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The Federalist Papers: Nos. 32 & 33

On this day in 1788, a long essay is published. That essay would eventually be broken down into Federalist Papers No. 32 and 33. 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.

Essay 31 was published yesterday, and I warned you then that Alexander Hamilton (aka “Publius”) was going to harp on a subject that most of us dislike. Well, I am sorry to tell you that he is continuing in the same vein today.

We can still learn something from these papers.

Hamilton potentially made the mistake of giving too much power to the national government. He served with George Washington during the Revolution and would have seen, first-hand, the great difficulties created by the Continental Congress’s inability to raise taxes. He overreacted. In trying to correct that problem, he went too far. He failed to see dangers that he should have seen.

We should avoid the opposite problem (assuming we ever get the chance). We are over-taxed now, but if we respond to this problem by completely stripping the federal government of its ability to tax us, we could run into issues there as well. Our government does have functions that it legitimately needs to finance. (Albeit not nearly as many as your average U.S. Congressman would claim!?)

Hamilton opens by noting, again, that the national government’s power to tax should not create a danger because the people and the states will keep the national government in check.

He disputes that an unlimited national power of taxation would be at odds with state sovereignty. To the contrary, states can still provide for themselves and are restricted in only a few areas. For instance, the Constitution restricts “Imposts or Duties on Imports or Exports” (Article I, Section 10, Clause 2). But in other areas, the states have a “concurrent and coequal authority” to tax and “the authority of the States remains undiminished.” Hamilton acknowledges that, in some areas, there might be “questions of prudence,” but there would not be a “constitutional inability to impose a further tax.”

Finally, Hamilton addresses concerns about the “necessary and proper” clause in the Constitution, particularly when combined with the clause making U.S. laws the “supreme law of the land.” Interestingly, he sees the clauses as almost unnecessary, but inserted to protect the Union against the more powerful states. How ironic, since we have experienced the opposite. But also notable that he believes those clauses carry so little extra power, beyond what has already been delegated in the Constitution. Indeed, he finds the “necessary and proper” clause to be redundant, “perfectly harmless,” inserted to guard against “those who might hereafter feel a disposition to curtail and evade the legitimate authorities of the Union.”

Hamilton potentially failed to be sufficiently imaginative about possible abuses of the federal taxing power. However, we have also failed. We failed to “take such measures to redress the injury done to the Constitution as the exigency may suggest and prudence justify,” as Hamilton expected that we would, in the close of this essay.

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).

A few logistical publication notes for those who care:

You’ll see conflicting dates about when this paper was published (January 2 vs. January 3). I went with January 2 because the Library of Congress and the U.S. Archives website both use that date. I believe the problem stems from the fact that the New York Independent Journal published the piece on January 2, 1788, but the New York Daily Advertiser published it the next day.


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