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The Federalist Papers: No. 19

On this day in 1787, Federalist Paper No. 19 is published. The Federalist Papers are a collection of essays that were published in New York newspapers in late 1787 and early 1788. They were written under the pseudonym “Publius” and argued FOR the new Constitution, then being considered for ratification by the states.

Publius again turns to history to make his point that a formal union of states is needed. So let’s face it. This section of the Federalist series is probably a bit dry to the modern reader. We don’t know history as well as our ancestors did—and maybe we also have shorter attention spans!? How awesome that so much of our founding generation was so focused and diligent as they considered whether to adopt our Constitution.

The last paper discussed the Grecian republics. Today’s paper turns to examples from Germany’s feudal system, which carried features of the then-existing informal American Union under the Articles of Confederation.

Publius explains: “[T]he empire is a community of sovereigns . . . [and] the laws are addressed to sovereigns.” The empire is “incapable of regulating its own members,” and the result verges on anarchy.

Publius’s audience would have known that these were all problems that America had, too, under the Articles of Confederation. The national government was very weak and could not make the states do anything. It did not even have effective recourse if a state refused to help with national defense (which proved to be a real problem during the Revolution).

Publius concludes with a litany of problems produced by the system:

“The history of Germany is a history of wars between the emperor and the princes and states; of wars among the princes and states themselves; of the licentiousness of the strong, and the oppression of the weak; of foreign intrusions, and foreign intrigues; of requisitions of men and money disregarded, or partially complied with . . . . Military preparations must be preceded by so many tedious discussions, arising from the jealousies, pride, separate views, and clashing pretensions of sovereign bodies, that before the diet can settle the arrangements, the enemy are in the field.”

Again, remember, Publius is addressing a world in which the American national government was too weak. We have the opposite problem. Knowing our history will help us get back to the proper balance.

The authorship of this paper is disputed. James Madison either wrote it alone or with the help of Alexander Hamilton. 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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