Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville with Family

My wife, son, in-laws and I ended up taking our trip on Sunday. It was a really nice time.

We left the Baltimore area around 10am, and made it to Fredericksburg a little before noon. Our first stop was on the near side of the river in Falmouth, at Chatham Manor – an old plantation mansion dating back to the 1770s, currently owned by the NPS. Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln all visited this house, and it’s apparently the only house that can boast of having hosted each of those men as guests at one time or another. Robert E. Lee also met his wife here. There were a few very grand old trees planted in the 1810s that made for popular photo subjects for our group. There were also plenty of interesting little architectural details on the house and grounds that attracted my wife’s camera, too. I was more interested in this guy, though:

A 4.5-inch, 3300lb., Union Siege Rifle. Awesome.
A 4.5-inch, 3300lb., Union Siege Rifle. Awesome.

Here’s another shot so that you can get some context. I’m just a little under 6 feet tall:

Another shot of said Siege Rifle and me.
Another shot of said Siege Rifle and me.

Since my usual battlefield hangouts are Gettysburg and Antietam, I only ever see the smaller field pieces – these big siege guns are a treat to behold. They aren’t the only ones down there, either – the Confederate line has a few 30-pounder Parrots on display. Unfortunately, the markings on the 2 guns here at Chatham are almost totally unreadable. Either they have been worn off over time, or they’ve been painted-over a few too many times – perhaps both. It’s a shame because I’d love to know more about where these came from. Anybody have a good resource for that?

After Chatham, we crossed the Rappahannock (much more successfully than Ambrose Burnside and the Army of the Potomac did in 1862) and found our way through town to the Sunken Road section of the Fredericksburg battlefield. We walked along the stone wall, imagining the scene of brutal killing that took place a little more than 150 years ago in what is now a quiet neighborhood. Finally, we came to the original inspiration for the trip, the Kirkland Monument:

My mother-in-law, Karen at the Kirkland Monument.
My mother-in-law, Karen at the Kirkland Monument.

Reading the story of Richard R. Kirkland and seeing the monument was a touching moment for the group. A small sign of humanity in the midst of all the murderous destruction.

After the short walk back to the car, we drove down the rest of the Confederate line to the end at Prospect Hill, just so that everyone could get an idea of the scope of this battle and see the Confederate earthworks along the way.

We grabbed a quick late lunch outside of town and then went out to Chancellorsville. This time, we did a relatively quick driving tour of the field. We oriented ourselves at the visitor’s center (and saw the spot where Jackson was wounded). From there, we drove along the Confederate line to the Lee-Jackson Bivouac and Catherine’s Furnace so that I could explain the famous flank march. To get the Union perspective, we drove up to Hazel Grove (where I engaged in a little more artillery-nerdery) and then out the Plank road to the right flank of the Union line, where I explained Jackson’s surprise attack.

By then, it was getting a little late, and we had to get the baby home for bed, so we hit the road back to Baltimore. Everyone seemed to have had a good time (even John was well-behaved), and I think we all learned something and had new experiences – the hallmarks of a successful historical day trip.

The last Civil War adventure that we had with this part of the family was going out to the Antietam battlefield. Chronologically, the next battle in the east was Fredericksburg, then Chancellorsville – both of which we just covered yesterday. Now, the stage was set for Lee’s second invasion of the north. It’s pretty obvious what needs to happen now: I think when my niece and nephew come up for a visit in the summer, we’ll have to head to Gettysburg to keep the timeline going. That’s always a fun day.

Doing my Homework

I went over to my in-laws one night this week to help my father-in-law move some computer equipment around. While I was there, my mother-in-law was telling me about a conversation she had with someone she met at a conference. The guy was from Virginia (she thought Petersburg) and he was telling her about a monument to a soldier who went across the lines to render aid to some of his wounded enemies. I think they were talking about this one:

Monument to "The Angel of Marye's Heights" at Fredericksburg
Monument to “The Angel of Marye’s Heights” at Fredericksburg

I mentioned that I think that monument is at Fredericksburg, not Petersburg (there may be a similar monument at Petersburg – I’ve never been there), and with Fredericksburg being only 2 hours away, it’s easy to do as a day trip.

So on Sunday, I’ll be taking my wife, son, mother-in-law, and father-in-law down to Fredericksburg. So far as I know, it will be their first visit. I’ve only ever been once, and I went through pretty quickly as I was trying to do the entire Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park in one day. This time, I’ll not only have other people with me, but they’re people who aren’t quite as nerdy as I am about this stuff. I’d like to slow down a little. Chatham Manor is on the agenda (I skipped that side of the river last time), and I’ll probably leave out the southern end of the Fredericksburg field – as cool as I think Lee’s Hill is, I’m not sure that the group will want to make that climb. The main things will be finding cool views, seeing the sunken road, and getting a picture with that monument.

Depending on how the day goes, I might try to convince the group to go out west and see Chancellorsville. Since my big interest lies in Gettysburg, it would be nice to show the family the whole flow of that part of the war: Fredericksburg leading into Chancellorsville, and that battle setting the stage for the Gettysburg campaign. I think the biggest struggle will be the fact that none of these fields is as well-monumented as Gettysburg – there’s a bit more imagination needed to see what was going on. If we go, it’ll probably be a quick driving tour, with this (of course) being the critical stop:

The Lee-Jackson Bivouac
The Lee-Jackson Bivouac

It would also be nice to get a closer look at the artillery pieces up on Hazel Grove. I didn’t pay enough attention to the details on them last time.

Guns on Hazel Grove
Guns on Hazel Grove

I spent tonight (and will probably spend some time tomorrow night) brushing up on Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville so that I’m sure that I understand enough of the details that I can give a good overview and answer questions. I’ve focused on Gettysburg for so long, and gotten so deep there, that I really feel like I should branch out a little more.

Hopefully, everything will be smooth and we’ll all have a good time. I’ll probably write up a review once we get back.

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.

Brandy Station Sesquicentennial Tour

I’m extremely sad that I’m going to have to miss this. Unfortunately, my son is too young to tag along, and I won’t be able to arrange childcare for that day since my wife has to work.

I’ve been to Brandy Station once with my wife for about an hour. We were coming home from spending a nice long weekend in Charlottesville, VA and I noticed that the battlefield was right along our route. Knowing what a nerd I am for the Gettysburg campaign, she allowed me to stop. Being a late afternoon in rural Virginia, we had the field all to ourselves.

It isn’t exactly what her idea of a battlefield is. There are no monuments. There are only a few informational signs placed by the Civil War Trust along a walking trail through rolling fields and on hills. Hard as it may be to believe today, this peaceful site was the setting for the largest cavalry battle to ever take place in the western hemisphere – a fitting start to the campaign that would culminate in the war’s bloodiest fight.

Reading about the battle is one thing. But to really understand what happened, you just have to see the ground for yourself. If you can make it, I highly recommend that you take part in this tour – it’s free for goodness’ sake (and send me pictures!)

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 #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.

Mini-Federalist #16 – 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 #16, the original text of which can be read here: http://thomas.loc.gov/home/histdox/fed_16.html

Originally published December 4, 1787 by “Publius” – who was in this case, Alexander Hamilton.

We aren’t the only confederacy to fall into the trap of only making laws for the member states, and not for individuals. All of the previous ones that we know of did this in some capacity. I’m going to lay this all out because I think it’s worth remembering. Before I do though, I’ll say that the Lycian and Achaean confederacies (by all indications we have) seem to have done this the least, and they are (not coincidentally) the most highly-regarded of the ancient confederacies.

This error in thinking leads directly to anarchy. Like I explained in the last paper, it is natural for the states to ignore the laws of the central government. When that happens, the only eventual outcome is military enforcement by the central government against the states – in other words, civil war.

But would military force be enough to get it done? If we don’t have a standing army, this enforcement won’t happen often, and even if it does, it will result in the individual States choosing sides, and the more powerful side will win (regardless of whether it is the pro-union side or not). It’s extremely unlikely that this would only affect one State – it will probably be a group of them who ignore the Federal power – so they will naturally form an alliance. Smaller States that are on the fence could get drawn into the conflict by a larger, more powerful neighbor (many times using less-than-honorable or less-than-truthful justifications – especially if those larger States are in the anti-union camp). States that can’t find allies here will surely look to foreign nations for support (and you know they’d be happy to see us squabbling amongst ourselves). This will snowball out of control quickly, and the Union will be lost.

This shows only the potential “violent” death of the Union, though. Right now, we seem to be on the edge of a different kind of dissolution. Our States are wise and friendly enough that they will not immediately jump to war – instead, they will just get tired of fighting to maintain the Union by themselves and will drop their participation to the level of the least-participating State. In that scenario, since every State is guilty of ignoring the Federal government, who is going to decide which State to employ military force against? Even so, how could you determine which States don’t have the resources to participate, and which simply don’t want to? It would be impossible to tell, and whichever faction gains control of the central government would be free to use force against whichever States they wanted.

It seems pretty obvious that a government like this – with a standing, roving army to enforce even it’s most basic provisions, is NOT what we want. But this is exactly the kind of government opponents of the Constitution would lead us to. Even if this was an idea that could be accomplished, it would end up as a police state. It’s a nonstarter, though. We simply don’t have the means to maintain an army the size we’d need to be able to enforce Federal rules against the larger States. This is mythical, David and Goliath-type stuff here!

Historically, even smaller confederacies haven’t had success with military force against disobedient states. It was only used against the weakest states, and most of the time led to terribly destructive civil wars where every state took sides against the others.

All of this evidence points to an obvious conclusion: if our government is to succeed, it can’t have influence over only the States (as our opponents believe) but must be able to govern citizens as individuals. Not relying on the States, it must have the power to enforce its own laws. Any powers entrusted to the Federal government must come with the power to enforce those powers – just like the States have.

Of course, some of our opponents might say that we could still end up in a situation where the States get in the way, and we’re right back to military force again.

But there is a difference between non-compliance and active resistance. If our system requires the States’ participation in order to have the federal laws enforced, then the States can render the federal government utterly toothless by simply not doing anything. This inaction could easily be disguised as a lack of resources or ability by corrupt state leaders. In this situation, the people wouldn’t necessarily know that the Federal government is being actively fought against.

If we set the government up so that the Federal government can enforce its own laws with the people directly, then any resistance by the States would be plainly seen as the unconstitutional intrusion that it is. The States wouldn’t be able to get away with such encroachments anymore unless all the people, courts, and other States went along, too.

What about a group of individuals in rebellion? We can handle that the same way we do today – the courts can handle enforcement for the federal as well as the State laws. Better still, the Federal government can bring a lot more resources to bear against rebellious groups than any one State could hope to. If one of these disturbances spread nationwide (which doesn’t happen often) it would basically amount to a revolution and break-up of our government, and there’s no way for any government to fully prevent that from happening. Since those events would be rare and impossible to control, we shouldn’t judge the proposed Constitution on whether it can deal with them.

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: http://thomas.loc.gov/home/histdox/fed_15.html

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.

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.