Federalist 45 – Madison

Yes, it’s been a while.  Hopefully I can continue my series without taking months-long breaks in between.  I note that I am skipping Federalist Papers 42-44, not because they are unimportant, but because I really don’t have much to add to them in the way of analysis.  And rather than wait another month, let me just dive right back in with Federalist 45.

James Madison hits some themes that have occurred in previous Federalist papers.  With this essay Madison defends the Constitution from its critics, principally those who believe that the federal government will usurp the states.  As Alexander Hamilton has done previously, Madison flips the argument on its head and maintains that the federal government has more to fear from the states than vice versa.  Okay, neither he nor Hamilton was a prophet, but this paper illuminates the motivation behind their support for the proposed Constitution.

Madison starts off on a general note.  The Constitution’s critics, he implies, are too obsessed over concerns with state sovereignty.  The Constitution is necessary to secure personal liberty and protect individual rights, and these concerns are more important than the rights of individual states.

Was, then, the American Revolution effected, was the American Confederacy formed, was the precious blood of thousands spilt, and the hard-earned substance of millions lavished, not that the people of America should enjoy peace, liberty, and safety, but that the government of the individual States, that particular municipal establishments, might enjoy a certain extent of power, and be arrayed with certain dignities and attributes of sovereignty? We have heard of the impious doctrine in the Old World, that the people were made for kings, not kings for the people. Is the same doctrine to be revived in the New, in another shape that the solid happiness of the people is to be sacrificed to the views of political institutions of a different form? It is too early for politicians to presume on our forgetting that the public good, the real welfare of the great body of the people, is the supreme object to be pursued; and that no form of government whatever has any other value than as it may be fitted for the attainment of this object. Were the plan of the convention adverse to the public happiness, my voice would be, Reject the plan. Were the Union itself inconsistent with the public happiness, it would be, Abolish the Union. In like manner, as far as the sovereignty of the States cannot be reconciled to the happiness of the people, the voice of every good citizen must be, Let the former be sacrificed to the latter. How far the sacrifice is necessary, has been shown. How far the unsacrificed residue will be endangered, is the question before us.

Note here echoes of a traditional political thought, particularly in the sentence I’ve bolded above.  Madison suggests that the form of government itself is only a secondary consideration to the greater issue of serving the public good.  Insofar as the federal union will serve the public good, Madison supports the plan.  If certain elements of state sovereignty needed to be sacrificed in pursuit of the common good, then so be it.  This is a rather stark statement, and certainly one that is more in agreement with a Hamiltonian rather than Jeffersonian view of government.

Madison proceeds to furnish historical examples of confederacies ruined not by over-centralization, but rather “the incapacity of the federal authority to prevent the dissensions, and finally the disunion, of the subordinate authorities.”  Madison then repeats a concern expressed in earlier essays:

The State government will have the advantage of the Federal government, whether we compare them in respect to the immediate dependence of the one on the other; to the weight of personal influence which each side will possess; to the powers respectively vested in them; to the predilection and probable support of the people; to the disposition and faculty of resisting and frustrating the measures of each other.

The states are closer to the people, and therefore will draw more loyalty than the distant federal government.  In fact the federal government is, in some regards, at the mercy of the state legislatures.

The State governments may be regarded as constituent and essential parts of the federal government; whilst the latter is nowise essential to the operation or organization of the former. Without the intervention of the State legislatures, the President of the United States cannot be elected at all. They must in all cases have a great share in his appointment, and will, perhaps, in most cases, of themselves determine it. The Senate will be elected absolutely and exclusively by the State legislatures. Even the House of Representatives, though drawn immediately from the people, will be chosen very much under the influence of that class of men, whose influence over the people obtains for themselves an election into the State legislatures. Thus, each of the principal branches of the federal government will owe its existence more or less to the favor of the State governments, and must consequently feel a dependence, which is much more likely to beget a disposition too obsequious than too overbearing towards them. On the other side, the component parts of the State governments will in no instance be indebted for their appointment to the direct agency of the federal government, and very little, if at all, to the local influence of its members.

Of course much has changed since Madison penned this essay.  State legislatures have little influence over the Electoral College, and this has been so since early in the 19th century.  The 17th Amendment further altered the balance of power between state and federal government when it permitted the direct election of Senators.   Be that as it may, it’s again important to note that the Framers saw these institutions – the Electoral College and an indirectly elected Senate – as barriers against federal usurpation of state authority.  Even though state legislatures don’t have much if any real influence on the Electoral College, there is still a strong federalist impact via this mode of election.  The complete eradication of the Electoral College would remove one of the few remaining barriers against total federal encroachment upon state authority.

Madison then suggests that since more people will be employed by state and local governments than the federal government, then people will remain more loyal to the former.  There are still more employees at the state and local levels than at the federal level, but considering that there are 50 states the number of federal employees (approximately 3 million) is not that much smaller than the number of state (4.4 million) and local government (12 million) employees.

Madison continues with a well-known phrase:

The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected. The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.

Again, this gets to the heart of the Framers’ philosophy.  They viewed the Constitution as a document that outlined a few broad federal powers.  Most of the day-to-day governance would come from the states.  These local institutions would have ample general powers, while the scope of the federal government’s authority would be confined to articles carefully delineated in the Constitution.  As Madison further explains:

The operations of the federal government will be most extensive and important in times of war and danger; those of the State governments, in times of peace and security. As the former periods will probably bear a small proportion to the latter, the State governments will here enjoy another advantage over the federal government. The more adequate, indeed, the federal powers may be rendered to the national defense, the less frequent will be those scenes of danger which might favor their ascendancy over the governments of the particular States.

Madison concludes by noting that the Constitution is not all that different from the Articles of Confederation.  The Articles of Confederation permitted a broad array of federal power, but it did not have the authority to enforce its proclamations.  The Constitution provides an air of authority and enforcement power – in other words, it provides legitimacy to the national government.

The proposed change does not enlarge these powers; it only substitutes a more effectual mode of administering them. The change relating to taxation may be regarded as the most important; and yet the present Congress have as complete authority to require of the States indefinite supplies of money for the common defense and general welfare, as the future Congress will have to require them of individual citizens; and the latter will be no more bound than the States themselves have been, to pay the quotas respectively taxed on them. Had the States complied punctually with the articles of Confederation, or could their compliance have been enforced by as peaceable means as may be used with success towards single persons, our past experience is very far from countenancing an opinion, that the State governments would have lost their constitutional powers, and have gradually undergone an entire consolidation.

The weakness of the Articles of Confederation in requiring states to go along with federal legislation was the primary impetus for the Constitution, and this paragraph helps emphasize that point.

Now hopefully I’ll get to Federalist 46 before the next change of season.


Published in: on April 18, 2011 at 3:19 pm  Comments (3)  


  1. Sorry for being off topic, but just read (much of) Daughterty’s Magna Charta to the kids.

    Abp. Stephen Langton both authored (mostly) the Magna Carta and divided the Scriptures into chapter and verse, what we use today.

    In the book, Daugherty briefly mentions the influence of the MC on the USA’s founding documents.

    The kids’ first question was, “Why isn’t he a Saint? We need to have Pope Benedict declare him St. Stephen Langton.”

  2. I agree with your kids Whimsy. Stephen Langton was one of the luminaries of the Magnificent Century, the 13th, and I think he should be a saint. Of course, not being Pope, my opinion on the matter is of small consequence. (Except to me! :))

  3. Your agreement is heartening.

    There are many wonderful things to say about re-learning Biblical and secular history by reading aloud books from the Children’s section of the library.

    And, although a part of me is fine with not knowing the seedier details of history, I do realize I’m getting a version that has been sanitized for my protection.

    Did I mention that #7 is due this Fall, and the oldest is in 6th grade?

    So, your agreement is some assurance that Cdl. Langton was a good egg, and even his disobedience of Pope Innocent can be seen as something other than simple stubbornness.

    Whimsy, from Polk County, Iowa — just east of Dallas County, Iowa (Polk’s VP)

    Perhaps we can thank President Polk and the state of Florida, Iowa’s slave state equivalent, from being mired in the KS/NE Act and having to wait another 20 years for statehood. . .

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