Archive for Madison

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: http://thomas.loc.gov/home/histdox/fed_20.html

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.

Mini-Federalist #19 – 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 #19, the original text of which can be read here: http://thomas.loc.gov/home/histdox/fed_19.html

Originally published December 8, 1787 by “Publius” – who was in this case, James Madison (possibly with some help from Alexander Hamilton).

The ancient governments I described in the last article aren’t the only examples that would be useful to us. There are other similar ones existing today that are worth a look. For starters, Germany.

What is now Germany has been occupied by many different peoples in the past. Under Charlemagne, France controlled Germany – until Charlemagne’s heirs broke up his empire. When that happened, Germany became a free-standing state because the local feudal overlords gradually took more and more power. The Empire of France was powerless to stop it. Small wars broke out between the local rivals for land and power, until an Austrian emperor rose.

With this style of feudalism being much like a confederacy already, it isn’t surprising that the current Germanic empire is federal in nature. There is a legislature (called a diet) which is representative of the “states”, and holds much of the power. The executive (an emperor) holds a veto on the acts of the diet. There is also a dual judiciary in the form of the Imperial Chamber and the Aulic Council.

The emperor has a lot of power. He is the only person who can propose measures to the legislature, and can veto what they come up with. He picks the ambassadors, grants titles of nobility, appoints replacement legislators in the event of a vacancy, creates universities, collects and spends taxes, and is ultimately responsible for the overall public safety. In his capacity as emperor, he doesn’t get any land or money, but he is still extremely powerful.

You’re probably thinking that there is so much power in the federal government of Germany, that it must be an exception to the rule. But this isn’t the case. The core principle here is that the empire is made up of sovereign states, and the federal government affects only those states. This means (like we discussed before) that the government can’t effectively control the states, can’t protect against foreign threats, and deals with constant internal squabbling.

Throughout it’s history, Germany has had wars between the emperor and the leaders of the states, and between the leaders of the states and the states themselves. There has been disregard for the rule of law, and the weak have been preyed-upon. Foreigners have frequently invaded. Requests for soldiers and funding have been ignored (with many failed and bloody attempts to enforce those requests). In general, the government has been inept, confused, and utterly terrible.

There was a time when the emperor was at war against half of his own country. He barely escaped an attempted capture, and on a few occasions was personally beaten by one of his own princes. There have also been too many wars between the German states themselves to count. After one such war (in which Sweden joined with many of those states against the emperor) a peace that was negotiated by foreigners was enshrined in Germany’s constitution!

The empire can’t even defend against foreign threats. There is so much infighting among the member states that they can’t join together before they are already invaded and winter has come.

Because of all this, they find it essential to have a small army at the ready at all times, but it is not well maintained and its soldiers are only paid every now and then.

Since this obviously wasn’t working out well, they decided to try splitting the empire into 9 or 10 districts. The rulers of these districts were to ensure that the laws were executed (even by military means), but this only illustrated the real problem: these smaller governments were just echoes of the original one. They either ended up not getting the job done, or doing it in the bloodiest way imaginable. In some cases, these districts are entirely composed of the troublemaker states (which was the problem they were supposed to solve).

It’s easy to judge the effectiveness of this system. A Catholic leader in Donawerth tried to hold a procession and a riot broke out. Martial law was declared, and the Duke of Bavaria tried to enforce it. Arriving with 10,000 soldiers, his true intentions became clear – he wanted to take the territory for himself (disarming the citizenry in the process).

So why hasn’t their government totally failed after this long? The states’ individual weakness – that’s why. Some are weak within the empire, and even the strongest of the states are weak when compared to their foreign neighbors. The emperor also has a reputation to uphold, and wields a lot of power by keeping these separate domains held together (however strained that hold is). This makes for a weak union, but as time goes on and people become more set in their ways, it becomes harder to change. Even if they were to make the empire stronger with a better-designed government, what makes you think the foreign powers surrounding the empire would allow that to happen? They will do whatever they can to keep the individual states warring amongst themselves, and thus weak as a whole.

If you’re looking for more examples of central governments controlling only member states (and not individual citizens) you might think of Poland. Their government is constantly having problems. It can neither govern nor defend itself, and is always at the mercy of the much stronger countries around it (who recently took by force over 1/3 of it’s land and population).

Some people think that the Swiss government is a stable confederacy, but the loose union of the cantons there doesn’t really qualify as one. There is no common treasury, army, monetary system, court system – nothing.

The only things binding them are geography, their own weakness compared to their neighbors, their shared peaceful culture, an inter-dependence upon their lands, the need for help with defeating internal rebellions, and the need to resolve conflict among themselves. They form ad-hoc courts from among the other cantons when needed, and choose a chief judge, or umpire if there is a split vote. This didn’t work out so well when the Duke of Savoy decided to make himself the mediator, and used military force to do it.

All of this evidence proves my point. Anytime the states within this “confederacy” had serious differences come up, the system broke down. There have been multiple wars over religion among the Swiss, and they now have two separate cantons (Catholic and Protestant), with totally separate legislatures. Their federal legislature is now almost totally powerless.

Of course, that wasn’t the only problem to come out of the big Catholic / Protestant split: the two sides are now allied with different foreign powers.

Mini-Federalist #18 – 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 #18, the original text of which can be read here: http://thomas.loc.gov/home/histdox/fed_18.html

Originally published December 7, 1787 by “Publius” – who was in this case, James Madison (possibly with some help from Alexander Hamilton).

Of all the ancient confederacies that we know about, the old Greek “council of neighbors” seems to be the most like our current American system.

Each city-state kept its own government, and all had an equal voice in federal matters. The central government took care of whatever it thought was in the common interest of the members: declaring and running wars, acting as a court of last resort, putting down rebellions, and bringing other city-states into the fold. They ran a state-controlled religion (including courts associated with the temples). The central government was sworn to protect the city-states, and to punish both rebels and heathens.

This certainly seems like enough power, doesn’t it? But this amounts to more power than we gave our government in the Articles of Confederation. That ancient government controlled the religion of the people, and was supposed to use force against the member city-states when they got out-of-line.

Of course, it didn’t work out that way. These powers ended up being executed by officers appointed by the city-states themselves, so they were never really used to their full extent. The more powerful city-states weren’t kept in-line, and merely converted the federal government into one that served their interests. Athens’ domination of ancient Greece illustrates this pretty well.

More often than not, the officers of the more powerful city-states strong-armed those of the weaker city-states into going along with whatever the stronger states wanted. The more powerful side, not necessarily the right side, won out.

Even when fighting wars with Persia and Macedonia, the city-states didn’t work together, and instead many even worked with the enemy! When not at war, the states squabbled with each other constantly.

For example, after the war against Xerxes, the Lacedaemonians tried to kick out all the traitor city-states, but the Athenians blocked the attempt because it would leave them at a power disparity within the central government. This one example shows how inefficient and unjust this union was. Even though the smaller states were supposed to have an equal say, they ended up being co-opted by the larger, more powerful states in practice.

If the ancient Greeks had really been thinking about it, they would have used the peaceful periods to make their government work better. Instead, the larger city-states (like Athens and Sparta) became power-hungry and ended up inflicting more damage than Xerxes had managed to. All that mistrust and anger culminated in the Peloponnesian war, destroying the government in the process.

Weak governments always end up suffering from internal conflict when they aren’t at war. This civil unrest naturally invites foreigners to try to disrupt things. Philip of Macedon gained control of Greece by pitting the city-states against each other over minor conflicts, and allying himself with the weaker side. It then wasn’t difficult for him to bribe his way into a leading position in the federal government.

Had their government been better-constructed and more unified, the Greeks may have avoided this sequence of events, and later been a more effective check against the power of the Romans.

The Achaean league also serves as a good example for us.

This was a much tighter and well-designed union. Even though they had similar problems, they didn’t really deserve them.

Each city-state maintained its own sovereignty, elected its own leaders, and was equally-represented at the federal level. Their central government exclusively handled declarations of war, diplomatic relations (including all treaties), and the election of a central executive called a praetor. He handled all military matters, and ran the government when the full senate wasn’t in session. Originally, they used 2 praetors, but found having only 1 to be better.

The city-states had a common set of weights and measures, used the same money, and had identical laws. We aren’t sure how much influence the federal government had in this area, but we know that when new members came on, they immediately started using the laws of the pre-existing city-states. This is the major difference between their system and that of the Athenians and Spartans.

It’s a shame that we don’t have better records of how the Achaean government actually operated. If we had more information on the inner workings of their system, it would enlighten all our discussions about how federal governments ought to work.

What we do know though, is that there was much more peace and justice, and far less squabbling in the Achaean league than in the other Greek governments where the city-states retained all the powers. As the Abbe Mably observed, there were fewer problems in the Achaean republic BECAUSE IT WAS THERE TEMPERED BY THE GENERAL AUTHORITY AND LAWS OF THE CONFEDERACY.

Of course, it was not a totally perfect set up. You can see that by the way the government ended up dissolving.

Originally, the Achaeans weren’t a big player in Greece, but once the Amphictyonic confederacy fell to the Macedonians, it wasn’t long before that foreign influence tried to break them up, too. Some were actually invaded, others were eroded from within through political corruption. The desire for liberty was awakened by these events, and eventually came close to uniting all of Greece under the Achaean system. The Athenians and Spartans, worried about maintaining their own power, put a stop to this though. While the Achaeans were trying to form an alliance with the Egyptians and Syrians, the Spartans attacked and spoiled the plan.

So the Achaeans were in a bad spot: they either needed to give in to the Spartans, or try to ally with the Macedonians. They choose Macedonia (who was only too happy to “help”). They sent an army to defeat the Spartans and eventually occupy the Achaean republic. The Achaeans tried to remove the Macedonian occupiers by allying with the other Greek states, but this wasn’t enough – they needed foreign help again, and this time they turned to the Romans who came in and did the same thing that the Macedonians had just done. The Romans fostered animosity between the Greek city-states, and convinced each that they should be totally sovereign. This led to the total destruction of the last great hope for a free Greece.

I’ve explained all of this seemingly unimportant history because it serves as a lesson – not just about the makeup of these ancient governments, but that it is much more likely for a federal system to fail because of dissent among its members, than by a tyrannical leader in charge of it.

Mini-Federalist #14 – Objections to the Proposed Constitution From Extent of Territory Answered

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 #14, the original text of which can be read here: http://thomas.loc.gov/home/histdox/fed_14.html

Originally published November 30, 1787 by “Publius” – who was in this case, James Madison.

So far, we’ve established that Union is better for security from foreign threats, peace at home, trade, and protection from “special interests“. The only common objection left to talk about is the size of our land area. Opponents of the Constitution are desperately trying to convince you that no single government could control a land as large as ours, but they are just grasping at straws.

I’ve debunked this thinking already. All I can say is this seems to be a product of confusing a “republic” and a “democracy” – thinking that a republic works just like a democracy. Of course, this isn’t true. A democracy is where the people directly make the decisions, a republic uses representatives of the people for this purpose. It is democracies that are limited in size, not republics.

There have been some prominent writers (themselves living under monarchy) who perpetuate this confusion in order to make monarchy seem better by comparison. By mixing the two definitions, they can make people think that republics have flaws that really only apply to democracies, and by the same reasoning that republics can only operate on a small scale.

It’s easy to fall into this trap. All the ancient governments (like Greece) were more purely democratic, and the few examples of representative government we have from Europe (like Britain) aren’t totally based on that concept – there are still monarchical elements. Here in America we have come up with something totally new – a purely representative form of government. It’s a shame that some people here don’t want to see this innovation fully come to pass.

The limit on the size of a democracy is the distance to the central place where everyone meets (and the limit on the number of people who can effectively meet in that place). In a republic, it is the maximum distance that will allow the representatives to meet often enough to conduct the government’s business. So does this Union fall within those limits? The length of the east coast is our largest distance to travel, and it hasn’t been a problem yet for representatives from all over the map to show up for meetings of the Continental Congress.

Before we go further, let’s define how large an area we’re talking about. Our borders are somewhat irregular, but on average it is about 868 miles north-and-south, by about 750 miles from the Atlantic to the Mississippi (we think). Comparing that to some European countries, a republic seems possible. We aren’t that much larger than Germany (where they assemble representatives from all across the country). Same thing in Poland until recently. Even in Great Britain (which is obviously smaller than we are) the northernmost representatives have as far to travel as our most distant ones.

As good as the evidence is so far, it gets even better.

First, we aren’t talking about a government that will control everything, but one that will only have a few limited powers that are national in scope. Most power will be left with the existing State governments. If we were talking about getting rid of the State governments entirely, then the opponents of the Constitution might have a valid argument. As it stands though, the proposed Federal government needs the States.

Second, we know that our current goal is to unite the 13 original States (and this is obviously possible, as we’re doing it already), but we also want to be able to deal with any new States that get formed from the largely uninhabited country to the west and northwest that we control.

Third, we’re constantly making fantastic improvements to our communication and transportation infrastructure and these will only get better over time. More and better roads & canals, along with increasing use of our rivers and harbors to transfer goods between the States is inevitable.

Fourth, and most importantly, practically every State has an external border right now. This will cause each State to invest resources in its own defense. The States that are farthest from the national capital may have a harder time sending representatives to meet about national issues, but without the Union, they will definitely have a worse time trying to go it alone against potentially threatening foreign nations on their borders. Sending representatives might be expensive, but war is even more so.

I’ll let you be the judge. You know how rough the path of disunion would be. Don’t let people tell you that we can’t get along as one people. Don’t let them tell you that this Union is impossible to maintain. We have shed too much blood together to part ways now. If anyone has radical ideas, it is those who suggest that we break up our Union under the guise of increasing freedom and happiness. Why should we fear the new ideas contained in the Constitution? Simply because they are new? We’ve never had a blind loyalty to tradition when we can see a better path. We can be a shining example of proper government for all the world. Think of the spot we’d be in if the Revolutionaries had been slaves to tradition! Luckily for us, they created something new – a government that had never existed before. Sure, it has some flaws – the work of creating a government from scratch is hard – but we can overcome and correct those problems. This is what the Constitution does, and that’s what you need to think about when deciding whether to ratify it.

Mini-Federalist #10 – The Same Subject Continued: The Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection

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 #10, the original text of which can be read here: http://thomas.loc.gov/home/histdox/fed_10.html

Originally published November 22, 1787 by “Publius” – who was in this case, James Madison.

One of the things that a well-constructed Union will do is mitigate the effects of “special interests“. Fans of democracy find the emergence of these special interests to be the most troubling part of the system, so any efforts to control these are critical. Many democracies have been killed off by these special interests because they are one of the first things that critics bring up as a weakness. In America, we’ve made some improvements to pure democracy in an effort to fix some of these problems, but we haven’t gotten it totally perfect yet. Unfortunately, it is true that a lot of the time the weak get preyed-upon by the strong and that the government actually helps this happen.

When I’m talking about special interests what I mean is a group of citizens (whether a majority or minority) that is united by some specific passion, or temporary swell of emotion. They generally don’t care about how they affect the rights of others, or about the permanent effects of the policies they want put in place. We have a choice: we can either get rid of the causes of, or try to limit the effects of, these special interests.

The causes could be controlled by making sure that either: A) no one has any freedom; or B) everyone thinks, feels, and acts the same way. Clearly we can’t get rid of our liberty – that would defeat the whole purpose of our government. You could eliminate fires by getting rid of all the oxygen in the world, but you’d also kill all the people. What would be the point of that? The second option is just impossible to enforce. As long as there are different people, there will be different opinions. No one is perfect, and no one is all-knowing. People will continue to get things wrong. Part of the job of the government is to protect what we’ve built in our own lives, and since that will be different for everyone (and inherently un-equal as a result of that difference) there will naturally be different groups coalescing around the protection of their own interests. Simply put, the cause of these “special interests” is human nature itself.

Even when people have no real differences, they seem to make conflict out of the smallest things, but most of the time they fight about who has the most stuff (or even who is perceived to have the most stuff). The special interests duke it out, and the government spends a lot of time acting (largely unsuccessfully) as the referee.

People are naturally biased toward themselves – we wouldn’t let anyone be the judge at his own trial, right? Why should we allow anyone to make laws that can affect EVERYONE in the service of the lawmaker’s own interests? In our system, if there is a dispute between creditors and debtors for example, whichever side has the most political influence is the side that will win. Shouldn’t justice prevail rather than merely raw power? Another example: should we protect our own industries by taxing imports? The manufacturers in this country may have one answer and the people as a whole probably another. What about the distribution of taxes? If the lawmakers can make the “other guy” (whoever they perceive that to be) pay, that’s money they’ve saved “their guys”.

It is naive to think that our government officials will stay above the fray and only care about the public good. Despite our best efforts, we’re going to end up electing some shady characters. Even if all our politicians are good-natured and intelligent, they may not foresee all the consequences of the laws they make.

Clearly, we can’t get rid of the causes of special interests. So we need to try to limit the damage they can do.

If the special interest is a minority, then they can be defeated with a simple vote – dealing with every interest may waste a lot of time, but at least the damage will be prevented. But what if the majority holds such a destructive special interest – wielding it against the rights of the minority? This is the big question, and I see only two ways that we can deal with it.

We have to either A) make sure that no majorities form around the same special interest, or B) we have to put systems in place to prevent them from becoming oppressive. We can’t rely on moral codes to prevent people from oppressing each other – they do it at the individual level all the time already, and would only be worse with the backing of the entire society.

Obviously, this issue is impossible to prevent in a pure democracy. When the majority rules absolutely, there is nothing to stop them from stepping all over the minority. Because of this, democracies are inherently unstable and don’t really protect property and other rights. In practice, they don’t last for very long, and their deaths are explosive. Political scientists who favor democracy assume that if everyone has an equal vote, they’ll all end up with equal property, and a unified thought-process. This is plainly untrue.

A republic is the cure. By “republic”, I mean a system in which there is representation rather than direct votes on each issue. This delegation of authority also has the benefit that it can be applied to a larger society than a democracy could effectively be.

The representatives can help smooth things by being a buffer that the people have to pass through to get things done. Being elected by the people, they will most likely be the most patriotic, just and wise among the people. They may realize that what the public says they want, isn’t really in their best interests. Of course this could work the other way, too. If we get politicians who are in it for their own interests and those of their friends, they can easily double-cross the people. So would a large or small republic be better at preventing this scenario?

Obviously, the larger one. Regardless of how small your republic is, you need to have enough legislators to ensure that the people are well-represented, but not so many as to essentially result in a democracy. The smaller your legislative talent pool, the worse your legislators will be, so a larger republic should produce better politicians. A larger voter base should also be able to figure out which politicians are the shady ones, and keep them out. Of course, if the ratio of electors to politicians is too high, the lawmakers will be too disconnected from the people. A ratio that is too low will produce politicians who can’t get out of local issues to focus on the national ones. The proposed Constitution solves this by giving the power for local issues to the people or the States, and the national issues to the Federal government.

Returning to the size and scope of the government, a republic can cover a larger area than a democracy can hope to – this is a natural defense against special interests. Smaller societies will produce smaller interest groups that will gain (and use) majority support easier. A larger country will have a more diverse citizenry, with a larger group of people to organize and unite, so it will be less likely that majorities will form around specific special interests. For another thing, the more people who need to agree to the special interest’s plan, the more likely that people will be critical of it.

It is apparent that just as a republic is better than a democracy, a larger republic is better than a smaller one – a Union (like the one proposed in the Constitution) would be better than the individual States. And for all the reasons we’ve listed.

Special interest leaders may be able to cause trouble in one State. An overly-political religion may influence a region, but won’t get very far. Calls for paper money, for debt forgiveness, for redistribution of wealth, and other horrible things will be much less likely to spread across an entire country our size.

The proposed Constitution holds a solution to the problem of special interests. If we all can believe in the principles of a republic, we can all be Federalists and support the Constitution.