Today's Politicos vs The Words and Deeds of The Founders
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Hamilton Got It Wrong …

That’s a pretty audacious statement and definitely needs some elaboration, but that is after all, the purpose of headlines.  Now that we have your attention …

We’ve already looked at Federalist No. 15, which is the first in a series of 6 on the same topic, namely the inherent incapacity of the Confederation based government to hold the Union together.  Hamilton was dead on – the government under the Articles of Confederation was a non-starter.  It wasn’t going to work, there really wasn’t any fixing it.  Even its own Congress recognized that fact.  There were still some opponents of the proposed Constitution who evidently thought it could be salvaged, however, and these folk were presumably the targets of Hamilton’s arguments in Federalists 15 – 21.

So, what did Hamilton “get wrong?”  Well, his errors lie in some of the arguments he used to bolster his primary assertion “The Insufficiency of the Present Confederation to Preserve the Union.”  It’s almost like voting for the right person for the wrong reason.

Let’s start with Federalist No. 16, in which Hamilton talks about the primacy of legislation by the federal government over that of the states, and the need of the federal government to legislate directly over the people.  He starts out reasonably enough and rmarshals his remarkable knowledge of classical history to support his contentions.  He makes the point that legislation for states may be styled the parent of anarchy.  He suggests that if left to the states, they may choose not to implement the edicts of the federal government, and therein lies chaos.  The only way to make such a system work is through the use of force, which may lead to civil war because,

When the sword is once drawn, the passions of men observe no bounds of moderation.

Furthermore, if the Confederacy didn’t resort to the use of force (which would result in its destruction), it would either fall apart, or those members in compliance might be compelled to band together to exert their energies against the members not in compliance.  This would lead to the same end – civil war.  So far, so good. His arguments about large powerful states pushing around smaller states, the likelihood of a foreign alliance and the dissolution of the Union are all things touched upon before.   It’s in this paragraph that he starts to go adrift.

The result of these observations to an intelligent mind (only an idiot would disagree!) must be clearly this, that if it be possible at any rate to construct a federal government capable of regulating the common concerns and preserving the general tranquillity, it must be founded, as to the objects committed to its care, upon the reverse of the principle contended for by the opponents of the proposed Constitution. It must carry its agency to the persons of the citizens. It must stand in need of no intermediate legislations; but must itself be empowered to employ the arm of the ordinary magistrate to execute its own resolutions. The majesty of the national authority must be manifested through the medium of the courts of justice. The government of the Union, like that of each State, must be able to address itself immediately to the hopes and fears of individuals; and to attract to its support those passions which have the strongest influence upon the human heart. It must, in short, possess all the means, and have a right to resort to all the methods, of executing the powers with which it is intrusted, that are possessed and exercised by the government of the particular States.

An awful lot could be read into these sentences.  The 10th Amendment in the Bill of Rights (which wasn’t yet part of the Constitution that was being debated) explicitly states that the federal government is one of enumerated powers and that those not explicitly delegated to it are reserved to the States or people respectively.

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

While it is true that this essay is largely a reasonable argument against relying on the state legislatures to be the agents of the federal government, it is the interpretation of: “the powers with which it is entrusted, that are possessed and exercised by the government of the particular States,” which gives one pause.  The modern reader has the benefit of knowing how Hamilton would use the “necessary and proper” clause to claim implied powers. Hamilton and Jefferson debated the meaning of  “necessary and proper” with Hamilton viewing it as authorizing Congress to exercise a broad range of powers and Jefferson arguing that “necessary” was intended to be restrictive and meant “essential.”  Right now Jefferson’s interpretation looks really good.

Moving on to Federalist No. 17, which is on the same topic, Hamilton poo-poohs the danger of an overly powerful central government.

Hamilton says that he can’t see any reason why the federal government would ever desire to overstep its authority and stick its nose into things that are clearly the jurisdiction of the states.  (He also continues his slightly insulting habit of belittling those who might disagree – e.g. anybody “reasonable” should be able to understand the terms of his argument.)

AN OBJECTION, of a nature different from that which has been stated and answered, in my last address, may perhaps be likewise urged against the principle of legislation for the individual citizens of America. It may be said that it would tend to render the government of the Union too powerful, and to enable it to absorb those residuary authorities, which it might be judged proper to leave with the States for local purposes. Allowing the utmost latitude to the love of power which any reasonable man can require, I confess I am at a loss to discover what temptation the persons intrusted with the administration of the general government could ever feel to divest the States of the authorities of that description. The regulation of the mere domestic police of a State appears to me to hold out slender allurements to ambition. Commerce, finance, negotiation, and war seem to comprehend all the objects which have charms for minds governed by that passion; and all the powers necessary to those objects ought, in the first instance, to be lodged in the national depository. The administration of private justice between the citizens of the same State, the supervision of agriculture and of other concerns of a similar nature, all those things, in short, which are proper to be provided for by local legislation, can never be desirable cares of a general jurisdiction. It is therefore improbable that there should exist a disposition in the federal councils to usurp the powers with which they are connected; because the attempt to exercise those powers would be as troublesome as it would be nugatory; and the possession of them, for that reason, would contribute nothing to the dignity, to the importance, or to the splendor of the national government.

It just goes to show you, no one gets it right all the time.


1 Michael Sanera { 04.07.11 at 9:37 am }

I am no defender of Hamilton, but one must read him in the context of “public choice” analysis of the Constitution. Under the Articles, states could follow the holdout strategy and become free riders which many did during the Revolutionary War. See Vincent Ostrom’s The Intellectual Crisis in American Public Administration for some of this analysis.


Martin Reply:

Thanks, I’ll get the book and check it out. What I was getting at wasn’t so much the particular argument about the strength of the states relative to the strength of the federal government, it was the incredulity he expressed at even the prospect of a federal government which would successfully usurp the power of the states.


2 Michael Newton { 04.07.11 at 10:08 am }

It appears that Madison agreed with Hamilton regarding federal versus state power: “The State governments will have the advantage of the Federal government, whether we compare them in respect to the immediate dependence of the one on the other; to the weight of personal influence which each side will possess; to the powers respectively vested in them; to the predilection and probable support of the people; to the disposition and faculty of resisting and frustrating the measures of each other.” [Federalist No. 45]

In fact, state and local spending exceeded federal spending except in war time up until 1941. So Madison and Hamilton were correct in saying that the states were more powerful.


Martin Reply:

Again, see my comment to Michael above.


Michael Newton Reply:

Hamilton addresses that in Federalist No. 28: “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.”

And Madison in Federalist No. 51: “In the compound republic of America, the power surrendered by the people is first divided between two distinct governments, and then the portion allotted to each subdivided among distinct and separate departments. Hence a double security arises to the rights of the people. The different governments will control each other, at the same time that each will be controlled by itself.”

In the end, we can blame for the people for not “throwing themselves into either scale.”


3 Craig S. Glass { 04.07.11 at 2:47 pm }

This is a great post, and one wonders whether Hamilton really believed that federal bureaucrats simply wouldn’t want to take on extra work of the states or if he was being disingenuous in order to promote the Constitution.


James D. Best Reply:

The latter. The Federalist Papers were not written in isolation. Opponents of the Constitution were blazing away, as well. One theme they hammered on was that the new national government was far too powerful and would gobble up state and local governments. Hamilton was poo pooing this argument. Another thing in play was the big state delegates to the convention believed that the small states won too many victories in protecting the states. I believe that prior to erosion of the Constitution, Hamilton wasn’t that far off.


Craig S. Glass Reply:

That’s what I figure, but as Martin pointed out, the claim as presented is rather audacious for Hamilton to make, even in the context of having to respond to opponents. There must have been some kernel of belief behind it, albeit greatly exaggerated to suit the purposes.


4 theCL { 04.07.11 at 2:55 pm }

It’s a shame, really, that the winners write the history, because there’s always so much more to the story. Unless you seek it yourself or perhaps get a degree in U.S. history, nobody learns the opposing sides. how many public school kids learn about the anti-federalists and their arguments? How many Americans know about the Federalist Papers, yet are clueless about Brutus, Cato, etc.?

Hamilton was wrong here, and I’d argue on a great many other things too. But my point is that it’s hard for most Americans to know, or at least decide for themselves, because nobody teaches the opposing side. And boy, how valuable that knowledge would be today.


Martin Reply:

I couldn’t agree more, CL. In the case of the arguments made in support of and in opposition to the Constitution, both sides had a lot to offer. Their public debate went a long way to ensuring that we ended up with a Bill of Rights. In many cases I agree with the anti-Federalist papers as much if not more than I do the Federalist.


5 Gary Pighetti { 04.23.11 at 1:32 pm }

I know I’m begging the question, but which ‘class’ of people know more about the Constitution? I submit that ignorance of the basic tenets and founding documents of the United States is much more pernicious than is a classical education which is lacking. Jefferson clearly had ‘educated’ yeoman farmers in mind when he lauded the citizens of the United States. Hamilton clearly believed that only the educated were suitably fit for governance. Ignorance is what is problematic today, not whether Hamilton was or was not correct. That the Federalists had an advantage in public relations and the Anti-federalists had good arguments neglects the fact that a moiety of the Anti-federalist arguments were baseless fearmongering that never occurred…


Martin Reply:

Thanks for the comment. I think you could make the same arguments about many federalist arguments made by Hamilton.

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6 Jeff Edelman { 04.24.11 at 8:44 pm }

Let’s see. We have a federal government telling us what kind of light bulbs to use; regulating our ice makers, making our dishwashing soaps less effective, and our toilets work less efficiently. Have I missed anything? You know I have! Yep. Those anti-federalist most certainly had some fear-mongering, baseless arguments. If not for the Anti-federalist, there would have been no Bill of Rights. Imagine no BoR.


Gary Pighetti Reply:

James Madison definitely was against a Bill of Rights, but I personally don’t think his Republican bona fides are in question. Perhaps he was correct in saying that all the rights enumerated in the first 10 amendments were already included in the original Constitution?


Martin Reply:

The ninth and tenth amendments were stipulated to avoid wiggle room. In retrospect, its a good thing that we have them.


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