Federalist No.7

Concerning Dangers From Dissension Between The States

Wednesday, November 14, 1787

Alexander Hamilton


Until this paper, Jay and Hamilton’s arguments about the dangers of dissolving the Union have been mostly theoretical and based upon historical example. Hamilton furthers the argument in this paper by making it specific to contemporary American examples.


First, he suggests that the potential for conflict is not something that might happen if the Union is dissolved, but rather, the potential is already latent between the States. It is the Union with its appeal to the Federal Court that manages disputes that, without the agreement of laws now common to the States, would potentially end in armed conflict.


He cites a number of specific causes for dispute that would arise with the dissolution of the Union.

Territorial Disputes


Until the War of Independence, unclaimed lands on the American continent were deemed ‘crown lands’. After the war, responsibility for those lands fell to the Union. States ceded their rights to the land to the Union. With vast tracks of land still unclaimed to the west, it would be in the interests of separate states to claim those lands if the Union was dissolved. The potential for conflict is obvious.


Hamilton strengthens his arguments in this paper by also examining what might be considered best case scenarios. In this case, he toys with the unlikely notion that all States would agree that all had rights to the new land. This, he points out, only raises new problems. By what rule would new land be apportioned? And without a common umpire, who would decide?


He also demonstrates the value of the current Union in this kind of situation. He cites a dispute between Connecticut and Pennsylvania over Wyoming. The case was taken to the Federal Court, and after Connecticut lost, compensations were negotiated through negotiation.


He also cites a dispute between his own state and Vermont over land and the future power it would bring. Vermont, along with Maryland, was supported by five other States until Canada was found to have an interest in the matter. It was the Union and the perceived interest in protecting American interests that drew the States together.

Competitions of Commerce


This issue has already been discussed at length in other papers. The dangers of each state pursuing a set of trading rules advantageous to themselves, and of merchants failing to comply with rules of trade and other trading disputes, would be magnified without a common law to unite them.


Hamilton also elucidates the dangers alluded to in other papers, of the possibility of some States growing richer and more powerful because of their position, and others failing to flourish: The opportunities which some States would have of rendering others tributary to them…


He cleverly makes this relevant to his New York audience. What if Connecticut and New Jersey were to become embroiled in conflict with New York over importation duties, upon which New York was reliant for its prosperity? Would New York be left quiet and undisturbed with its wealth if these neighbours were disadvantaged by New York’s trading rules?

Public Debt of the Union


The debt of the Union, largely owed to the expenses of fighting the War of Independence, was a key reason for seeking to extend the powers of the Union in the first place. The fact that the Federalist papers needed to be written attests to the likelihood of conflict over this subject.


Hamilton identifies two key problems:


In other words, without a strong Federal government that can tax States, separate States risk falling into conflict. And since foreign states have an interest in American debt, the inability to address the debt risks the involvement of foreign states in the form of invasion, to compound the problems of state conflict.


Here’s where Hamilton uses another best-case scenario to further his argument. Even if States could agree to apportion the debt, in practice the repayment would still be perceived to be unfair and a call to revise the agreement would be made. Other than that, failure of states to pay the debt for various reasons – lack of resources, poor management, disaster or reluctance – would lead to some form of conflict. There is, perhaps, nothing more likely to disturb the tranquillity of nations than their being bound to mutual contributions for any common object that does not yield an equal and coincident benefit.


Hamilton concludes, as he did in his previous paper, by arguing that these circumstances would threaten American sovereignty, since by the operation of such jarring alliances, [America would] be gradually entangled in the pernicious labyrinth of European politics and wars; and … would be likely to become a prey to the artifices and machinations of powers equally the enemies of them all.

13 February 2018