Reading Project

Federalist Paper No.41

General View Of The Powers Conferred By The Constitution

Saturday, January 19, 1788

James Madison


Madison returns to an issue previously discussed in the Federalist Papers, the issue of a standing army and how to fund it. It seems from his discussion that this is one of the key criticisms made by those opposing the new Constitution.


However, this issue is now framed within a wider argument, since this paper will be the first of several addressing whether the powers vested in the new national government are commensurate to need: Is the aggregate power of the general government greater than ought to have been vested in it? First, Madison acknowledges that any power has the potential for abuse; that the purest of human blessing must have a portion of alloy in them. Therefore, Madison’s general question does not address perfection, but what will be the greater, not the perfect, good.


He separates the general powers of the union into six separate classes:

  1. Security against foreign danger [the subject of this paper]
  2. Regulation and intercourse with foreign nations [See Federalist 42]
  3. Maintaining harmony between the states [See Federalist 42]
  4. Miscellaneous objects of general utility [See Federalist 43]
  5. Restraining states from injurious acts [See Federalist 44]
  6. Provisions to effectively manage the above powers [See Federalist 44]


Concerning the first class of powers, the subject of this paper, Madison returns to the question of whether it is necessary to maintain a standing army, and the limitations placed upon this. Madison argues that placing limitations on the government’s ability to levy and maintain an army would only make sense if the government could likewise control the levying of foreign armies and foreign policy. Even the presence of only one armed and aggressive country in a region makes it necessary for all peace-loving nations to likewise maintain an army and their vigilance. He uses the example of the militarisation of Europe in the fifteenth century because of the militarisation of France under Charles VII. Madison argues that Europe maintained relative peace because of militarisation, otherwise they would have risked France's aggression.


Nevertheless, Madison acknowledges that a standing army can be dangerous, since Rome fell victim to its own armies. This is the imperfect alloy he has addressed already. Nevertheless, he argues, America will be safer from foreign threat with less expense if it unites under the new Constitution – only one army would be needed, not many State armies – and would be less likely to fall to internal conflict, as Rome did. He argues that not all states are equal in population and resources, and that a situation which allowed a confederation of totally independent states to exist would be like Europe, in which each State had separate standing armies, all needlessly created through taxes imposed by each State. The potential for internal warfare would therefore be greater than the threat posed by a national standing army under the new Constitution. Under the new Constitution, Madison argues, America has the opportunity to avoid the conflicts of Europe and enjoy the benefits Britain has enjoyed by being geographically separate from Europe.


In addition to the benefit of being geographically separate to foreign powers and enjoying the security of union, Madison argues that a level of oversight is achieved by the provisions of the Constitution. The Constitution limits the term to which revenue can be allocated to the army to two years, which is much shorter in reality than Britain, which has no limitation on the allocation of funds in its constitution, despite its apparent laws, except by accepted practice.


Since taxation is linked to the maintenance of armies, Madison ends the paper by discussing the criticisms made against the provisions for taxation.


First, he argues that the nation cannot simply tax imports forever, since this assumes a predominantly agrarian economy with high imports. Once the economy moves to a greater degree of manufacturing, with a higher population, and increasing exports, it may be necessary to introduce bounties to encourage export, which may in fact rely first upon the importation of raw materials. To continue to place a burdensome level of tax on imports on raw materials required by manufacturing would, in the long term, be counterproductive.


Which brings Madison to the next point. Critics have quoted the proposed Constitution - to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises, to pay the debts, and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States (Article 1, Section 8, Clause 1.) – as evidence that the government would have unlimited power to collect taxation for the defence. Madison argues that the Constitution’s critics are selectively quoting by not including the specifications by which these powers might be employed. He also points out that the language of the Constitution is drawn from the language of the Articles of Confederation. He questions whether they would have interpreted the Articles of Confederation in the same way and allowed its wording to be interpreted as they now choose to interpret the proposed Constitution. Madison ends with the ironic observation: How difficult it is for error to escape its own condemnation!

21 January 2019

Revised and updated 17 May 2022

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