Reading Project

Federalist Paper No.20

The Same Subject Continued

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

Tuesday, December 11, 1787

James Madison with Alexander Hamilton


Federalist Paper 20 continues the theme of the previous four papers by focussing on the case of the United Netherlands and its constitution. First, Madison/Hamilton outline the broad constitutional framework of the Constitution and how it is supposed to work. The Union consists of seven equal, independent States composed of equal and independent cities. The States-General, representing all the powers of a Federal Government, is furnished with members by the provinces. The States-General has the power to make war and sign treaties, raise armies and fleets, regulate the mint as well as collect duties and taxes. The provinces cannot enter into foreign treaties or raise duties against their neighbours above that of internal State duties.


Above all this is the stadtholder, a kind of hereditary prince, who has the power to settle disputes, assist in the deliberations of the States-General, entertain and engage foreign powers diplomatically, and is admiral-general of the armed forces. In theory, this constitution should have been a means to peace, but Madison/Hamilton argue, the jealousy in each province renders the practice very different from the theory.


Problematic to the constitution are:


In summary, Madison/Hamilton see the problem of the United Netherlands being the result of the independence of the states and the weakness of a central authority to enforce the Constitution. Without constitutional discipline, the risk of armed conflict is greater: Tyranny has perhaps grown out of the assumptions of power, called for, on pressing exigencies, by a defective constitution, than out of the full exercise of the largest constitutional authorities. Madison/Hamilton acknowledge that the position of the stadtholder has worked to some degree to alleviate the problems, capable of quickening their tardiness, and compelling them to the same way of thinking.


Madison/Hamilton see in Holland’s example a potential corollary in the United States of America and gives a prayer of thanks for the propitious concord which has distinguished the consultations for our political happiness. I can only think that they primarily mean the Constitutional Convention, which is here presented as a beneficence of God. Furthermore, Madison/Hamilton indulge their audience in the hope that America will be the example from which Holland learn. Madison/Hamilton are thereby arguing not only that America can be a more stable republic under the new Constitution, but that America can become an example to other nations, and implicitly, a political world leader.


Madison/Hamilton end by reaffirming an argument made in previous Federalist Papers: that for stability there must be a central authority, not a group of separate States claiming equality in a situation that is tantamount to being separate nations, and that governments must govern people rather than abstract institutions, so that law may be conducted through the courts rather than through violence. In Madison/Hamilton’s words:

The important truth, which it unequivocally pronounces in the present case, is that a sovereignty over sovereigns, a government over governments, a legislation for communities, as contradistinguished from individuals, as it is a solecism in theory, so in practice it is subversive of the order and ends of civil polity, by substituting violence in place of law, or the destructive coercion of the sword in place of the mild and salutary coercion of the magistracy.

16 April 2018

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