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Some thoughts on Federalist No. 27

In this Federalist, Hamilton seeks to address concerns about the dangers of a standing army.  Many of his arguments are logical, but could also be applied to different ends.  It is interesting to consider the connotations implied by some of the general principles that he lays out.  For instance, he begins by arguing that the federal government is no more likely to be corrupt than that of the states – and in fact will probably be more efficiently administered.  He references the arguments made in earlier papers to this effect.  There would, after all be greater choice for the people in selecting the members of their government.

Various reasons have been suggested, in the course of these papers, to induce a probability that the general government will be better administered than the particular governments; the principal of which reasons are that the extension of the spheres of election will present a greater option, or latitude of choice, to the people…

In making this assumption he argues that only if one believes the federal government would be more corrupt, do the arguments against a standing army make sense.  After all,

I believe it may be laid down as a general rule that their [the people’s] confidence in and obedience to a government will commonly be proportioned to the goodness or badness of its administration.

Which is better administered on the whole, the federal or state governments?

Then Hamilton goes on to say that a federal government will be more powerful than those of the individual states, and capable of inspiring more fear and obedience.  It will, therefore be more capable of dealing with insurrection.  While it is important to remember the context of the time in which this was written, with Shay’s Rebellion fresh in the minds of the framers, it is also somewhat sobering to think about the general truths upon which Hamilton builds his case.

The hope of impunity is a strong incitement to sedition; the dread of punishment, a proportionably strong discouragement to it. Will not the government of the Union, which, if possessed of a due degree of power, can call to its aid the collective resources of the whole Confederacy, be more likely to repress the former sentiment and to inspire the latter, than that of a single State, which can only command the resources within itself? A turbulent faction in a State may easily suppose itself able to contend with the friends to the government in that State; but it can hardly be so infatuated as to imagine itself a match for the combined efforts of the Union. If this reflection be just, there is less danger of resistance from irregular combinations of individuals to the authority of the Confederacy than to that of a single member.

Think about this in the context of the opening words of the Declaration of Independence,

When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

Hamilton goes on to make another observation about human nature and government power.

… the more the operations of the national authority are intermingled in the ordinary exercise of government, the more the citizens are accustomed to meet with it in the common occurrences of their political life, the more it is familiarized to their sight and to their feelings, the further it enters into those objects which touch the most sensible chords and put in motion the most active springs of the human heart, the greater will be the probability that it will conciliate the respect and attachment of the community. Man is very much a creature of habit. A thing that rarely strikes his senses will generally have but little influence upon his mind.

One begins to think about frogs and hot water.

He continues, pointing out that because the federal government has direct power to legislate the citizens and not just the states, that it will be able to enforce its laws in the same way the states are able to do so.

… by extending the authority of the federal head to the individual citizens of the several States, will enable the government to employ the ordinary magistracy of each, in the execution of its laws.

Hamilton concludes by acknowledging that even the best government that ever was, can abuse its power, and cause the people to revolt,

it is certainly possible, by an injudicious exercise of the authorities of the best government that ever was, or ever can be instituted, to provoke and precipitate the people into the wildest excesses.

It remains to be seen if Hamilton was right in presuming that power is more safely vested in a federal government than in state governments.  What Hamilton intended as reassurances are not all that comforting, in the light of the present day.



1 Michael E. Newton { 04.10.12 at 8:28 pm }

Hamilton was correct. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America (1835): “The business of the Union is, for any attentive observer, infinitely better managed than the business of any individual state. The federal government is more equitable and temperate in its proceedings than that of the states. There is more wisdom in its outlook; its projects are planned further ahead and more skillfully; its measures are executed with more aptitude, consistency, and firmness.”

The increasing size and power of the federal government has only occurred as our adherence to the Constitution has deteriorated.


Martin Reply:

Well, he was right for most of the country’s existence, anyway. But, as countries go, The United States is pretty young.


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