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The Federalist Papers: No. 20

On this day in 1787, Federalist Paper No. 20 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.


In the last few papers, Publius drew upon historical examples to show his readers why the then-existing Union of states must be strengthened. The last few papers cited failures of weakened unions in Greece and Germany. This paper looks to the effect of a weakened union in the United Netherlands.

The Netherlands was a confederation of “coequal and sovereign states,” but it was one that required unanimity before important actions could be taken. Such a system was not working. The people “seem to be now suffering from popular convulsions, from dissensions among the states, and from the actual invasion of foreign arms, the crisis of their distiny.”


Remember: In this section of the Federalist Papers, Publius is arguing for a national government that can enact laws directly upon citizens, without any intervening action by our states. Publius argues that the national government should be the ultimate sovereign in those areas in which it has power.

This is a question about the *nature* of federal power, not the *scope* of federal power.


Basically, Publius is arguing that a national government is too weak and ineffective unless it is the ultimate authority in those areas in which power has been delegated to it. This does not contradict the idea that *in all other areas*–those areas in which no delegation of power was made to the federal government–our states remain sovereign.


Publius finishes with a paragraph defending his extended discussion of precedents in other nations. “Experience is the oracle of truth,” he concludes.


Yes, we have much that we could learn from history as well.


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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