Federalist 21: Hamilton’s Plea for Power

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EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the 21st in a series of articles giving an introduction to the Federalist Papers, a collection of 85 articles and essays written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay promoting the ratification of the United States Constitution.
In Federalist #21, Alexander Hamilton pivots from a general discussion relating to the “insufficiency of the present confederation to preserve the Union” and makes a direct plea for more centralized government power.
In the previous three Federalist essays, James Madison argued that allowing the states to retain too much autonomy, coupled with a weak central government, would ultimately lead to internal divisions and strife that would undermine the system. He turned to historical examples including the Amphictyonic and the Achaean leagues in ancient Greece, the German Confederation and the United Netherlands to highlight the deficiencies of political confederations that lack strong central authority.
In Federalist #21, Hamilton gets specific and focuses on three defects he sees in the Articles of Confederation that “have hitherto disappointed our hopes from the system established among ourselves.”
“To form a safe and satisfactory judgment of the proper remedy, it is absolutely necessary that we should be well acquainted with the extent and malignity of the disease,” he wrote.
The proper remedy Hamilton had in mind was a stronger central authority. In his view, a more “energetic” national government was necessary to address three key problems under the articles.

  1. The national government could not enforce its own laws.
  2. The national government could not intervene in the affairs of the states to protect them from being overthrown or destroyed by internal divisions.
  3. The national government could not effectively collect revenue.

Hamilton called the general government’s inability to enforce its laws a “palpable defect of the subsisting confederation.”
“The United States, as now composed, have no powers to exact obedience, or punish disobedience to their resolutions, either by pecuniary mulcts, by a suspension or divestiture of privileges, or by any other constitutional mode. There is no express delegation of authority to them to use force against delinquent members.” [Emphais added]
Here we see the underlying theme of this essay. Hamilton wanted to shift power away from the individual states to the general government. In his view, the central authority lacked the ability to control the states. He seems to have in view a national system with the states subservient to the general government.
The other two weaknesses in the confederation Hamilton identified stem from this general lack of power.
The second “imperfection” in the current federal plan Hamilton addressed was “the want of a mutual guaranty of the State governments.” Essentially, he believed the national government should have the power to step in to repel “domestic dangers which may sometimes threaten the existence of the State constitutions.”
“Usurpation may rear its crest in each State, and trample upon the liberties of the people, while the national government could legally do nothing more than behold its encroachments with indignation and regret. A successful faction may erect a tyranny on the ruins of order and law, while no succor could constitutionally be afforded by the Union to the friends and supporters of the government.”
Hamilton bolstered his point with a reference to Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts. Revolutionary War veteran Daniel Shays was one of the leaders of an uprising sparked by state and local enforcement of tax collections and judgments for debt. There was unrest in several states, but it was most pronounced in Massachusetts. In January 1787, Shay and his men marched on the United States’ Armory at Springfield. The Massachusetts militia crushed the attempt to take the armory and seize weapons, and ultimately routed the rebels, but the incident created widespread panic.
Events in Massachusetts served as one of the catalysts for the Philadelphia Convention. George Washington saw the disquiet in Massachusetts as a sign that a stronger general government was necessary. In a letter to Henry Lee, Washington wrote, “You talk, my good sir, of employing influence to appease the present tumults in Massachusetts. I know not where that influence is to be found, or, if attainable, that it would be a proper remedy for the disorders. Influence is not government. Let us have a government by which our lives, liberties, and properties will be secured, or let us know the worst at once.”
Hamilton played on fears stirred up by Shays’ Rebellion to agitate for a stronger national government. Ostesnsibly, he would have marched federal troops into Massachusetts to quell the unrest. This is in fact what Hamilton advised several years later during the so-called Whisky Rebellion.
Hamilton rounded out his list of deficiencies in the Articles of Confederation with a discussion of tax collection. Hamilton believed it was imperative that the general government have the power to levy its own taxes. He argued there was no way to fairly assess tax quotas on the states, as was the process under the Articles.
“This inequality would of itself be sufficient in America to work the eventual destruction of the Union, if any mode of enforcing a compliance with its requisitions could be devised. The suffering States would not long consent to remain associated upon a principle which distributes the public burdens with so unequal a hand, and which was calculated to impoverish and oppress the citizens of some States, while those of others would scarcely be conscious of the small proportion of the weight they were required to sustain. This, however, is an evil inseparable from the principle of quotas and requisitions.
“There is no method of steering clear of this inconvenience, but by authorizing the national government to raise its own revenues in its own way. Imposts, excises, and, in general, all duties upon articles of consumption, may be compared to a fluid, which will, in time, find its level with the means of paying them.”
Hamilton spent the last few paragraphs of the essay arguing that the national tax burden would be light and should primarily be collected through consumption taxes.
Many of the Federalist essays are devoted to allaying fears that the proposed Constitution would empower the general government to such a degree that it would swallow up the states. They focus primarily on the limits of national authority under the Constitution. But in Federalist #21, we see shadows of Hamilton’s real goal. He wants a powerful central government that can extend its power into the states. Despite all of the promises to the contrary in the other Federalist essays, Hamilton ultimately got what he wanted.
Reprinted from the 10th Amendment Center.

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