Today's Politicos vs The Words and Deeds of The Founders
Random header image... Refresh for more!
Make a blogger happy, come back. Sign up for email post alerts!

Federalist No. 28

In this essay, Hamilton continues his arguments for an empowered federal government. This time his argument revolves around the proposition that the dangers of federal forces are the same faced by governments of any size.  Furthermore, the people are better off if they can play the federal government off against the state governments, siding with one or the other to prevent usurpation by either.

Idea of Restraining the Legislative Authority in Regard to the Common Defense Considered (continued)

To the People of the State of New York:

THAT there may happen cases in which the national government may be necessitated to resort to force, cannot be denied. Our own experience has corroborated the lessons taught by the examples of other nations; that emergencies of this sort will sometimes arise in all societies, however constituted; that seditions and insurrections are, unhappily, maladies as inseparable from the body politic as tumors and eruptions from the natural body; that the idea of governing at all times by the simple force of law (which we have been told is the only admissible principle of republican government), has no place but in the reveries of those political doctors whose sagacity disdains the admonitions of experimental instruction.

There will be occasions when the national government is required to use force.  This is borne out by not only our own experiences, but by that of other nations.  Emergencies of this kind are inevitable in all societies, whatever their form.  Insurrection and sedition are as unavoidable in the body politic as are tumors and sores on the physical body.  The idea that it’s possible to govern solely by the rule of law (as some would have us believe is the only legitimate way of republican government), is the stuff of fancy and has no place but in the daydreams of political theorists who deny the practical lessons of experience.

Should such emergencies at any time happen under the national government, there could be no remedy but force. The means to be employed must be proportioned to the extent of the mischief. If it should be a slight commotion in a small part of a State, the militia of the residue would be adequate to its suppression; and the national presumption is that they would be ready to do their duty. An insurrection, whatever may be its immediate cause, eventually endangers all government. Regard to the public peace, if not to the rights of the Union, would engage the citizens to whom the contagion had not communicated itself to oppose the insurgents; and if the general government should be found in practice conducive to the prosperity and felicity of the people, it were irrational to believe that they would be disinclined to its support.

When such emergencies occur, there can be no remedy except force.  The means employed must be proportional to the threat.  If it is but a minor commotion affecting only a small part of a State, the militia should provide an adequate force for its suppression, and the federal government should have an expectation that they will do their duty.  For, an insurrection, whatever its immediate cause, eventually endangers all government.  Any citizens not infected by the insurgency would be inspired to oppose it in the interest of public order if not patriotism.  If the government is a decent one, it’s irrational to think that the people as a whole won’t support it.

If, on the contrary, the insurrection should pervade a whole State, or a principal part of it, the employment of a different kind of force might become unavoidable. It appears that Massachusetts found it necessary to raise troops for repressing the disorders within that State; that Pennsylvania, from the mere apprehension of commotions among a part of her citizens, has thought proper to have recourse to the same measure. Suppose the State of New York had been inclined to re-establish her lost jurisdiction over the inhabitants of Vermont, could she have hoped for success in such an enterprise from the efforts of the militia alone? Would she not have been compelled to raise and to maintain a more regular force for the execution of her design? If it must then be admitted that the necessity of recurring to a force different from the militia, in cases of this extraordinary nature, is applicable to the State governments themselves, why should the possibility, that the national government might be under a like necessity, in similar extremities, be made an objection to its existence? Is it not surprising that men who declare an attachment to the Union in the abstract, should urge as an objection to the proposed Constitution what applies with tenfold weight to the plan for which they contend; and what, as far as it has any foundation in truth, is an inevitable consequence of civil society upon an enlarged scale? Who would not prefer that possibility to the unceasing agitations and frequent revolutions which are the continual scourges of petty republics?

If, on the on the other hand, an insurrection should encompass all or most a state, it might be necessary to employ a different kind of force.  Take Massachusetts, for instance, which had to raise troops to put down unrest within its borders.  Pennsylvania did the same thing as a preventative measure.  Think about New York.  What if it had decided that it wanted to reclaim its jurisdiction over Vermont?  Could it have done so by using its militia alone?  Wouldn’t New York have needed to raise and maintain a more regular force in an enterprise of this kind?  If we agree that the militia is, therefore insufficient for all but the most minor of circumstances, then why should the possibility that the national government might face similar emergencies not be a legitimate reason for its existence?  Isn’t it interesting that those who purport to be in favor of union in the abstract, object to the proposed Constitution on the basis of concerns which are ten times more likely under the plan they support?  Aren’t such circumstances an unavoidable consequence of any large civil society?  Who wouldn’t prefer the occasional use of legitimate force in keeping the peace, to the continual and frequent revolutions which befall petty republics?

Let us pursue this examination in another light. Suppose, in lieu of one general system, two, or three, or even four Confederacies were to be formed, would not the same difficulty oppose itself to the operations of either of these Confederacies? Would not each of them be exposed to the same casualties; and when these happened, be obliged to have recourse to the same expedients for upholding its authority which are objected to in a government for all the States? Would the militia, in this supposition, be more ready or more able to support the federal authority than in the case of a general union? All candid and intelligent men must, upon due consideration, acknowledge that the principle of the objection is equally applicable to either of the two cases; and that whether we have one government for all the States, or different governments for different parcels of them, or even if there should be an entire separation of the States, there might sometimes be a necessity to make use of a force constituted differently from the militia, to preserve the peace of the community and to maintain the just authority of the laws against those violent invasions of them which amount to insurrections and rebellions.

Now let’s look at this in another light.  Suppose, instead of one general system, we had two, three, or even four Confederacies.  Wouldn’t we still face the same issues in these?  Would not each of them struggle with the same things, and when such a situation would occur, woudn’t they have to resort to the same tactics to uphold their authority as would a single national government?  Would the militia in such a circumstance, be better able to support the federal authority better than in the case of a general union?  The honest and intelligent among us must admit that the real objection being brought to bear against the proposed system, applies equally to the alternative being advocated.  Whether we have one government for all the States, or different governments for different groupings, or even if each State is autonomous, it will occasionally be necessary to make use of a force other than the militia to preserve the peace and authority of  the law against what amounts to insurrection and rebellion.

Independent of all other reasonings upon the subject, it is a full answer to those who require a more peremptory provision against military establishments in time of peace, to say that the whole power of the proposed government is to be in the hands of the representatives of the people. This is the essential, and, after all, only efficacious security for the rights and privileges of the people, which is attainable in civil society.1

Aside from all other arguments, there is one which actually answer the opposition view completely.  We should remember that, after all, the whole power of the proposed government is to be in the hands of the people’s representatives anyway.  This is the essential, and only practical security for the rights and privileges of the people possible in a civil society.1

If the representatives of the people betray their constituents, there is then no resource left but in the exertion of that original right of self-defense which is paramount to all positive forms of government, and which against the usurpations of the national rulers, may be exerted with infinitely better prospect of success than against those of the rulers of an individual state. In a single state, if the persons intrusted with supreme power become usurpers, the different parcels, subdivisions, or districts of which it consists, having no distinct government in each, can take no regular measures for defense. The citizens must rush tumultuously to arms, without concert, without system, without resource; except in their courage and despair. The usurpers, clothed with the forms of legal authority, can too often crush the opposition in embryo. The smaller the extent of the territory, the more difficult will it be for the people to form a regular or systematic plan of opposition, and the more easy will it be to defeat their early efforts. Intelligence can be more speedily obtained of their preparations and movements, and the military force in the possession of the usurpers can be more rapidly directed against the part where the opposition has begun. In this situation there must be a peculiar coincidence of circumstances to insure success to the popular resistance.

If the representatives of the people betray their constituents, then there is no other recourse for them but to exercise their natural right of self-defense, a right which is paramount to all positive forms of government.  This right may be used against the usurpation of the national rulers much more effectively than against those of the rulers of an individual state.  In a single state, if the leaders become usurpers of the people’s rights, the people have no place to go and no way to defend themselves, because the state has one government.  The citizens will have to fend for themselves without any resources other than their pluck and courage.  The usurpers, clothed in the garb of legal authority, can too often crush the opposition before it gets started.  The smaller the extent of the territory, the easier it is for the government to control.  It is harder for people to plan a systematic opposition in secret and the government can direct their forces more rapidly against their opposition.  Successful opposition to government is possible only under unusual circumstances.

The obstacles to usurpation and the facilities of resistance increase with the increased extent of the state, provided the citizens understand their rights and are disposed to defend them. The natural strength of the people in a large community, in proportion to the artificial strength of the government, is greater than in a small, and of course more competent to a struggle with the attempts of the government to establish a tyranny. But in a confederacy the people, without exaggeration, may be said to be entirely the masters of their own fate. Power being almost always the rival of power, the general government will at all times stand ready to check the usurpations of the state governments, and these will have the same disposition towards the general government. The people, by throwing themselves into either scale, will infallibly make it preponderate. If their rights are invaded by either, they can make use of the other as the instrument of redress. How wise will it be in them by cherishing the union to preserve to themselves an advantage which can never be too highly prized!

If the citizens understand their rights and are inclined to defend them, it is harder for a government of a large territory to successfully usurp their power.  The strength in numbers enjoyed by citizens of a large community over the artificial strength of the government provides an advantage to the people in any struggle with a government bent on tyranny.  But in a confederacy the people are on their own.  Power checks rival power.  The federal government will always be ready to check the usurpation of the state governments, and the they will do the same to the federal government.  The people, siding with one or the other, will decide the balance.    If their rights are jeopardized by either, they can turn to the other for redress.  If the people are smart, they will realize that in maintaining a union, they preserve an incalculable advantage to themselves!

It may safely be received as an axiom in our political system, that the State governments will, in all possible contingencies, afford complete security against invasions of the public liberty by the national authority. Projects of usurpation cannot be masked under pretenses so likely to escape the penetration of select bodies of men, as of the people at large. The legislatures will have better means of information. They can discover the danger at a distance; and possessing all the organs of civil power, and the confidence of the people, they can at once adopt a regular plan of opposition, in which they can combine all the resources of the community. They can readily communicate with each other in the different States, and unite their common forces for the protection of their common liberty.

An obvious mainstay of our political system, is that the State governments, in all circumstances, are a bulwark against invasions of the public liberty by the national authority.  Plots to usurp the power of the people cannot be masked under pretense when exposed to the state legislatures as easily as to the public at large.  The legislatures will have access to better information.  Because they enjoy the confidence of the people, they have the means of civil power at their disposal.  Because of their position, they can detect approaching danger before it is imminent and plan opposition to it, using the resources of the community.  They can communicate with the legislatures in other States, and unite their common forces for the protection of their common liberty.

The great extent of the country is a further security. We have already experienced its utility against the attacks of a foreign power. And it would have precisely the same effect against the enterprises of ambitious rulers in the national councils. If the federal army should be able to quell the resistance of one State, the distant States would have it in their power to make head with fresh forces. The advantages obtained in one place must be abandoned to subdue the opposition in others; and the moment the part which had been reduced to submission was left to itself, its efforts would be renewed, and its resistance revive.

The sheer size of the country provides even more security.  We’ve seen this first hand when threatened by a foreign power.  The same thing would hold true in the event of a plot by ambitious rulers in national councils.  Should the federal army be able to quell the resistance of one State, other distant States would have it in their power to continue the fight with fresh forces.  The advantages won in one arena would have to be abandoned to subdue the opposition in others.  As soon as a subdued State were left to itself, it would renew the fight.

We should recollect that the extent of the military force must, at all events, be regulated by the resources of the country. For a long time to come, it will not be possible to maintain a large army; and as the means of doing this increase, the population and natural strength of the community will proportionably increase. When will the time arrive that the federal government can raise and maintain an army capable of erecting a despotism over the great body of the people of an immense empire, who are in a situation, through the medium of their State governments, to take measures for their own defense, with all the celerity, regularity, and system of independent nations? The apprehension may be considered as a disease, for which there can be found no cure in the resources of argument and reasoning.

Finally, we should remember that the size of the military force will be regulated by the resources of the country.  For a long time to come, the country will not be able to maintain a large army.  The means of doing so will increase as the population and natural strength of the country also increases.  How strong will the government be to raise and maintain an army sufficient to support despotic designs, when State governments will also have greater resources at their disposal?  This is a hypothetical case for which there is no cure, and outside the scope of this discussion.


1. Its full efficacy will be examined hereafter.

1 comment

1 Michael Sanera { 04.16.12 at 5:58 am }

Hamilton was correct until the Progressives won passage of the 16th and 17th Amendments. These changes left the states without protection since the SC virturally ignores the 10th Amendment.


Leave a Comment