The Federalist Papers | Study Guide

Alexander Hamilton

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The Federalist Papers | Essays 16–18 | Summary

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Summary

Essay 16: The Same Subject Continued (The Insufficiency of the Present Confederation to Preserve the Union)

In this essay, Hamilton undertakes to deal with the defects that beset confederacies. He mentions the Lycian and Achaean leagues in ancient Greece as admirable models of such confederations. But "delinquencies" among the members of a union are "natural and necessary offspring," and they must often be dealt with by force, with the cataclysmic result of civil war. Therefore, a large army at the disposal of the national government would seem to be a prerequisite for maintaining public order.

Civil war would entail what Hamilton terms "the violent death of the Confederacy." Yet a more natural death impends on the American scene: a wasting away of the federal system. Hamilton attributes this atrophy to the refusal of the national government, under the Articles, to resort to all the methods the states have at their disposal to execute their powers.

Hamilton points out that, under present arrangements, the states may frustrate the national government's intentions by evading responsibility to comply with national directives. He declares the execution of national laws should not require the action of state legislatures. Instead, the national government should be equipped and empowered to affect citizens directly. Evasion of national laws by state governments could bring government to a crashing halt, destroying the entire system of law in the country. Although a government cannot always control disorder, that is no reason to condemn government.

Essay 17: The Same Subject Continued (The Insufficiency of the Present Confederation to Preserve the Union)

The title indicates Hamilton's main idea in this essay: critics of the new Constitution who fear the national government will be too powerful stray wide of the mark, since republics usually err on the side of anarchy rather than tyranny. Hamilton contends it will always be easier for state governments to intrude or encroach on the authority of the national government than vice versa. This is because state governments, if they are upright and prudent, possess a greater degree of influence over the people. Such is the consequence of human nature, whereby people's affections are usually proportional to people's closeness to affection's objects. For this reason a federal constitution must be endowed with all the energy and strength that can be judged compatible with liberty.

As often, Hamilton supports his argument with examples from history—in this case from feudalism in the Middle Ages and from Scotland.

Essay 18: The Same Subject Continued (The Insufficiency of the Present Confederation to Preserve the Union)

Madison and Hamilton as coauthors begin this paper with an analogy between the Amphictyonic Council in ancient Greece of the sixth century BCE and the American Articles of Confederation. The authors contend that the ancient Greek states constituting the council were riven with discord and corrupted or duped by foreign powers. Madison and Hamilton add additional examples from ancient Greece to demonstrate the fragility of confederations. These illustrations confirm the thesis of Essay 17: that anarchy, rather than tyranny, is the chief danger besetting confederations.

Analysis

An epigram is a brief, memorable statement expressing a general truth about human life or behavior. Perhaps the most celebrated epigrams of the 18th-century movement known as the Enlightenment were coined by the English poet Alexander Pope (1688–1744). Although the authors of The Federalist Papers do not use this device often, they occasionally resort to it, as in Essay 16 when Hamilton declares, "When the sword is once drawn, the passions of men observe no bounds of moderation."

Typical of the meticulous care with which most of the papers are argued is the authors' skill at drawing distinctions. In Essay 16, for example, Hamilton distinguishes between the states' noncompliance and their active resistance to a federal mandate. Noncompliance, says Hamilton, makes it easy for the states to behave evasively. However, if the national government had the power to affect citizens directly, the states would find such behavior far more difficult.

In Essay 17, Hamilton uses an argument from the tendencies of human nature to bolster his claim that a national government must be endowed with sufficient strength and energy in order to function successfully. Affections, Hamilton says, weaken in proportion to their distance from their objects. Therefore, it is natural for citizens to pay more attention to, and feel more closely bound by, their local and state governments. The framers of a new Constitution, therefore, must take care to compensate for this factor by strengthening the government of the Union.

Also in Essays 17 and 18, readers find an extensive use of analogy by Hamilton. For example, in Essay 17 he draws an analogy between ancient feudal systems and confederacies, even while admitting that the comparison is imperfect. He also draws an analogy between the separate governments in a confederacy and the feudal baronies, pointing out such similarities as power rivalries. At the beginning of Essay 18 Hamilton and Madison present what they term "a very instructive analogy" between the Amphictyonic Council of ancient Greece and the Articles of Confederation in America. In their discussion of ancient Greece Madison and Hamilton employ a striking astronomical metaphor when they write of the smaller members of the confederacy as "satellites of the orbs of primary magnitude."

The frequent use of analogy by Hamilton in these essays establishes the author's authority as a trustworthy historian and also affords his readers the chance to evaluate various governments and confederacies in historical perspective. Similarly, the use of an astronomical metaphor places the author's comments on membership in a confederacy in a tangible and readily recognizable context.

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