Federalist No. 20

True federalism is not a “government over governments” but a sharing or more properly stated, a division of important powers.

Federalist No. 20 is the last in a series of articles on the light the history of republics shine on the defects of the Articles of Confederation. Hamilton and Madison again team up to demonstrate, from history, the need for a more active central authority. They chose as their subject the United Province of the Netherlands (1581-1795) to relate the misfortunes that doom even the greatest of confederacies that lack the necessary powers as proposed by the US Constitution.  After relating the political structure and organization of the Dutch republic, the authors make note of the inconsistencies of the Dutch confederacy as apparent from what is “delineated on parchment” to the actual experience of that nation. What the authors find is similar to the ancient republics thus far reviewed: “imbecility in the government; discord among the provinces; foreign influence and indignities; a precarious existence in peace and peculiar calamities from war.” In short, republican confederacies, like the Articles of Confederation are doomed to repeat the same problems over-and-over again until they adopt the important articles of the new constitution.

With each new crisis in the Dutch confederacy, which stems from “popular convulsions,” more power is called for from one province or person to correct the problem and thus in the end tyranny reigns over the republic in a greater degree than if the nation would have had a stronger, more active constitutional authority. So why did the Dutch republic survive as long as it did? Because it had the Stadtholder to keep it somewhat unified. This is meant to be an obvious attack of what the authors consider a major weakness of the Articles of Confederation, as it did not provide for any type of executive. “How,” might Madison and Hamilton ask supporters of the Articles, “can the United States remain even a loose confederation of independents when it has no executive authority to carry out laws passed by the national congress?” Without the stadtholdership anarchy would have broken up the Dutch union in its infancy. This is meant to be a clear warning to Americans in 1787 that the current constitutional regime could not long endure without active, unifying national forces.

But is that true? If as the authors wisely state, “experience is the oracle of truth,” does history provide one example of a modern republic that has endured without a national government with sufficiently broad powers to keep it together? The answer from what I know would be not one the size of the United States. The authors of Federalists No. 20 were indeed correct in such a conclusion. But from our present situation many of the benefits of such a strong union are revealing their weakness as well.  When the bread one earns is robbed by the “legitimate” hand of a national bureaucrat and distributed to a myriad of complex and shadowy uses one is compelled to wonder aloud if a strong, active government was indeed a needful thing. For what is the end of civil government? Is it to provide for every needful thing for every living thing? If this be the case then please let me leave to live my life elsewhere in a civil polity of my choosing. But we can’t leave; we must stay, for apparently somewhere in the document Hamilton and Madison were defending it states unequivocally we can’t. Surely it must be very clear that you cannot leave because the bloodiest war in American history was fought over the principle.

But despite the defects of the Articles, as pointed out by the example of the Netherlands, the authors make clear that they are not arguing for a unitary system of national government. They warn that a “sovereignty over sovereigns, a government over governments” is inconsistent with the “order and ends of civil polity.” So again, for all of their criticisms of the Articles of Confederation, Hamilton and Madison DO NOT argue for a strong unlimited national government but one with important checks not only among the central branches but between the states and the national government. True federalism is not a “government over governments” but a sharing or more properly stated, a division of important powers.


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