Today's Politicos vs The Words and Deeds of The Founders
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Power and Responsibility

The Federalist Papers are a mine of interesting information and arguments.  In No. 23 Hamilton hones in on his central theme, the need for a strong federal government.  Hamilton provides some of the context for his arguments by comparing the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation and what is being proposed in the new Constitution.  Hamilton experienced, first hand, what it was like to try and defend the country and prosecute a war for the very existence of the new country, without a sufficiently empowered government to “provide for the common defense.”

Even after the war, the States had a hard time agreeing upon anything, and there was no compulsory power to ensure that each paid their fair share for the support of the confederation or for paying war debts.   There was no consistency of the laws within the various States and old disputes over land and territory bore the very real possibility that fighting could break out between some of the States.  Added to all of this, the Constitutional Convention came on the heels of Shay’s Rebellion.

When framed within the context of these things and Hamilton’s own experiences, it’s easy to see why Hamilton was so forceful in his arguments.

While Federalist No. 23 relates chiefly to the power to be invested in the Federal government for the defense of the country, some of  Hamilton’s arguments bear examination in other contexts.

On second thought, it’s worth looking hard at them even in the context in which they were offered.

Hamilton says that if the government is to be responsible for providing for the common defense, then it must have sufficient power to do so.  He also argues that the proper place for such power to reside is with the federal government, rather than through the piecemeal efforts of the individual States.  Given the travails of the recent Revolution (albeit successful), this seems reasonable.  However, what follows is a bit more thought provoking.

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.

The bold text is Hamilton’s emphasis, those in red are WWTFT.  Hamilton says that because the threats faced by a nation are unlimited in scope, the power of the federal government to meet those threats likewise has to be unlimited in scope.   Since it is not possible to foresee all the circumstances which may arise, the government’s authority should not be restricted within this sphere.  Regardless of the sphere, unlimited power for a government is a sobering thought.

Hamilton continues, arguing that power has to match responsibility, a reasonable proposition on it’s face.

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.

However, Hamilton assumes, a priori, that there is no need to discuss the limits of that responsibility.  He bases his argument on the assumption that the federal government should be entrusted with the responsibility, but never talks about the limits of that responsibility.  In his view,

… 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 furthermore,

… 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.

These arguments cast a different light on the people’s concern with standing armies.

But, there’s another aspect to consider here.  Notwithstanding the limits of responsibility unaddressed by Hamilton with regard to the common defense, his arguments could apply equally to any area of responsibility held by the federal government.    In fact, he alludes to this.

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.

In an earlier essay, he argued for the supremacy of the federal government over that of the States in matters of the Legislative Branch.  He refers to this thesis here,

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

Hamilton’s answer to those who question the safety of providing unlimited power and authority for those things for which it is responsible?

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. 

It is a huge assumption that the government will never claim responsibilities only tenuously related to its enumerated powers.   The federal government has embraced countless responsibilities never intended by the Framers.  In this, those responsible for its extension, have followed Hamilton almost to the letter.  In the context of the times, persuading the states to ratify and accord  the federal government the authority it needed to pay its debts and keep the states from squabbling was crucial. In the context of our time, his arguments seem dangerously broad.

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.


1 Michael E. Newton { 11.10.11 at 4:41 pm }

Hamilton wrote of the Confederation: “It is certainly pernicious to leave any government in a situation of responsibility disproportioned to its power.” [‘The Works of Alexander Hamilton’ Ed. John C. Hamilton, Vol. 2, 222.]

That is why he argued the federal government must have the power to do its job, because the Confederation government did not, as you mention. (I just thought the above quote would help.)


2 Matt { 12.10.11 at 8:02 am }

I’m reading these currently and I, being relatively liberal on the strength of government, thought this was an absurdity, a poor argument by Hamilton. Giving the executive the strength to do whatever it wants to do by its own discretion is a sharp departure from the balance of powers amongst the three branches.


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