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The Federalist Papers: No. 31

On this day in 1788, Federalist Paper No. 31 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.


I’ll warn you that this is another paper that is difficult to read in light of recent events! Alexander Hamilton (a.k.a. “Publius”) is defending the unlimited right of the national government to tax us. Again, he is looking to an educated populace and strong state governments to defend us from excesses.

So, here we are again: The failure of modern Americans to understand the role of STATES comes back to bite us. Modern Americans seem to look to the national government for virtually everything these days. We too often forget that the Founders never expected that. Instead, they gave us a federalist Constitution: Power is divided between a general (national) government and state governments. This division of power was meant to protect our freedom. No one entity would have all the power; thus, each entity would continuously pull the others back into line.


Publius believes that the national government should have unlimited power of taxation for defense reasons. His logic is as follows: (1) Government needs enough power to fully accomplish its objects; (2) National defense is one of these, but there are no limits to the dangers that could arise; (3) Revenue is the “essential engine” by which provision is made for such defense needs; (4) Thus, to meet these needs, the “federal government must of necessity be invested with an unqualified power of taxation in the ordinary modes.”


Opponents of the measure have many fears about such a power, but Publius believes these fears to be overblown. “This mode of reasoning,” he says, “appears sometimes to turn upon the supposition of usurpation in the national government.” (He actually thinks the opposite is more likely! The powerful state governments could overrun the national government.) Either way, Publius finds it unproductive to dwell on “conjectures of this kind” because they “must be extremely vague and fallible.” Instead, the focus should be on the “nature and extent of the powers as they are delineated in the Constitution,” not some imagined effort to escape the boundaries of the Constitution. (Arguably, he should have let his imagination take off just a tiny bit here?!)


At the end of the day, Publius relies upon the “prudence and firmness of the people” to keep these taxation powers in check. It will be their job to “preserve the constitutional equilibrium between the general and the State governments.” If they do that, then the “objections which have been made to an indefinite power of taxation in the United States” carry much less weight.


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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