Mini-Federalist #23 – The Necessity of a Government as Energetic as the One Proposed to the Preservation of 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 #23, the original text of which can be read here:

Originally published December 18, 1787 by “Publius” – who was in this case, Alexander Hamilton.

Let’s talk about why we need a government with at least as much power as the one the proposed Constitution sets up.

This is most easily presented in three parts (we’ll deal with how to organize and distribute its power later):

  1. What should the government do for us?
  2. What amount of power does it need to do those things?
  3. Who is the “us” in the first question?

So, what are things that the federal government should do? Provide for the common defense – protecting us from foreign threats as well as domestic rebels; regulate interstate, as well as international trade; and finally, oversee all our diplomatic relations with other countries.

Our government can only provide for the common defense if it can also raise armies and maintain a navy, all the while providing material support, and control over them both. Because it is impossible to know exactly what kinds of military emergencies might come up, THERE SHOULD BE NO LIMITATIONS ON THIS POWER. If there are infinite types of danger, there should be infinite powers to meet them.

This truth is so obvious as to be self-evident, but if someone is expected to do a thing, he must be given enough power to actually accomplish it. I can’t make it any simpler than that.

Whether we should have a federal government to protect us at all is a fair question, but as soon as we decide that would should have one, it must be given enough power to actually be able to do its job. And unless the dangers to public safety can be defined as only being within certain limits, it is necessary for there to be no limit to the power of the federal government to create, control, and support the military.

As bad as the Articles of Confederation are, at least they acknowledge this fact (even though they didn’t really flesh it out fully). Congress was given the power to ask the States for men and money in support of an army, and to control that army. And given that the States are legally obligated to comply (even if they ignored that requirement much of the time), you can figure out that the intention was for the federal government to have any resources it needed to defend the individual States. You would think that the States would act in their own best interests and comply with those requests.

In practice, it obviously didn’t work out that way, and it should be clear to everyone that we need to totally re-think this system. If we’re serious about giving the federal government the power to defend us, we have to stop thinking about it as interacting only with the States – we have to give the federal government power over the individual citizens living within those States. The quotas are stupid and unfair, and we should get rid of them. In the end, the federal government needs to have total authority to raise armies and navies, and support them with taxes – the way all other governments do.

If we’re going to have a confederacy – rather than one national government – then we need to figure out how to divide up the powers between the States and federal governments. Is the federal government responsible for defense? Are armies and navies necessary for defense? If so, the federal government must control those. The same argument applies with commerce. It’s as simple as that. Should disputes between a State’s citizens be handled by that State? If so, the States need to have enough power to do that. If you don’t give the respective governments the power to do their jobs, you are unnecessarily handicapping them.

So who is best-equipped to provide for that defense? Isn’t it the government that is able to see, understand, and control the whole picture, and will be most likely to forcefully look out for everyone’s interests? It is madness to give the federal government the responsibility for defense, but leave the States with all the power needed to carry it out. Doesn’t this end with us sitting around wishing that the States would cooperate more? Leaving things how they are will only make us weaker, and our military less efficient, and the burden of it unfair. Isn’t this what we just got done dealing with during the Revolution?

The more we think about it, we have to admit that the federal government needs this power. Of course, it will be up to the people to ensure that this power isn’t abused, but any plan to fix our government that doesn’t include this power should be immediately rejected. If you can’t trust a government to do the fundamental thing that it should do, then you probably shouldn’t be installing that government in the first place. If you trust them to look out for you, you should be able to trust them with the power to do so. The opponents of the proposed Constitution are focusing on scaring you with the powers this new government has, when they should really be concerned with the structure of it. If it’s true that no government can be trusted with enough power to effectively govern a country our size, then we shouldn’t even try to make one, and just split up into separate confederacies right now. Otherwise, the paradox of demanding something that the government doesn’t have power to provide will become unbearable. Don’t try to work with the paradox – seize the logical solution.

I don’t think the other side can prove that this country is too large for a single government. I think I’ve made it pretty clear so far that the opposite is true: we need a central government, and the vast size of our country proves that we need one that is vested with enough power to govern it. If we listened to the people who rail against the proposed Constitution, we’d have to conclude that even the weak government created by the Articles of Confederation is too powerful for them.

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