Federalist 22 – Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton continues to examine the deficiencies of the American confederacy in Federalist 22.  He begins by noting the problems with regulating commerce under the current system.

The want of a power to regulate commerce is by all parties allowed to be of the number. The utility of such a power has been anticipated under the first head of our inquiries; and for this reason, as well as from the universal conviction entertained upon the subject, little need be added in this place. It is indeed evident, on the most superficial view, that there is no object, either as it respects the interests of trade or finance, that more strongly demands a federal superintendence. The want of it has already operated as a bar to the formation of beneficial treaties with foreign powers, and has given occasions of dissatisfaction between the States. No nation acquainted with the nature of our political association would be unwise enough to enter into stipulations with the United States, by which they conceded privileges of any importance to them, while they were apprised that the engagements on the part of the Union might at any moment be violated by its members, and while they found from experience that they might enjoy every advantage they desired in our markets, without granting us any return but such as their momentary convenience might suggest.

It is unsurprising that Hamilton would list this as one of the principle flaws of the confederacy.  But here he moves beyond domestic considerations to explore how the current system hinders our commercial dealings with foreign powers.  This is a subtext of most of this particular essay, as Hamilton seems very concerned that the lack of commercial power is hampering the development of America as a commercial power, and is doing so by sullying its reputation by making it an unattractive trading partner.  After all, why should a foreign nation desire to enter into an agreement with another nation that lacks the ability to enforce its treaties?

Not only does the current structure hurt the United States in terms of foreign commercial opportunities, but it creates interstate rivalries.

The interfering and unneighborly regulations of some States, contrary to the true spirit of the Union, have, in different instances, given just cause of umbrage and complaint to others, and it is to be feared that examples of this nature, if not restrained by a national control, would be multiplied and extended till they became not less serious sources of animosity and discord than injurious impediments to the intcrcourse between the different parts of the Confederacy.

This unruly behavior can only lead to greater animosity between the states.  Hamilton is again touching upon a theme explored in previous papers – more powerful states under the confederate system can threaten the weaker.

Hamilton moves to the issue of raising an army.

The power of raising armies, by the most obvious construction of the articles of the Confederation, is merely a power of making requisitions upon the States for quotas of men. This practice in the course of the late war, was found replete with obstructions to a vigorous and to an economical system of defense. It gave birth to a competition between the States which created a kind of auction for men. In order to furnish the quotas required of them, they outbid each other till bounties grew to an enormous and insupportable size. The hope of a still further increase afforded an inducement to those who were disposed to serve to procrastinate their enlistment, and disinclined them from engaging for any considerable periods. Hence, slow and scanty levies of men, in the most critical emergencies of our affairs; short enlistments at an unparalleled expense; continual fluctuations in the troops, ruinous to their discipline and subjecting the public safety frequently to the perilous crisis of a disbanded army. Hence, also, those oppressive expedients for raising men which were upon several occasions practiced, and which nothing but the enthusiasm of liberty would have induced the people to endure.

This system was simply unruly and did not meet the critical need of raising a proper army.  He notes that only states closest to the theater of war were eager to furnish their proper quota of troops.

The States near the seat of war, influenced by motives of self-preservation, made efforts to furnish their quotas, which even exceeded their abilities; while those at a distance from danger were, for the most part, as remiss as the others were diligent, in their exertions.

From here, Hamilton then turns to the equality of state suffrage, an issue which a critical concern amongst the Federalists.

The right of equal suffrage among the States is another exceptionable part of the Confederation. Every idea of proportion and every rule of fair representation conspire to condemn a principle, which gives to Rhode Island an equal weight in the scale of power with Massachusetts, or Connecticut, or New York; and to Deleware an equal voice in the national deliberations with Pennsylvania, or Virginia, or North Carolina. Its operation contradicts the fundamental maxim of republican government, which requires that the sense of the majority should prevail. Sophistry may reply, that sovereigns are equal, and that a majority of the votes of the States will be a majority of confederated America. But this kind of logical legerdemain will never counteract the plain suggestions of justice and common-sense. It may happen that this majority of States is a small minority of the people of America3; and two thirds of the people of America could not long be persuaded, upon the credit of artificial distinctions and syllogistic subtleties, to submit their interests to the management and disposal of one third. The larger States would after a while revolt from the idea of receiving the law from the smaller. To acquiesce in such a privation of their due importance in the political scale, would be not merely to be insensible to the love of power, but even to sacrifice the desire of equality. It is neither rational to expect the first, nor just to require the last. The smaller States, considering how peculiarly their safety and welfare depend on union, ought readily to renounce a pretension which, if not relinquished, would prove fatal to its duration.

This is one of the hot button issues surrounding the constitutional debate.  The smaller states held an enormous amount of power due to the fact that each state, regardless of population, had an equal vote in Congress.  The Virginia Plan, submitted at the outset of the Constitutional Convention, not only based the lower House on proportional representation, but also suggested that the Senate be based on proportional representation.  The smaller states, concerned that they would be overwhelmed by the larger, balked.  In the end the compromise was reached that resulted in the current makeup of Congress.  This is, in my view, one of the greatest features of our Constitution.  It allows the majority of the people to have a voice, but it also established an institutional check that provided the minority with a voice as well.

The confederate government went too far to the extreme of giving each state an equal voice, resulting in a minority tyranny of sorts.  As many as nine states acting in concert, representing a minority of the overall population, could cast negative upon negative upon all federal legislation.  As Hamilton describes it, this made the US look a bit like Poland.

To give a minority a negative upon the majority (which is always the case where more than a majority is requisite to a decision), is, in its tendency, to subject the sense of the greater number to that of the lesser. Congress, from the nonattendance of a few States, have been frequently in the situation of a Polish diet, where a single vote has been sufficient to put a stop to all their movements. A sixtieth part of the Union, which is about the proportion of Delaware and Rhode Island, has several times been able to oppose an entire bar to its operations. This is one of those refinements which, in practice, has an effect the reverse of what is expected from it in theory. The necessity of unanimity in public bodies, or of something approaching towards it, has been founded upon a supposition that it would contribute to security. But its real operation is to embarrass the administration, to destroy the energy of the government, and to substitute the pleasure, caprice, or artifices of an insignificant, turbulent, or corrupt junto, to the regular deliberations and decisions of a respectable majority.

It seems a bit strange that Alexander Hamilton of all people is concerned about respecting the majority will.  But his real point follows:

In those emergencies of a nation, in which the goodness or badness, the weakness or strength of its government, is of the greatest importance, there is commonly a necessity for action. The public business must, in some way or other, go forward. If a pertinacious minority can control the opinion of a majority, respecting the best mode of conducting it, the majority, in order that something may be done, must conform to the views of the minority; and thus the sense of the smaller number will overrule that of the greater, and give a tone to the national proceedings. Hence, tedious delays; continual negotiation and intrigue; contemptible compromises of the public good. And yet, in such a system, it is even happy when such compromises can take place: for upon some occasions things will not admit of accommodation; and then the measures of government must be injuriously suspended, or fatally defeated. It is often, by the impracticability of obtaining the concurrence of the necessary number of votes, kept in a state of inaction. Its situation must always savor of weakness, sometimes border upon anarchy.

This really gets to the heart of Hamilton’s concerns with the confederate government.  It cannot effectively and energetically address major problems.  The minority veto is one that is too strong and can easily prevent the government from taking any action.  While modern conservatives rightly applaud the institutional mechanisms that curtail swift government action, this system was simply unworkable.  The government had practically no ability to act, and Hamilton explains why such a state of affairs was so dangerous.

It is not difficult to discover, that a principle of this kind gives greater scope to foreign corruption, as well as to domestic faction, than that which permits the sense of the majority to decide; though the contrary of this has been presumed. The mistake has proceeded from not attending with due care to the mischiefs that may be occasioned by obstructing the progress of government at certain critical seasons. When the concurrence of a large number is required by the Constitution to the doing of any national act, we are apt to rest satisfied that all is safe, because nothing improper will be likely to be done, but we forget how much good may be prevented, and how much ill may be produced, by the power of hindering the doing what may be necessary, and of keeping affairs in the same unfavorable posture in which they may happen to stand at particular periods.

Both Madison and Hamilton will at later points discuss the benefits of a system that inhibits the majority of the population from swiftly and thoughtlessly enacting legislation.  Here, Hamilton is concerned about the opposite extreme.  While the Framers understood that reforms can go bad, even if the populace is motivated by the best intentions, the government cannot stifle all attempts at reform.  You cannot, in a sense, throw the baby out with the bathwater.  If you completely block the majority from ever acting, then the society will rot.

Again, Hamilton turns to the issue of foreign corruption.  A too-weak government might easily be influenced by foreign powers.  Foreign rivals might be able to sway our policy if they need only corrupt a small number of states or political leaders.  This is a serious concern that Hamilton cautions against dismissing.

Evils of this description ought not to be regarded as imaginary. One of the weak sides of republics, among their numerous advantages, is that they afford too easy an inlet to foreign corruption. An hereditary monarch, though often disposed to sacrifice his subjects to his ambition, has so great a personal interest in the government and in the external glory of the nation, that it is not easy for a foreign power to give him an equivalent for what he would sacrifice by treachery to the state. The world has accordingly been witness to few examples of this species of royal prostitution, though there have been abundant specimens of every other kind.

In republics, persons elevated from the mass of the community, by the suffrages of their fellow-citizens, to stations of great pre-eminence and power, may find compensations for betraying their trust, which, to any but minds animated and guided by superior virtue, may appear to exceed the proportion of interest they have in the common stock, and to overbalance the obligations of duty. Hence it is that history furnishes us with so many mortifying examples of the prevalency of foreign corruption in republican governments. How much this contributed to the ruin of the ancient commonwealths has been already delineated.

The next issue is the lack of a proper judicial power.  Thirteen independent judicial systems leave treaties at the mercy of the states.

A circumstance which crowns the defects of the Confederation remains yet to be mentioned, the want of a judiciary power. Laws are a dead letter without courts to expound and define their true meaning and operation. The treaties of the United States, to have any force at all, must be considered as part of the law of the land. Their true import, as far as respects individuals, must, like all other laws, be ascertained by judicial determinations. To produce uniformity in these determinations, they ought to be submitted, in the last resort, to one supreme tribunal. And this tribunal ought to be instituted under the same authority which forms the treaties themselves. These ingredients are both indispensable. If there is in each State a court of final jurisdiction, there may be as many different final determinations on the same point as there are courts. There are endless diversities in the opinions of men. We often see not only different courts but the judges of the came court differing from each other. To avoid the confusion which would unavoidably result from the contradictory decisions of a number of independent judicatories, all nations have found it necessary to establish one court paramount to the rest, possessing a general superintendence, and authorized to settle and declare in the last resort a uniform rule of civil justice.

Once again, Hamilton turns to foreign policy concerns.

The faith, the reputation, the peace of the whole Union, are thus continually at the mercy of the prejudices, the passions, and the interests of every member of which it is composed. Is it possible that foreign nations can either respect or confide in such a government? Is it possible that the people of America will longer consent to trust their honor, their happiness, their safety, on so precarious a foundation?

This has been the heart of most of this paper.  The confederate system makes the United States look weak and its government unworthy to engage commercially.  This not only hinders our financial development, but it also lessens our prestige among Nations.  After all, what foreign power will take seriously a country so badly governed?  Hmmmm.

The final paragraph is very interesting, particularly as we think about the Civil War.

It has not a little contributed to the infirmities of the existing federal system, that it never had a ratification by the people. Resting on no better foundation than the consent of the several legislatures, it has been exposed to frequent and intricate questions concerning the validity of its powers, and has, in some instances, given birth to the enormous doctrine of a right of legislative repeal. Owing its ratification to the law of a State, it has been contended that the same authority might repeal the law by which it was ratified. However gross a heresy it may be to maintain that a party to acompact has a right to revoke that compact, the doctrine itself has had respectable advocates. The possibility of a question of this nature proves the necessity of laying the foundations of our national government deeper than in the mere sanction of delegated authority. The fabric of American empire ought to rest on the solid basis of the consent of the people. The streams of national power ought to flow immediately from that pure, original fountain of all legitimate authority.

The method by which the Constitution is to be ratified is important because it will weaken the argument of those who insist that states can remove themselves from the national compact.  According to Hamilton, the consent given by the people signifies that the Constitution is an unbreakable compact.  It is an agreement not of several state legislatures, but of all the citizens of the United States.  It is an important theory, one advanced some 72 years later by the likes of Abraham Lincoln.



Published in: on November 23, 2009 at 11:27 am  Comments (2)  


  1. I wish to take task with the following paragraph…

    “The method by which the Constitution is to be ratified is important because it will weaken the argument of those who insist that states can remove themselves from the national compact. According to Hamilton, the consent given by the people signifies that the Constitution is an unbreakable compact. It is an agreement not of several state legislatures, but of all the citizens of the United States. It is an important theory, one advanced some 72 years later by the likes of Abraham Lincoln.”

    This , of course, was in response to Alexander Hamilton’s words in Federalist 22…”The fabric of American empire OUGHT to rest on the solid basis of the consent of the people. The streams of national power ought to flow immediately from that pure, original fountain of all legitimate authority.”

    However, it would seem James Madison had a different view…”Who are the parties to it? The people – but not the people as composing one great body, but the people as composing thirteen sovereignties.”(Virginia Ratification Convention)

    In Federalist 39, Madison said…”On examining the first relation, it appears, on one hand, that the Constitution is to be founded on the assent and ratification of the people of America, given by deputies elected for the special purpose; but, on the other, that this assent and ratification is to be given by the people, not as individuals composing one entire nation, but as composing the distinct and independent States to which they respectively belong. It is to be the assent and ratification of the several States, derived from the supreme authority in each State, the authority of the people themselves. The act, therefore, establishing the Constitution, will not be a national, but a federal act.

    That it will be a federal and not a national act, as these terms are understood by the objectors; the act of the people, as forming so many independent States, not as forming one aggregate nation, is obvious from this single consideration, that it is to result neither from the decision of a majority of the people of the Union, nor from that of a majority of the States. It must result from the unanimous assent of the several States that are parties to it, differing no otherwise from their ordinary assent than in its being expressed, not by the legislative authority, but by that of the people themselves. Were the people regarded in this transaction as forming one nation, the will of the majority of the whole people of the United States would bind the minority, in the same manner as the majority in each State must bind the minority; and the will of the majority must be determined either by a comparison of the individual votes, or by considering the will of the majority of the States as evidence of the will of a majority of the people of the United States. Neither of these rules have been adopted. Each State, in ratifying the Constitution, is considered as a sovereign body, independent of all others, and only to be bound by its own voluntary act. In this relation, then, the new Constitution will, if established, be a federal, and not a national constitution.”

    Furthermore, when Virginia and New york ratified the Constitution, they both included clauses in their ratification proclamations that said that the people of the States could “recall the powers they had delegated to the Federal Government” whenever they felt it was in their best interest to do so.

    Certainly Madison was clear that he did not believe that a State could secede on a whim, but neither did he believe in coercing States back into the Union. I’m sure had he lived until 1860, he would have come down on the side of Virginia.

    So it would seem that what Hamilton said “ought” to be, did not happen, at least in an aggregate sense. Madison and Jefferson’s view won out. Lincoln was dead wrong in his ludicrous assertion that “the Union created the States” and that “No State except Texas was EVER a sovereignty.”

  2. Thank You!

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