In the previous Federalist Paper Hamilton addressed the provision in the Constitution to allow the federal government to conduct elections to Congress:
… the Congress may, at any time, by law, make or alter such regulations, except as to the places of choosing senators. In this paper Hamilton continues his discussion concerning that provision by addressing the concern that it may provide the means by which to disenfranchise some groups of voters and thereby benefit
the wealthy and the well-born.
One means by which this might be achieved, Hamilton supposes, would be by limiting voting places to areas that would make it impractical for certain sections of the community to vote. He dismisses this fear on several accounts. First, anyone determined to rig elections would find a better way to do it. Second, that the attempt would cause widespread anger and even revolt. He also argues that the American population is not homogenous, being comprised of different wealth, intelligence, customs and morals that would make it difficult to isolate particular groups geographically. Finally, the structure of government – the House elected by the people, the Senate by the State legislatures – would make it difficult to form a common interest within Congress to affect such a plan. Also, the Senate would not benefit by this plan, since it is not elected by the people, and nor could the House, which is, since the
composition of the one [the Senate] would in this case counteract that of the other.
Hamilton next addresses the reality of such as conspiracy, since it would need to be directed by particular interest groups. But which groups would do this: by those tied to industry?; by different degrees of types of property?; by those with mercantile interests?; by those with manufacturing interests?; or by the
wealthy and well-born? Hamilton argues that the most likely groups to affect such a plan would be either landed men or merchants.
Hamilton argues that the State legislatures mostly represented landed interests since at that time the country was dominated by
cultivators of land. For that reason, the State legislative bodies would continue to reflect the composition of the land. That meant that outcomes for the vote for the House of Representatives was just as unlikely to have an outcome that did not reflect the composition of the population. Added to this, there would be no need to rig an election in favour of the landed class, since they would already be well represented. Finally, the importance of commerce to American prosperity would mean that there would be no incentive to negatively affect the interests of the mercantile class, anyway.
Finally, Hamilton turns to the class of the
wealthy and well-born, a phrase he borrows from the constitution’s detractors. Hamilton questions what defines this class of people. To the point, are they
confined to particular spots in the several States? because that is the only way that geographically limiting the places of voting could help them. Other than that, the only means to prefer rights to the
wealthy and well-born would be to demand property qualifications for vote. But there are no property prescriptions in the cCnstitution and this is unalterable by Congress.
Hamilton finishes with an ‘Even If’ proposition. That even if it was possible to disenfranchise voters to confer advantage to the wealthy classes by limiting the vote, a military force would be needed in order to enforce the outcome of such an election. And if that were the case, those undertaking this corruption would be unlikely to bother with the niceties of an election.
As an afterthought, though, one might say that the scenarios in this Paper are somewhat simplistic from modern experience. We have seen that elections do not need to be rigged by those in Congress to have served other interests: the experience of America’s 2016 election in which Russia interfered has shown that. But of more relevance is the efforts of Republican State legislatures in multiple States after the 2020 election in which Donald Trump falsely claimed to have had the presidential election stolen from him by a rigged election. Efforts to limit voters' ability to vote, through legislation targetting drop boxes in certain counties, mail-in voting, and even laws designed to make it more difficult for voters to wait in line, such as criminalising simple actions such as supplying drinking water to voters, speak to the possibilities that Hamilton would not countenance in 1788. Ironically, in defending the Constitution and answering concerns about State rights, Hamilton could never forsee that it would be certain States that would be undertaking the kind of disenfranchisement Hamilton argued could never be achieved by laws passed by the Federal Congress.
23 November 2019
Revised and updated 23 June 2022