beneath its ruins.