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The Federalist Papers: No. 17

On this day in 1787, Federalist Paper No. 17 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.

The ever-prolific Alexander Hamilton (a.k.a. “Publius”) is the author of today’s essay. Yesterday’s paper discussed why the national government should be able to enact legislation directly on citizens. Hamilton argues that such a power will not cause the national government to usurp local, state power.

Hmm. I wonder if Hamilton would rewrite any of this paper if he could see where we are today?

Hamilton is “at a loss” to know what would motivate national officials to divest the states of local powers. “The regulation of the mere domestic police of a State,” he notes, “appears to me to hold out slender allurements to ambition.” Why would a national representative ever care about “the supervision of agriculture and of other concerns of a similar nature”? He asks. (Ugh. We should introduce him to the EPA.)

But Hamilton’s next paragraphs demonstrate where we really fell apart in ways that he did not anticipate. “[F]or argument’s sake,” Hamilton says, let’s assume “that mere wantonness and lust of domination would be sufficient” to cause the national government to step in and usurp state power over local matters. At that point, Hamilton contends, the people would step in and put a stop to it. The people themselves “would control the indulgence of so extravagant an appetite” on the part of their national officials.

In short, we, the American people, are to blame. We are the ones who have allowed our national government to escape its bounds so completely. Hamilton thought we would know better.

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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