Federalist No.17

The Same Subject Continued

(The Insufficiency Of The Present Confederation to Preserve the Union)

Wednesday, December 5, 1787

Alexander Hamilton


This paper addresses a counterpoint to the arguments made in the previous papers, that America under a strong federal government will be politically more stable. Hamilton addresses the fear that a strong federal government will encroach upon the powers of State governments and become too powerful. This paper, in a nutshell, argues that will not happen.


Initially Hamilton dismisses this in a tone which I could imagine some taking offence to: The regulation of the mere domestic police of a State appears to me to hold out slender allurements to ambition. Further, he states, …all those things, in short, which are proper to be provided for by local legislation, can never be desirable cares of a general jurisdiction.


His key justification for his argument, however, lies in the assertion, that [human nature’s] affections are commonly weak in proportion to the distance or diffusiveness of the object. In other words, those closest to us command our loyalty: that a man is more attached to his family than to his neighbourhood, to his neighbourhood than to the community at large, and so on. In extending this argument to the question of the new constitution. Hamilton argues that the States serve the people on a day to day basis, while the Federal government is concerned with matters more esoteric to the needs of ordinary individuals. This alone, Hamilton argues, will assure the States their power, so long as they do not neglect their constituents.


Hamilton uses the Scottish clan system to make this point; that fealty to the Scottish aristocracy instead of the monarch was common, until it was subdued by a more energetic system of civil polity introduced by the English system.


Hamilton also uses the example of feudal society to illustrate the idea of proportion to the distance or the diffuseness of the object, where opposition to the sovereign was common, being a power removed from the daily lives of his people, while fealty to landowners for whom ordinary people worked was greater.


In short, more localised governments will always have the people’s support rather than a federal government, if the local government (in this case, the States) govern well, Hamilton argues.


Hamilton’s argument is clear enough, but this was one federalist paper that seemed weak, to me. Hamilton’s dismissive tone at the beginning suggested he had little with which to counterargue. His tone was not enough to dismiss the possibility that the Federal government might have motivations to encroach upon state powers in the future, and if that were so, his arguments of fealty to the State seemed irrelevant, especially if the powers sought by the Federal government were those that had little bearing upon the lives of the ordinary person. If the legal powers sought appeared abstract to ordinary people, what then?

25 March 2018