Mini-Federalist #20 – 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 #20, the original text of which can be read here:

Originally published December 11, 1787 by “Publius” – who was in this case, James Madison (possibly with some help from Alexander Hamilton).

Another confederacy to consider is the Netherlands (which is actually more like a collection of aristocracies), but it again illustrates the points we’ve been talking about.

Their system consists of 7 peer states, each composed of cities. When it comes to important matters, they must all agree.

The central government takes the form of the “States-General” – a representative body of 50 delegates appointed by the states for various terms, either 1, 3, or 6 years – some delegates serve for life.

This body has many powers: it can make new treaties, declare war, build up the army and navy, and set taxes – but all these things require a unanimous vote, and the consent of the people. In addition, it can: appoint and receive ambassadors, handle existing treaties, collect trade-related taxes, create money, and provide some broad government to the member states. Those member states are forbidden from establishing their own treaties, or taxing trade to or from the other states. There is also a bureaucracy in place to help run the federal government.

The chief executive (called the “Stadtholder“) has now been made a hereditary position. His position holds a great deal of power, not just from its nature, but from his familial wealth and connections. He is also the Stadtholder for each of the states as well as the federal government, and in that capacity he can appoint officers in the cities. He can also create decrees within the states, preside over their courts, and grant pardons.

At the federal level though, he has tremendous power.

Politically, he can resolve disputes between the member states, participate in the States-General, and receive and appoint his own ambassadors.

Militarily, he commands all the armies (amounting to about 40,000 men), and appoints all the officers. He sets up forts and posts, and in-general, makes the rules for the military.

He is the chief of the navy, commanding every aspect of its deployment and use. Just like for the army, he appoints all the officers of the navy. Finally, as Stadtholder, he presides over military courts.

In line with these duties, he directly controls millions of dollars of government revenue.

It may sound pretty good on paper, but how does it actually work out? The government is routinely inept. There is squabbling among the member states. Foreign influence over the government is rampant. Peace is tenuous, and war presents a whole host of problems.

As Grotius said a century ago, nothing but the hatred of his countrymen to the house of Austria kept them from being ruined by the vices of their constitution.

Other people claim that the Union of Utrecht gives the States-General enough power to maintain relative stability among the states, but the states’ individual pride kept this from actually working out.

And even though all the member states are supposed to pay special taxes under the Union, it’s an impossible task – the inland states (because of a lack of trade) can’t possibly come up with the cash.

Most of the time, the tax requirements are ignored. The need for additional funds is usually so immediate that the consenting states don’t bother to wait around – they make up the difference and then try to get the money from the other states later. The state of Holland is powerful enough that it can make this work.

It isn’t uncommon for these back taxes to be eventually collected through military force. It’s a sad thing, but when one state has more power than the others, it can be done. It’s almost impossible to do when several – if not all – of the states are equal in strength.

Sir William Temple once observed that an ambassador could prevent legislation from being passed through intrigue in the cities and states. Treaties can be held up for years, and often are.

Even the requirement for unanimity has been often ignored by the States-General. Several treaties have been made throughout their history without the consent of all the states. When your constitution is weak, the government falls apart. You end up either with a government that doesn’t have enough power, or that ignores the rules to take the powers they feel like they need – and once the government starts ignoring the constitution, why would they stop? The call for “emergency powers” often leads to tyranny.

Despite the problems caused by the office of the Stadtholder, it’s likely that the government of the Netherlands would have fallen into anarchy by now if he wasn’t asserting influence over the member states. Both the Abbe Mably and Sir William Temple agree on this point.

Of course, the Stadtholder isn’t the only thing preventing anarchy. The union has to stay together to defend against foreigners. Oddly, it is those same foreigners who weaken the central government through their back room dealings.

No less than 4 times, there have been attempts to reform the constitution to correct some of these problems, but all those attempts have failed to get support. We should be thankful that our recent convention has had much more success.

There was a movement in the Netherlands to allow the central government to directly collect taxes. This failed, though.

The people of the Netherlands now have so many problems to contend with including minor rebellions and invasion by foreigners. The whole world is watching them go through it. We all wish for a revolution that will make things better for them, or at least for us to learn from their mistakes and make our own system better.

I know that we have spent a long time discussing these other historical federal governments, but I think it is necessary for us to learn from the experience of others – especially where the lesson is clear. The clear lesson from the Netherlands is that when you have a government that only controls smaller governments (and not the people individually), you end up with a violent form or coercion instead of the rule of law.

One comment

  1. […] spent the last three articles discussing the specifics of some other historical confederate governments (including what happened […]

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