In Federalist 23, Hamilton turns his focus to the extent of the power to be delegated to the federal government by the new Constitution. He points out that the federal government is the obvious place for “NATIONAL INTERESTS” to be looked after. He argues that the authority wielded by the federal government has to match the responsibility it undertakes and that the Articles of Confederation provide an excellent example of what happens when they don’t.
To the People of the State of New York:
THE necessity of a Constitution, at least equally energetic with the one proposed, to the preservation of the Union, is the point at the examination of which we are now arrived.
It is now time to examine why a strong Constitution, such as the one proposed, is necessary for the preservation of the Union.
This inquiry will naturally divide itself into three branches — the objects to be provided for by the federal government, the quantity of power necessary to the accomplishment of those objects, the persons upon whom that power ought to operate. Its distribution and organization will more properly claim our attention under the succeeding head.
As in the proposed system itself, our argument will focus on three main tenets. These are:
A follow-up article will cover the distribution and organization of that power.
The principal purposes to be answered by union are these — the common defense of the members; the preservation of the public peace as well against internal convulsions as external attacks; the regulation of commerce with other nations and between the States; the superintendence of our intercourse, political and commercial, with foreign countries.
The federal government should be responsible for:
The authorities essential to the common defense are these: to raise armies; to build and equip fleets; to prescribe rules for the government of both; to direct their operations; to provide for their support. These 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. The circumstances that endanger the safety of nations are infinite, and for this reason no constitutional shackles can wisely be imposed on the power to which the care of it is committed. This power ought to be coextensive with all the possible combinations of such circumstances; and ought to be under the direction of the same councils which are appointed to preside over the common defense.
Maintaining the peace requires the following authority: to raise armies; to build and equip fleets; to prescribe rules for the running of both; to direct their operations; and to provide for their support. These powers should not be limited, because it is impossible to foresee or define the extent or type of national emergencies which may arise, and consequently what will be required to meet them. There are an infinite number of dangers which confront the safety of nations. For this reason the Constitution should not place limits on the power which may be needed to address them. This power ought to be sufficient to meet all potential threats and ought to be under the direction of those appointed to preside over the common defense.
This is one of those truths which, to a correct and unprejudiced mind, carries its own evidence along with it; and may be obscured, but cannot be made plainer by argument or reasoning. It rests upon axioms as simple as they are universal; the means ought to be proportioned to the end; the persons, from whose agency the attainment of any end is expected, ought to possess the means by which it is to be attained.
This should be obvious to any rational person with an open mind. It is self-evident, and while the truth of it may be obscured, it cannot be made more evident by argument or reasoning. This truth rests upon simple, universal axioms; the means ought to be proportioned to the objective and those who are expected to accomplish any objective, ought to possess the means of doing so.
Whether there ought to be a federal government intrusted with the care of the common defense, is a question in the first instance, open for discussion; but the moment it is decided in the affirmative, it will follow, that that government ought to be clothed with all the powers requisite to complete execution of its trust. And unless it can be shown that the circumstances which may affect the public safety are reducible within certain determinate limits; unless the contrary of this position can be fairly and rationally disputed, it must be admitted, as a necessary consequence, that there can be no limitation of that authority which is to provide for the defense and protection of the community, in any matter essential to its efficacy that is, in any matter essential to the formation, direction, or support of the NATIONAL FORCES.
It is open for discussion whether or not there should be a federal government entrusted with the care of the common defense. However, once it has been decided that there should be, it follows that the government ought to have all the power needed for complete execution of its responsibility. To argue otherwise, one must demonstrate that the forces endangering public safety are, bound within definable limits, and that the dangers are, in fact not unlimited. If this argument cannot be made successfully, then there can be no limitation of that authority which is to provide for the defense and protection of the community. And unlimited power is essential to the formation, direction, or support of the NATIONAL FORCES.
Defective as the present Confederation has been proved to be, this principle appears to have been fully recognized by the framers of it; though they have not made proper or adequate provision for its exercise. Congress have an unlimited discretion to make requisitions of men and money; to govern the army and navy; to direct their operations. As their requisitions are made constitutionally binding upon the States, who are in fact under the most solemn obligations to furnish the supplies required of them, the intention evidently was that the United States should command whatever resources were by them judged requisite to the “common defense and general welfare.” It was presumed that a sense of their true interests, and a regard to the dictates of good faith, would be found sufficient pledges for the punctual performance of the duty of the members to the federal head.
As defective as the present Confederation has been proven to be, this principle appears to have been fully recognized by its framers; although they did not provide for adequate power or method for its exercise. The current Congress has unlimited discretion to make requisitions of men and money; to govern the army and navy; and to direct their operations. Because their requisitions are constitutionally binding on the States, and because the States are under obligation to furnish the supplies required of them, the intention evidently was that the United States should command whatever resources it determined necessary to the “common defense and general welfare.” It was presumed that perception of their good intentions, and the dictates of good faith, would be enough to induce the States to perform their obligations punctually on behalf of the federal government.
The experiment has, however, demonstrated that this expectation was ill-founded and illusory; and the observations, made under the last head, will, I imagine, have sufficed to convince the impartial and discerning, that there is an absolute necessity for an entire change in the first principles of the system; that if we are in earnest about giving the Union energy and duration, we must abandon the vain project of legislating upon the States in their collective capacities; we must extend the laws of the federal government to the individual citizens of America; we must discard the fallacious scheme of quotas and requisitions, as equally impracticable and unjust. The result from all this is that the Union ought to be invested with full power to levy troops; to build and equip fleets; and to raise the revenues which will be required for the formation and support of an army and navy, in the customary and ordinary modes practiced in other governments.
Time and experience has demonstrated that this expectation was ill-founded and illusory. The observations made in the previous article should have been sufficient to convince any impartial and discerning reader, that it is absolutely necessary for a drastic change in the first principles of the current system. And that if we are serious about making this Union something of substance which will endure, we must give up on the idea of legislating on the States collectively, and instead extend the laws of the federal government over the individual citizens of America. Finally, we must do away with the faulty system of quotas and requisitions as both impracticable and unjust. The end goal should be a Union invested with full power to levy troops; to build and equip fleets; and to raise the revenues which will be required for the formation and support of an army and navy, in the customary and ordinary modes practiced in other governments.
If the circumstances of our country are such as to demand a compound instead of a simple, a confederate instead of a sole, government, the essential point which will remain to be adjusted will be to discriminate the OBJECTS, as far as it can be done, which shall appertain to the different provinces or departments of power; allowing to each the most ample authority for fulfilling the objects committed to its charge. Shall the Union be constituted the guardian of the common safety? Are fleets and armies and revenues necessary to this purpose? The government of the Union must be empowered to pass all laws, and to make all regulations which have relation to them. The same must be the case in respect to commerce, and to every other matter to which its jurisdiction is permitted to extend. Is the administration of justice between the citizens of the same State the proper department of the local governments? These must possess all the authorities which are connected with this object, and with every other that may be allotted to their particular cognizance and direction. Not to confer in each case a degree of power commensurate to the end, would be to violate the most obvious rules of prudence and propriety, and improvidently to trust the great interests of the nation to hands which are disabled from managing them with vigor and success.
If circumstances dictated that our country have a confederate rather than a single government, a compound rather than simple form, then the issue becomes how to disseminate the power among its components and how to make sure that each has sufficient authority to fulfill its obligations. Should the Union be designated the guardian of common safety? Are fleets, armies and revenues required to do this? This being the case, the government of the Union must be empowered to pass all laws, and to make all regulations which pertain to them. The same is true for commerce and for any other matter to which the jurisdiction of the Union is to extend. Within a State, is the administration of justice between its citizens, within its scope of authority? They must posses all the authority required to do so, and with every other responsibility allotted to them. Not providing sufficient power to achieve their ends would violate the most obvious rules of prudence and propriety. Doing so would be to place the key interests of the nation into hands which are tied.
Who is likely to make suitable provisions for the public defense, as that body to which the guardianship of the public safety is confided; which, as the centre of information, will best understand the extent and urgency of the dangers that threaten; as the representative of the WHOLE, will feel itself most deeply interested in the preservation of every part; which, from the responsibility implied in the duty assigned to it, will be most sensibly impressed with the necessity of proper exertions; and which, by the extension of its authority throughout the States, can alone establish uniformity and concert in the plans and measures by which the common safety is to be secured? Is there not a manifest inconsistency in devolving upon the federal government the care of the general defense, and leaving in the State governments the effective powers by which it is to be provided for? Is not a want of co-operation the infallible consequence of such a system? And will not weakness, disorder, an undue distribution of the burdens and calamities of war, an unnecessary and intolerable increase of expense, be its natural and inevitable concomitants? Have we not had unequivocal experience of its effects in the course of the revolution which we have just accomplished?
Which governmental body is best suited to provide for the common defense? Is there a better place than that body which is the center of information, and which best understands the extent and urgency of threats to the whole? Is there a better place than a central government, which acts as a representative of the WHOLE and is consequently concerned with the preserving every part of itself? As a representative of the entire Union, it will, through the exercise of authority throughout the States, uniformly create and implement the plans and measures by which the common safety is to be ensured. What is more effective than this? Is it not obviously inconsistent and imprudent to make the federal government responsible for providing for the common defense, while reserving the effective power to do so, to the States? How could one reasonably expect a reliable degree of cooperation under such a system? Won’t weakness, disorder, and an unfair distribution of the burdens and calamities of war, as well as an unnecessary and intolerable increase in expense, be the inevitable result? Haven’t we already seen the unequivocal effects of doing this in the course of the revolution we just accomplished.
Every view we may take of the subject, as candid inquirers after truth, will serve to convince us, that it is both unwise and dangerous to deny the federal government an unconfined authority, as to all those objects which are intrusted to its management. It will indeed deserve the most vigilant and careful attention of the people, to see that it be modeled in such a manner as to admit of its being safely vested with the requisite powers. If any plan which has been, or may be, offered to our consideration, should not, upon a dispassionate inspection, be found to answer this description, it ought to be rejected. A government, the constitution of which renders it unfit to be trusted with all the powers which a free people ought to delegate to any government, would be an unsafe and improper depositary of the NATIONAL INTERESTS. Wherever THESE can with propriety be confided, the coincident powers may safely accompany them. This is the true result of all just reasoning upon the subject. And the adversaries of the plan promulgated by the convention ought to have confined themselves to showing, that the internal structure of the proposed government was such as to render it unworthy of the confidence of the people. They ought not to have wandered into inflammatory declamations and unmeaning cavils about the extent of the powers. The POWERS are not too extensive for the OBJECTS of federal administration, or, in other words, for the management of our NATIONAL INTERESTS; nor can any satisfactory argument be framed to show that they are chargeable with such an excess. If it be true, as has been insinuated by some of the writers on the other side, that the difficulty arises from the nature of the thing, and that the extent of the country will not permit us to form a government in which such ample powers can safely be reposed, it would prove that we ought to contract our views, and resort to the expedient of separate confederacies, which will move within more practicable spheres. For the absurdity must continually stare us in the face of confiding to a government the direction of the most essential national interests, without daring to trust it to the authorities which are indispensible to their proper and efficient management. Let us not attempt to reconcile contradictions, but firmly embrace a rational alternative.
No matter how we look at it, as candid inquirers after truth, we are convinced that it is both unwise and dangerous to deny the federal government an unlimited authority, within the scope of those duties entrusted to its management. It will, however, require the most vigilant and careful attention of the people, to see that the system is created in such a way as to safely vest this power with the government. Any plan submitted for our consideration, which does not, upon dispassionate inspection, meet this criterion, should be rejected. A constitution which renders the government it defines, unfit to be trusted with all the powers a free people ought to delegate to any government, is by definition an unfit repository for the NATIONAL INTERESTS. Wherever THESE interests can be confidently delegated, the powers needed to look after them may also be safely delegated. This is a logical conclusion. Those opposed to the plan promulgated by the convention, should have confined themselves to showing that the internal structure of the proposed government was unworthy of the confidence of the people. Instead they wandered into inflammatory rhetoric, and meaningless cavils, lamenting the extent of the powers delegated to the government. The POWERS are not more extensive than the RESPONSIBILITIES of the federal administration. In other words, the POWERS are appropriate for the execution of our NATIONAL INTERESTS. There is no reasonable argument suggesting that the powers don’t match what’s needed. If, as has been insinuated by writers on the other side, the size of the country makes this form of government impracticable for powers to be safely delegated to a single government, then this is another matter entirely. In this case we ought to resort to the expedient of separate confederacies, which will move within more practicable spheres. Otherwise, it’s absurd to continue to confide critical national interests to the government, without daring to trust it with the authority indispensible to their proper and efficient management. Let us not attempt to reconcile contradictions, but firmly embrace a rational alternative.
I trust, however, that the impracticability of one general system cannot be shown. I am greatly mistaken, if any thing of weight has yet been advanced of this tendency; and I flatter myself, that the observations which have been made in the course of these papers have served to place the reverse of that position in as clear a light as any matter still in the womb of time and experience can be susceptible of. This, at all events, must be evident, that the very difficulty itself, drawn from the extent of the country, is the strongest argument in favor of an energetic government; for any other can certainly never preserve the Union of so large an empire. If we embrace the tenets of those who oppose the adoption of the proposed Constitution, as the standard of our political creed, we cannot fail to verify the gloomy doctrines which predict the impracticability of a national system pervading entire limits of the present Confederacy.
It seems to me that the impracticability of one general system cannot be shown. Unless I am gravely mistaken, nothing of any weight has yet been advanced to support this view. I flatter myself, that the observations made in the course of these papers have served to make matters as clear as is possible to do, with regard to the opposite contention. The vast extent of the country, is, in fact, the strongest argument in favor of a strong government. How could a weak government preserve the Union of so large an empire? If we accept the arguments of those who opposed the adoption of the proposed Constitution, we cannot fail to fulfill their gloomy predictions about the impracticability of a national system to successfully govern the limits of the present Confederacy.