Mini-Federalist #17 – The Same Subject Continued: 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 #17, the original text of which can be read here: http://thomas.loc.gov/home/histdox/fed_17.html

Originally published December 5, 1787 by “Publius” – who was in this case, Alexander Hamilton.

There is another counter-argument to the Constitution that I haven’t addressed yet: the Constitution gives too much power to the central government – power that should rightfully stay with the States. Now, it’s certain that people will be power-hungry, but I can’t think of a reason why the federal government would be able to take away State power. Policing the States about civil matters, or local agricultural concerns isn’t attractive. Regulating trade, negotiating with foreign powers, money, war – these are the powers that tempt people, and the Federal government is the rightful holder of those powers already. Trying to assume the States’ powers would just be extra work, with no real benefit.

Even if we assume I’m wrong, the national legislature, elected by the people would be in a place to prevent this. It would be easier for the States to wrongfully gain power from the central government, than the other way around. The States will have more direct contact with the people, enabling them to convince the people that they are competent to have more power. This is reason enough to ensure that the central government’s power is well-protected.

The States get most of their power from the importance of the things they control.

Human nature is that people don’t care about what they can’t see. People care about their family more than their neighborhood; their neighborhood more than their town; and so on. The same is true of their State in relation to the Federal government (unless the State governments to a terrible job all the time).

People will naturally be attracted to their State’s government.

I’m not going to list out all the concerns that the States will have power over, but suffice it to say that there are so many, that the States will have an unending source of influence.

Of course, the States hold one trump card: the day-to-day running of criminal and civil courts. This power alone is the most visible defender of people’s lives and property, and a source of comfort and fear. Everyone has an interest in the dispensing of justice, and done well, the people will revere those who do it. Holding so important a function for the people, the States will no doubt become a threat to the power of the central government.

Since the powers that the Federal government has are so general and detached from the people, they won’t form that same bond with the Federal government. Only a few people will observe the good that it does for us.

We’ve seen this happen with every constitutional government in history.

The old feudal systems were obviously not confederacies, per se, but they did have smaller subordinate territories, all reporting to a central government. Each smaller territory had a ruler with almost total control over that territory. Ultimately, what ended up happening was that the individual “states” (if you will) grew more powerful in relation to the central authority and frequently went to war with one another. The central government was powerless to keep order or to protect the people. Anarchy reigned.

Sometimes the central government would end up with an extraordinary leader who could keep things under control, but this was the exception not the rule. There were even times when the central magistrate was completely kicked out. In those rare times when extraordinary leaders were able to take control, it was because the local governments were so terrible that the people fought back against them, too. If those local governments would have been good to their people, they might have remained in power.

I’m not just making this up – think of Scotland. The clan system (in which the local governments were more like families) meant that no central government could prevail there. That is, until the powerful central government of England asserted the more rational rule of law over them.

It’s a fair comparison to say that our States are much like the old baronies of the feudal days. Like I explained, this kind of relationship means that the people are pre-disposed to support them, and defend them against unwarranted power-grabs by the Federal government. Our States are in a power struggle, and (just like the old Baronies) have the upper hand in that struggle.

Looking at the history of confederacies is vital to understanding this part of their structure. We haven’t paid enough attention to the history though, and that’s been the source of many of our problems. Our ignorance has led us to choose the wrong side in the fight. We’ll go into this topic further in future papers.

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