The Federalist Papers | Study Guide

Alexander Hamilton

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The Federalist Papers | Essays 19–21 | Summary



Essay 19: The Same Subject Continued (The Insufficiency of the Present Confederation to Preserve the Union)

In this paper coauthored by Madison and Hamilton, the discussion of prior confederacies continues, supported by specific examples focusing on Germany and Switzerland. Germany, in particular, proves to have been an abysmal failure in which "wars between the emperor and the princes and states" resulted in "general imbecility, confusion, and misery." Switzerland presents a special case, since the individual districts, or cantons, are not formally knit together in a confederacy but owe their association with each other to a unique topographical position.

Essay 20: The Same Subject Continued (The Insufficiency of the Present Confederation to Preserve the Union)

In this paper, once again (like the previous two) coauthored by Madison and Hamilton, the focus shifts to the Netherlands, which comprise seven coequal, sovereign states. The States-General presides over the union, composed of about 50 deputies. Despite the considerable authority held by the stadtholder, or chief executive, the government of the Netherlands has proved weak and ineffectual.

Essay 21: Other Defects of the Present Constitution

This essay, along with Essays 22 and 23, focuses on Hamilton's diagnosis of serious shortcomings in the Articles of Confederation―referred to here as "the present Constitution," as opposed to the new Constitution proposed by the Philadelphia convention held from May to September 1787. Among the defects that Hamilton singles out is the total lack of sanctions for the laws enacted under the Articles. The federal government has no power to compel obedience or punish disobedience. Absence of a mutual guaranty of the state governments is also a critical defect. Without such a guaranty states must abandon any hope of Union assistance if their citizens' liberties are threatened or if a successful faction attempts to mount a tyranny.

Another serious error, in Hamilton's view, is the principle in the Articles of regulating contributions to the Union treasury by quotas. The only remedy for this evil, Hamilton asserts, is to accord the national government the power to raise its own revenue in its own way. Discussing taxes on consumption, Hamilton remarks such impositions usually prescribe their own limit and possess a built-in security against excess.


The discussions in Essays 19 and 20 of European republics such as the German states, Switzerland, and the Netherlands display an altogether pessimistic tone, with Hamilton and Madison taking the view that none of these examples offer instructive models for imitation by the United States.

In Essay 21, when Hamilton embarks on an extended treatment of the deficiencies in the Articles of Confederation, it is scarcely surprising that he soon mentions "the tempestuous situation from which Massachusetts has scarcely emerged." He refers, of course, to Shays's Rebellion, an uprising that took place in western Massachusetts between August 1786 and February 1787. The rebellion, therefore, occurred less than a year before the publication of Essay 21 and would have been fresh in readers' memory. One of its leaders was Daniel Shays (c. 1747–1825), a veteran of the Revolutionary War, who had served for five years. The rebellion seems to have been caused by the postrevolutionary economic depression, which entailed high taxes and stringent pursuit of debtors. Popular demonstrations were organized against the courts, and Shays led a force of over 1,000 men on an attack on the federal arsenal at Springfield in the winter of 1787. Defeated, Shays fled to Vermont, was later sentenced to death, and then pardoned. Hamilton included the example of Shays to emphasize the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation, as well as to illustrate the extremely serious ramifications of economic distress and disorder in the new nation. He may have also intended to shock his readers to some extent with the references to Shays's death sentence and ensuing pardon.

For many supporters of a new Constitution to replace the Articles, Shays's Rebellion served as a clear example of federal weakness where strength and energy were required. In his comments on the subject in Essay 21, Hamilton underscores the rebellion's importance by resorting to rhetorical questions (questions posed for the sake of persuasive effect, rather than in the expectation of specific answers). Who can say, he asks, what would have happened if the rebels had been led by a Caesar or a Cromwell? Hamilton expects readers to recognize both military leaders: Julius Caesar (102–44 BCE), the most brilliant general of ancient Rome, and Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658), the British military and political leader who seized control of the English Revolution after the execution of King Charles I in 1649 and headed the government as Britain's "Lord Protector" in the 1650s. Hamilton also asks rhetorically who could predict the effects of a despotism established in Massachusetts on her neighbors, such as New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New York.

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