The Federalist Papers | Study Guide

Alexander Hamilton

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The Federalist Papers | Essays 22–24 | Summary

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Summary

Essay 22: The Same Subject Continued (Other Defects of the Present Constitution)

In this essay, Hamilton extends his catalog of defects in the Articles of Confederation. The first defect he discusses is the lack of a power to regulate commerce between the states. In the field of trade and finance, he declares, there is no area that stands in greater need of federal supervision. This topic also has important implications for foreign trade. According to Hamilton, several states have already created confusion and distrust by attempting to interfere in this area. National control needs to be exerted to restrain such actions, which are "contrary to the true spirit of the Union."

The procedures in the Articles for raising armies are also woefully inadequate. At present they amount to no more than quotas and requisitions. Americans discovered during the Revolution how inequitable and haphazard these procedures could be. States competed with each other in a most unhealthy fashion. The system was, Hamilton declares, "a system of imbecility in the Union, and of inequality and injustice among the members."

Next on Hamilton's list of defects is equal suffrage among the states. To give Rhode Island equal weight in the scale of power as is accorded to Massachusetts, or to put Delaware on a par with Pennsylvania, is to accept a system that contradicts a basic maxim of republican government. Hamilton rejects the rejoinder that "sovereigns are equal," which he calls a sophistry. He then considers a counterargument to the effect that nine states, rather than seven, are required for consent to the most important measures under the Articles. But nine states, Hamilton retorts, can now be enumerated that contain less than a majority of the people of the United States. The system put in place by the Articles, in effect, gives a minority the veto power over the majority.

In addition, arrangements of this kind provide scope for domestic faction and foreign corruption. Hamilton imagines a hypothetical case in which the United States might be engaged in warfare as an ally of one foreign nation against another. In such a situation foreign meddlers would find it much easier to exercise undue influence under the arrangements of the present Articles. In general, foreign corruption, asserts Hamilton, finds all too easy an inlet in republics, as is shown by several specific examples.

But the pinnacle of defects in the Articles has yet to be discussed: the lack of a judicial power. Under the Articles the treaties of the United States are subject to the varying whims and infractions of 13 state legislatures. How can citizens expect any foreign nation to respect the United States under such conditions? In Hamilton's biting words the United States has a system "so radically vicious and unsound" that it must be totally changed, rather than merely amended.

Hamilton concludes this hard-hitting essay by remarking that the Articles of Confederation were never ratified by the people but were rather put into effect by the consent of the state legislatures. The people, according to Hamilton, are the "pure, original fountain of all legitimate authority," and their consent ought to furnish the basis of "the fabric of American empire."

Essay 23: The Necessity of a Government as Energetic as the One Proposed to the Preservation of the Union

In order to preserve the Union, Hamilton declares, an energetic Constitution is required. At the start of this essay, Hamilton enumerates the goals the federal government of the Union should adopt: common defense, preservation of public peace and order, regulation of domestic and foreign commerce, and foreign political and commercial relations.

In each of these areas, Hamilton argues in favor of a strong national government with powers not subject to limitation. Because it is impossible to foresee future emergencies in any detail, the national government must be given a free hand to raise armies and to build and equip fleets as these become necessary for the common defense. Likewise, with other topics or spheres that are entrusted to the federal government, it is "unwise and dangerous" to deny government an "unconfined authority." The management of the national interest necessitates an energetic government.

Essay 24: The Powers Necessary to the Common Defense Further Considered

Hamilton begins this essay by responding to a counterargument: namely, that the proposed Constitution has failed to provide proper provision for the issue of standing armies in peacetime.

Hamilton's response to this objection is complex. On the one hand, the power to raise armies rests with the legislative, not the executive, branch of government. The necessity to review appropriations of money at two-year intervals should stand as a real security against military buildups, Hamilton says.

Hamilton goes on to remark that only two state legislatures, those of Pennsylvania and North Carolina, have gone on record to forbid standing armies in peacetime. Hamilton himself believes it would be wise, under the new Constitution, to allow Congress considerable latitude in establishing and maintaining standing armies, considering the real dangers to which America is exposed from Britain, from Spain, and from native tribes on the Western frontier. Above all, Hamilton says, America needs to have a navy as soon as possible if it seriously hopes to be a commercial people.

Analysis

In Essay 22, Hamilton presents a hard-hitting follow-up to his previous enumeration of defects in the Articles of Confederation. It is interesting that Hamilton, as the chief organizer of The Federalist Papers, designed the sequence of essays in a certain order of importance. In the work's organization, the advantages of the Union are presented first, as if to impress on the reader the overwhelming truth that the Union is to be identified with safety, economy, efficiency, and rational good sense. After broadly sketching the goals and mechanisms of republican government, the essayists then embark on a detailed critique of the Articles of Confederation, which function lamely as a constitution for the new nation. It is only in the second half of the work as a whole that Hamilton, Madison, and Jay proceed to a detailed examination of the three branches of government as they are laid out in the proposed Constitution.

Essay 22 contains some of Hamilton's most effective firepower. The Articles of Confederation fall short in crucial respects: for instance, the inability to regulate commerce, the failure to raise armies, the paralyzing equality of suffrage among the states, the lack of a judiciary power, and the absence of popular ratification. If Essay 22 were a stand-alone piece, it would suffice as a crippling indictment of the Articles.

Essay 23 constitutes a plea for an "energetic" framework of government, with Hamilton claiming that "there is an absolute necessity for an entire change in the first principles of the system." Hamilton's language may seem sweeping, but readers must remember that the ratification process for the new Constitution did not present mixed or refined alternatives: it was a simple "up-or-down" vote. Aware that too many concessions might give an impression of weakness, Hamilton was inclined to phrase his support in the strongest possible terms.

Yet Hamilton's partisanship did not exclude a nuanced approach where he thought such a tactic necessary, as readers can see in Essay 24. Standing armies were a touchy subject in postrevolutionary America. Having won independence by force of arms, Americans were all too aware of abuses that had scarred life in European nations. This is a major reason for the currency and popularity of "militias"—temporary groups of soldiers who responded to particular crises or calls of duty but were by no means professional troops. Citizens' militias had been the backbone of resistance at the start of the Revolution.

In Essay 24 Hamilton tries to assuage skeptics with the reassurance that provisions for standing armies will always be subject to control by the national legislature and by periodic budgetary reviews. At the same time, he is emphatic in reminding readers that the United States faces real challenges and threats, emanating in particular from Spain, Britain, and the Indian nations on the frontier. A trained standing army in readiness to defend the national interest, argues Hamilton, is essential.

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