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The Federalist Papers: No. 16

On this day in 1787, Federalist Paper No. 16 is published. The Federalist Papers are a collection of essays that were published in New York newspapers in late 1787 and early 1788. They argued FOR the new Constitution, then being considered for ratification by the states.

This paper is written by Alexander Hamilton (a.k.a. “Publius”). In earlier papers, Publius argued that a formal Union among the 13 states was needed. Now he continues to explain why the then-existing informal coalition under the Articles of Confederation would not suffice.

I’ve said it before, but please remember that Hamilton is addressing a situation in which the national government was not powerful enough. (Indeed, it was very weak.) We are coming at it from the opposite perspective: Our government is too strong. But if we want to get back to our roots, then it’s important to understand our whole history. Our goal is not to emasculate our government! Our goal is to return it to its proper boundaries.

The Founders sought a healthy balance for the national government: Strong enough to handle our foreign policy needs. Weak enough so that we can be left alone to run our own lives and make our own decisions.

In this paper, Hamilton argues that a national government cannot be effective unless it has the ability to impose laws on individuals within the states. If the state is needed as an intermediary, then the experiment will fail. The national government “must carry its agency to the persons of the citizens. It must stand in need of no intermediate legislations; but must itself be empowered to employ the arm of the ordinary magistrate to execute its own resolutions.”

Basically, if the state is needed as an intermediary, then states can (and will) obstruct the federal government in a passive manner. Hamilton notes: “[T]hey have only NOT TO ACT, or to ACT EVASIVELY, and the measure is defeated.” Such passive obstructions of the law would probably happen constantly because of their ease.

On the other hand, if the state is not needed as an intermediary, then federal laws will not be obstructed unless the state deliberately acts in an “open and violent exertion of an unconstitutional power.” Such obstructions would take more forethought and positive action. Hamilton concludes: “Attempts of this kind would not often be made with levity or rashness, because they could seldom be made without danger to the authors.”

He adds an interesting caveat: Such “open and violent exertion[s]” of power might happen “in cases of a tyrannical exercise of the federal authority.” The caveat reflects the assumption underlying Hamilton’s arguments: The national government can be strong in its own sphere, but it must stay within its boundaries.

My post with more background on the Federalist Papers and their authorship can be found in the Federalist Paper No. 1 summary (see October 27 history post, here).



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