Federalist No.31

The Same Subject Continued

(Concerning the General Power of Taxation)

Tuesday, January 1, 1788

Alexander Hamilton


In this paper Hamilton continues the discussion about federal taxation. His main object in this paper is to dismiss concerns that the powers of federal taxation will impinge upon the States' ability to tax; indeed, the very sovereignty the States enjoy.


Hamilton’s strategy in attacking the anti-Federalist position might be said to be an associative fallacy. He uses examples from mathematics and geometry (for example, all right angles are equal to each other) to argue for the objective necessity of federal taxation. Hamilton argues that the need for federal taxation has the same degree of certainty as his geometrical maxims. He concedes that there is a need for questioning and caution, but any resistance carried too far will degenerate into obstinacy, perverseness, or disingenuity.


He gives two reasons why taxes are necessary; that a federal government has a duty to care for its people, and that duty extends to the defence of its people.


Hamilton anticipates the anti-Federalist position: that States also have a duty to care for their people, but that a supreme national government would impinge upon State rights and might, in time, even legislate away those rights, thereby making States even more subservient to a Federal government.


This is where Hamilton’s associative argument finds its limitation, since while it might have justified the need for taxation, it cannot logically determine the means by which taxes are enforced. Instead, Hamilton is dismissive of the anti-Federalist argument rather than continuing upon a path of logical association.


The fears of the anti-Federalists are dismissed as fears of the imagination: it is easy to imagine an endless train of possible dangers.


Hamilton now rests his argument upon the sovereignty of the people within a republic. The argument goes something like this:

  1. State constitutions already give them complete power under the current model, so any concern about “usurpation” (the concern that federal powers would usurp State powers) is answered by the lack of concern over state powers on that account;
  2. Fear of usurpation rests only upon imaginary scenarios that cannot be known and will only lead to absolute scepticism and irresolution;
  3. The problem of usurpation has the potential to work both ways, since the power of government rests upon the support of its civilians, and State governments have a greater connection to their people and therefore a greater degree of influence;
  4. Finally, the Constitution can only address the nature and extent of taxation powers, but cannot anticipate how they might be changed in the future. Once the powers of a Federal government have been set, it will ultimately fall to the people to protect and maintain the Constitution.

3 September 2018