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Some Thoughts on Federalist No. 15

At first glance, Federalist No. 15 seems like it’s going to be a tedious argument for maintaining the Union.  It’s not that the argument didn’t need to be made, it did.  But, even Hamilton appears to recognize that his audience might be tired of even new arguments on the same subject.

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.

It almost seems like someone gave Mr. Hamilton a hard time for his unrelenting focus on this topic.  Perhaps Madison was suggesting that it was time that they started writing articles about how the new Constitution would work, rather than continuing to focus on what was broken in the Articles of Confederation.  At any rate, the reader may be forgiven for assuming that Hamilton is going to cover more of the same ground and wishing he would just “get on with it.”

Such a supposition would be a mistake, however.  Federalist No. 15 has some pretty interesting things buried in it.  The first of these is the fact that even as far back as the 1780’s, politicians were screwing things up, ignoring the facts, and then proceeding to advocate for the self-same things that screwed things up in the first place.

… 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.

Think about today.  Is it a stretch to say we have arrived at an “extremity” – as Hamilton says – through the mistaken policies of countless politicians – Republican and Democrat?  By any stretch of the imagination, $14T is an extreme amount of debt.  Is it any less of a reach to point out that we are doing nothing to resolve the problem, except to indulge in the self-same practices that got us into this mess?  It doesn’t matter what you call it – spending beyond our means as a country is spending beyond our means.  No one “invests” in dinner by putting it on a credit card.  While the new car you finance may have some value, it can hardly ever be called an investment.  Spending billions of dollars we don’t have on things we don’t need, is not an investment.

The next thing that might strike you in reading Federalist No. 15 is Hamilton’s argument … that the government of the United States is destitute of energy. Perhaps we’ve gone too far in rectifying that problem.  Here Hamilton explains the crux of the problem with the Articles of Confederation – basically that the central government governs States and not people and cannot compel either to do anything.  It can only “suggest” a course of action.  Only when things are dire, do the States feel motivated to comply.

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.

No authority to draft or raise money by regulations extending to the individual citizens of America. In a time where the Federal government is now mandating how its citizens must spend their money, this doesn’t sound too bad.  Things were dire under the Articles of Confederation, without a doubt.  And much of the populace was even more disenfranchised under the Articles than under English rule.  So, there is little argument that the Constitution was not a vast improvement, and probably the finest instrument of its kind ever drafted.  However, Hamilton’s interpretation and diagnosis of all the ills it was supposed to cure may have gone too far.  Madison and others certainly came to think so.

Finally, one last observation where we can be in total agreement with Hamilton.  That is in his realistic view of foreign policy.

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.

His words presaged those of Washington in his farewell address:

There can be no greater error than to expect or calculate upon real favors from nation to nation. It is an illusion which experience must cure, which a just pride ought to discard….

For an example, we need look only as far back as 2009.  In September of 2009, Mr. Obama decided to scrap the promised Czech-Poland missile shield. The Russians praised him for his wisdom:

A top Russian lawmaker praised the move.

“The US president’s decision is a well-thought and systematic one,” said Konstantin Kosachev, head of the foreign affairs committee in the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament. “It reflects understanding that any security measure can’t be built entirely on the basis of one nation.”

Mr. Obama chose to do this on September 17, the anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939.

The Poles and Czechs might have done well to hearken to Washington’s words.  Apparently, it was not wise for them to have trusted us.  Meanwhile we should listen to Hamilton’s with regard to the START treaty ratified by the lame duck Congress in December of 2010.  While the Russians are thrilled to destroy missiles too old to maintain in exchange for real US cuts in capability, it’s probably not in our best interest to trust them.  As Reagan famously said, “Trust but verify.”  Mr. Obama seems entirely too trusting of Russian good will, while at the same time duplicitous when it comes to our allies.


1 Bob Mack { 02.02.11 at 12:24 pm }

Apparently, it was not wise for them to have trusted us.…and it wasn’t wise of us to have trusted Obama.


Martin Reply:

At the risk of being pedantic, I will hazard a guess that the “us” to which you refer, doesn’t include most readers of this site. Thanks much for stopping by! 🙂


Bob Mack Reply:

A grammatical formulation only, Martin.


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