Federalist No.45

The Alleged Danger From The Powers Of The Union To The State Governments

Saturday, January 26, 1788

James Madison


Having discussed the nature of the Federal government’s powers in relation to the States in the previous five papers, and having looked at specific sections of the proposed Constitution in relation to those powers, Madison now returns to a more general discussion about the perceived dangers of the Constitution to State powers. Broadly speaking, Madison’s argument in this paper is that State governments have little to fear from a federal government. On the contrary, a federal government is potentially weaker than its State counterparts.


Madison begins his argument with a philosophical point about the purpose of government. He asserts that in the Old World, … the people were made for kings. America, however, fought a war with England to maintain the happiness and liberty of its people. Therefore, to prioritise the continued power of State governments over the happiness of the people is to act according to the old European values that protected the power of kings. Of course, this argument depends upon a belief that these two things are mutually exclusive. Madison does not say they are, but argues that the Union was important when facing danger, and an America united under a foreign government will also be safer against inter-State conflicts, factions and multiple militaries.


Madison briefly refers to other historical unions that failed – the Achaean League and the Lycian Confederacy – along with the feudal system, to make his next point. In the case of the first, Madison states that it was the incapacity of the federal authority to prevent dissensions, and finally the disunion, of the subordinate authorities that undermined them. In the case of the feudal system, the problem for a general authority lies in the fact that allegiances tend to be given to local authorities. In the cases of the Achaean League and Lycian Confederacy, their unions worked when external threats existed. In the case of feudal Europe, it was external threats that prevented an ever-growing Balkanisation of Europe. As for America, it has passed the period of its external threat which helped unite it, but the danger lies in its disunion once the threat disappears.


American States enjoy similar advantages to feudal states, in relation to a federal government. They will enjoy local influence over their people as well as an interdependence between States. In addition to this, the federal government will rely upon the States to enforce its laws, and the make-up of the federal government will be heavily influenced by the States, and not just in the Senate, which represents the States, but even in the House of Representatives, which will also be elected with the influence of local authorities. The president cannot be elected without the cooperation of state legislature.


The advantage of State governments over the Federal government extends into the sheer number of people involved. State governments and their agents will outnumber the Federal government which relies upon them. So, even if federal taxes are to be collected, it will be done under the auspices of State governments and according to the rules, appointed by the several States.


Madison’s last point concerns the general nature of federal power. Obviously, his argument here is in the context of the recent war with England. He argues that the Federal government’s authority lies in external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce…, while the powers of State governments remain general and wide ranging. Therefore, the Federal government will be more important in times of war and less so in times of peace. So, Madison’s argument is that if the Constitution provides the Federal government the power to carry out its duties properly, the periods which might favour their ascendency over the governments of particular States would be lessened. To this end he reasons that the new Constitution is really only reinvigorating the original powers of the Articles of Confederation, except that it substitutes a more effectual mode of administering them.


Madison’s closing remarks feel like point-scoring against the States. Had the states cooperated in paying taxes or had the Confederation had the legal power to compel them to pay, the new Constitution would not have been necessary. Madison dismisses the argument that to have recognised the Confederacy’s authority to impose taxes would have caused the States to have lost their constitutional powers, and have undergone an entire consolidation, as a nonsense. He states that had that been the case, the State governments would, in reality, have been incompatible with any model of government proposed.

28 February 2019