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The Federalist Papers: No. 85

On this day in 1788, the last Federalist Paper is published. Thanks to all of you who have persevered with me through the entire series.

Alexander Hamilton (a.k.a. Publius) delivers his concluding remarks on the new Constitution then being proposed to the states, including some final thoughts on whether amendments are needed before the Constitution is adopted.

Hamilton thinks not! First, the plan is not “radically defective.” To the contrary, Hamilton notes that the system “though it may not be perfect in every part, is, upon the whole, a good one; is the best that the present views and circumstances of the country will permit; and is such an one as promises every species of security which a reasonable people can desire.” The Union will be exposed to too many dangers if it engages “in the chimerical pursuit of a perfect plan.” There is no such thing as “perfect”! The country is composed of a wide variety of interests and opinions. Hamilton concludes: “How can perfection spring from such materials?”

In any event, Hamilton thinks that subsequent amendments will be easier to achieve than previous amendments. These amendments can be focused on singly, rather than subjecting the entire Constitution to repetitive discussion, debate, and ratification. Hamilton disagrees with the fear that amendments will not happen because the “national government will always be disinclined to yield up any portion of the authority of which they were once possessed.”

We are used to a Congress that does exactly that, for instance refusing to give us a vote on term limits or a balanced budget amendment. How could Hamilton make such a statement? Well, he foresees a national government that will be characterized by a “spirit of accommodation,” because of the “intrinsic difficulty of governing thirteen States.” His ideas were true for the First Congress, which worked so hard to pass a Bill of Rights. But such an idea seems laughable today, doesn’t it?

The second half of his reasoning is better. He relies upon the state governments to hold the national government in line. The tool? An Article V convention for considering amendments!

Because this issue is being considered by so many today, it is worth quoting Hamilton at length:

“[T]he national rulers, whenever nine states concur, will have no option upon the subject. By the fifth article of the plan the congress will be obliged, ‘on the application of the legislatures of two-thirds of the states, (which at present amounts to nine) to call a convention for proposing amendments, which shall be valid to all intents and purposes, as part of the constitution, when ratified by the legislatures of three-fourths of the states, or by conventions in three-fourths thereof.” The words of this article are peremptory. The Congress ‘shall call a convention.’ Nothing in this particular is left to the discretion of that body. And of consequence all the declamation about their disinclination to a change, vanishes in air. Nor however difficult it may be supposed to unite two-thirds or three-fourths of the state legislatures, in amendments which may affect local interest, can there be any room to apprehend any such difficulty in a union on points which are merely relative to the general liberty or security of the people. We may safely rely on the disposition of the state legislatures to erect barriers against the encroachments of the national authority.”

Why are so many today refusing to even *consider* the possibility of an Article V convention? Hamilton considered it to be a last bulwark against an out-of-control federal government.

Perhaps we should take a similar view.



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