Mini-Federalist #15 – The Insufficiency of the Present Confederation to Preserve the Union

This is a continuation of a series of posts that are intended to be shorter, more understandable versions of the Federalist Papers. This post deals with Federalist #15, the original text of which can be read here:

Originally published December 1, 1787 by “Publius” – who was in this case, Alexander Hamilton.

In my previous essays, I’ve laid out the case for Union by explaining how important it is and pointing out the risks involved in dissolving the Union (an argument that is advanced with sometimes less-than-honorable means). I’m going to give you more insight about things we haven’t discussed up to now. If the path ahead seems unclear, remember that these are some of the most important and difficult questions that a free people can consider, and that the obstacles in our way are the result of small-minded people. I’m going to remove as many impediments as I can along the way.

Today, we’re going to talk about the “insufficiency of the present Confederation to the preservation of the Union.” Now, everyone agrees that the Articles of Confederation make a bad government (even opponents of the Constitution feel the same way). So why do I need to even mention this? Well, it’s obvious to everyone that we need to fix this system – there are serious problems with it.

Our current national state is just embarrassing. Our government can’t do the basic things it is supposed to do: We can’t pay back our debts from the Revolution (and seem to have no real plan to do so). Foreign powers are in possession of parts of our territory (and we’re powerless to do anything about it – we can’t even effectively protest the occupation). Spain is stopping us from using the Mississippi (even though a treaty states we should be allowed). Our government has no credit. Trade is at a very low level. The incompetence of our government means that no other nation will bother negotiating treaties with us. Real estate values have plummeted – not for any normal reason, but because people don’t have any faith in our government institutions to protect that property. Private credit has dried up for the same reason. I’ll spare you more examples, but can you think of an indicator of governmental failure that we aren’t currently experiencing? I sure can’t.

This sorry state of affairs has been produced by the same kind of thinking that the opponents of the Constitution want you to use. It’s bad enough that they’ve led us to the cliff – now they want to push us over the edge! Don’t be fooled. Don’t let them do it.

Even though everyone agrees that the current government doesn’t work, opponents of the Constitution are presenting a tired old solution that won’t work either. The ideas expressed in the Constitution are our only hope. Opponents acknowledge that the current government doesn’t have enough power, but they resist giving any more power to the government. When it comes down to it, they are afraid to change anything, so obviously we need to lay out exactly what is wrong with the Articles of Confederation so that it is clear that these aren’t minor issues, but serious structural problems (and of course, explain the causes behind them).

The first major problem is that the current system deals just with the States, and not with individuals. The federal government has no power to tax citizens, but only to ask for money from the States. Theoretically, these requests are binding law, but in reality the States just ignore them.

It’s amazing that even after all the problems they have caused, opponents of the Constitution still cling to their ideas (especially since a government that can’t touch the people doesn’t seem like much of a government anyway).

Obviously, there is nothing wrong with treaties and alliances. Every country in the world has entered into them (and broken them, too). In recent history, European countries have heavily engaged in creating alliances with each other – sometimes very complicated ones – in the hope that they would create lasting peace. Of course, all of these treaties were eventually broken. It just goes to show you how long a treaty will hold up when it is solely based on “good faith”, and the governments in question find themselves with other priorities.

Now if we’re really afraid of all this, we may decide to go on as 13 separate countries, leading us to all the problems I’ve already discussed, and forcing us into being friends and enemies simultaneously (depending on which foreign powers we fall victim to).

If we really don’t want that to happen, we have to think about our situation and create systems that will lead us to have a government, and not just a set of treaties. And the only thing that a government can really affect is individuals.

Governments make laws. Laws are meaningless without punishments for disobeying them. The enforcement of laws can either come from courts, or from raw military power. Courts can deal with individuals, but militaries have to deal with other countries. So, if we don’t have one government, capable of reaching individuals, the States will perpetually be at war with each other.

Originally, we were told that the States would all cooperate with the Confederation willingly, and there’d be no reason to expect problems. Our experiences have not shown this to be true. This point of view ignores human nature – why do we even need a government in the first place? Because people will not treat each other fairly all the time. What makes us think that a group of people (like the States) would be more responsible than the individuals that make it up? In fact, the grouping makes it worse as it tends to remove individual responsibility for the actions of the group.

Further, people who are in power want to remain in control of that power, and resist any outside limits placed on them – this is also just human nature. So in a confederacy, the individual states will naturally try to remove as much of the central government’s influence over them as they can. How can we expect them to work for the common good when it goes against human nature?

If the central government relies on their laws being executed by the individual states, those laws simply won’t be followed. The leaders of the States will only enforce laws that also mesh with their interests – disregarding the greater national good, in favor of local convenience. Every one of the States will do this. The laws of the Federal government would be worthless since they would vary from place to place. If you know how hard it is to get one legislature to agree on a solution to a problem, imagine how hard it is to get multiple ones, spread across a continent, to do it.

Our Confederation requires 13 members to agree. This just doesn’t happen, and the laws of the Union subsequently go unenforced. The States’ carelessness has, over time, ground the operation of the Federal government to a halt. Congress can’t keep things operating until the States can come up with a better idea. This has been a long time coming. Though some States did the right thing at first, how long can that hold up when everyone else is slacking? Why should only a few well-functioning States do all the work and bear all the costs? People can only fight their own selfishness for so long. Consequently, all the States have since withdrawn their real support of the Federal government, to the point that it’s about to collapse and smother us all.


  1. Brent says:

    Thank you so much for posting this. This has helped a lot with my online government class. Keep up the good work!

  2. Tanya says:

    This is so helpful! Thank you so much for posting this. I was trying to read the full length document and I had no idea what it was saying! Thank you!

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