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The Federalist Papers: No. 59

On this day in 1788, Federalist Paper No. 59 is published. Alexander Hamilton (a.k.a. “Publius”) defends the election process for U.S. Congressmen. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this paper is an underlying assumption that the states will always be more powerful than the federal government.


The constitutional provision in question provides that states will control the “TIMES, PLACES, and MANNER of holding elections” but that the “Congress may, at any time, by law, make or alter SUCH REGULATIONS, except as to the PLACES of choosing senators.”

This power could have been delegated in only one of three ways: “[I]t must either have been lodged wholly in the national legislature, or wholly in the State legislatures, or primarily in the latter and ultimately in the former.” The Constitutional Convention chose the latter. In ordinary circumstances, it is expected that local governments will govern their own elections, but the national government has a “right to interpose, whenever extraordinary circumstances might render that interposition necessary to its safety.”


Publius is worried that the states could permanently undermine the national government simply by refusing to hold elections for congressmen. Such a situation, he notes, “would leave the existence of the Union entirely at [the states’] mercy. They could at any moment annihilate it, by neglecting to provide for the choice of persons to administer its affairs.”


Publius acknowledges that the same argument could be made about the election of Senators. However, that body is a direct representative of the states’ interests in the national government. To the degree that giving the states full control over those elections “expose[s] the Union to the possibility of injury from the State legislatures, it is an evil; but it is an evil which could not have been avoided without excluding the States, in their political capacities, wholly from a place in the organization of the national government.”


We, of course, have since undermined the nature of the Senate all on our own: We ratified the 17th Amendment, which destroyed the ability of states, as states, to represent their own interests in the national government.

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