Federalist 34 – Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton continues his long train of articles on the subject of taxation in Federalist 34.  He trods much of the same ground that he covered earlier, again defending the idea that the states and the federal government have concurrent taxing powers.  He uses an example from Roman times to justify the idea that such a concurrent power can truly exist.

There is one element of this paper that deserves close attention.  An underlying theme of this particular number is the idea that the Constitution is meant to endure.  This is not an inconsequential notion.  There were those – Thomas Jefferson, for instance – who posited that constitutions should be re-formed and redone frequently.   I think that Hamilton’s words merit great attention, because they demonstrate that the Framers did believe that they were penning a constitution meant to endure for quite a long period of time.

Here is the key passage:

Constitutions of civil government are not to be framed upon a calculation of existing exigencies, but upon a combination of these with the probable exigencies of ages, according to the natural and tried course of human affairs. Nothing, therefore, can be more fallacious than to infer the extent of any power, proper to be lodged in the national government, from an estimate of its immediate necessities. There ought to be a capacity to provide for future contingencies as they may happen; and as these are illimitable in their nature, it is impossible safely to limit that capacity.

The first sentence itself is critically important.  Constitutions must be designed so that they account for changes in circumstances.  If a constitution were so narrowly written so that it restricted itself to addressing only contemporary circumstances, then either the Constitution would have to be heavily amended or entirely scrapped at some point in the near future.  Left unsaid is that this would create a bit of turmoil.  This passage also tells us something of Hamilton’s method of constitutional interpretation.  We’re well aware that he took a somewhat broader view, and here we see why.  He did not view the Constitution as a narrow legal statute laying down precise laws and guidelines.  It was a rather general document that proscribed certain limitations upon government, but which permitted just enough wiggle room so as not to tie the government’s hands too tightly.

He continues:

It is true, perhaps, that a computation might be made with sufficient accuracy to answer the purpose of the quantity of revenue requisite to discharge the subsisting engagements of the Union, and to maintain those establishments which, for some time to come, would suffice in time of peace. But would it be wise, or would it not rather be the extreme of folly, to stop at this point, and to leave the government intrusted with the care of the national defense in a state of absolute incapacity to provide for the protection of the community against future invasions of the public peace, by foreign war or domestic convulsions? If, on the contrary, we ought to exceed this point, where can we stop, short of an indefinite power of providing for emergencies as they may arise? Though it is easy to assert, in general terms, the possibility of forming a rational judgment of a due provision against probable dangers, yet we may safely challenge those who make the assertion to bring forward their data, and may affirm that they would be found as vague and uncertain as any that could be produced to establish the probable duration of the world.

It is a great paradox, but in many ways this somewhat broader grant of authority is in and of itself a limitation on the government’s power.  A narrow construction chokes the government too much, and it finds itself unable to adapt to modern exigencies.  If you broaden the construction while still respecting the limits placed there originally you permit the government to adapt to modern developments, but you do so according to the terms of the original constitutional limitations.  Furthermore, if we attempt to get overly specific within the original charter in order to account for future developments, we might be tempted to grant too much authority.  Again, rigid specificity might be a boon rather a hindrance to unlimited government authority.

The rest of the paper is largely concerned with Hamilton’s other favorite topic, namely national defense and the expenses related to maintaining national security.  Again, he goes over some familiar ground, and so I won’t really get into any analysis of it.  But before concluding I draw attention to one another passage, if for no other reason than its poignancy.

Let us recollect that peace or war will not always be left to our option; that however moderate or unambitious we may be, we cannot count upon the moderation, or hope to extinguish the ambition of others. Who could have imagined at the conclusion of the last war that France and Britain, wearied and exhausted as they both were, would so soon have looked with so hostile an aspect upon each other? To judge from the history of mankind, we shall be compelled to conclude that the fiery and destructive passions of war reign in the human breast with much more powerful sway than the mild and beneficent sentiments of peace; and that to model our political systems upon speculations of lasting tranquillity, is to calculate on the weaker springs of the human character.

I think it’s safe to say that Hamilton was not exactly a utopian.

Published in: on July 16, 2010 at 1:21 pm  Comments Off on Federalist 34 – Hamilton  
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