Federalist 31 – Hamilton

Through the first thirty essays that we have covered, there have been plenty of examples of Hamilton’s penetrating logical analysis.  He had an ability to take issues and examine them point-by-point (almost like a modern-day blogger).  He was one of the greatest minds ever produced by America (or nearby islands). There have also been several example of Hamilton’s rhetorical excess.  He had an amazing ability to, in effect, completely dismiss his opponents’ arguments through grandiose rhetorical flourishes.  The reader is bedazzled by the weight of Hamilton’s words, but in the end all he has done is call his opponents stupid or crazy – but in a very elegant fashion.

Federalist 31 would be one of those works of great rhetorical excess, though it has a few moments of keen insight.

The first time I read this essay, I was somewhat befuddled by the opening paragraphs.   Hamilton embarks on a rather wordy philosophical disquisition about geometric and theoretical certainty.    This prologue – which runs to 526 words by my count – essentially serves to set up a zinger.

How else could it happen (if we admit the objectors to be sincere in their opposition), that positions so clear as those which manifest the necessity of a general power of taxation in the government of the Union, should have to encounter any adversaries among men of discernment?

Hamilton took a very long time to baldly assert that the “manifest the necessity of a general power of taxation in the government of the Union” was, in essence, a self-evident truth that only an ignoramus could possibly deny.

As alluded to above, Hamilton would have made an excellent blogger.

There is a bit more to this essay.  Hamilton makes a very sound logical case regarding the necessity of taxation:

A government ought to contain in itself every power requisite to the full accomplishment of the objects committed to its care, and to the complete execution of the trusts for which it is responsible, free from every other control but a regard to the public good and to the sense of the people.

As the duties of superintending the national defense and of securing the public peace against foreign or domestic violence involve a provision for casualties and dangers to which no possible limits can be assigned, the power of making that provision ought to know no other bounds than the exigencies of the nation and the resources of the community. As revenue is the essential engine by which the means of answering the national exigencies must be procured, the power of procuring that article in its full extent must necessarily be comprehended in that of providing for those exigencies.

As theory and practice conspire to prove that the power of procuring revenue is unavailing when exercised over the States in their collective capacities, the federal government must of necessity be invested with an unqualified power of taxation in the ordinary modes.

To put it more succinctly: the government needs to have some self-sustaining power to execute its laws, and there must be some method by which the government can draw revenues to sustain the national defense; therefore the government must have “unqualified power of taxation.”

Hamilton proceeds to knock down the counter-argument.  As he has done in previous entries, Hamilton dismisses the fears held by the Anti-Federalists about federal usurpation of state authority.

The moment we launch into conjectures about the usurpations of the federal government, we get into an unfathomable abyss, and fairly put ourselves out of the reach of all reasoning. Imagination may range at pleasure till it gets bewildered amidst the labyrinths of an enchanted castle, and knows not on which side to turn to extricate itself from the perplexities into which it has so rashly adventured. Whatever may be the limits or modifications of the powers of the Union, it is easy to imagine an endless train of possible dangers; and by indulging an excess of jealousy and timidity, we may bring ourselves to a state of absolute scepticism and irresolution.

Long story short: don’t worry your silly heads off.  Everything is going to be all right.

Hamilton then repeats another argument made elsewhere: the federal government has more to fear from the states than vice versa.

It should not be forgotten that a disposition in the State governments to encroach upon the rights of the Union is quite as probable as a disposition in the Union to encroach upon the rights of the State governments. What side would be likely to prevail in such a conflict, must depend on the means which the contending parties could employ toward insuring success. As in republics strength is always on the side of the people, and as there are weighty reasons to induce a belief that the State governments will commonly possess most influence over them, the natural conclusion is that such contests will be most apt to end to the disadvantage of the Union; and that there is greater probability of encroachments by the members upon the federal head, than by the federal head upon the members. But it is evident that all conjectures of this kind must be extremely vague and fallible: and that it is by far the safest course to lay them altogether aside, and to confine our attention wholly to the nature and extent of the powers as they are delineated in the Constitution. Every thing beyond this must be left to the prudence and firmness of the people; who, as they will hold the scales in their own hands, it is to be hoped, will always take care to preserve the constitutional equilibrium between the general and the State governments. Upon this ground, which is evidently the true one, it will not be difficult to obviate the objections which have been made to an indefinite power of taxation in the United States.

Hamilton’s objective over the next few papers is to obviate these objections, and we will examine these shortly.

Published in: on April 26, 2010 at 3:00 pm  Comments Off on Federalist 31 – Hamilton