Thursday , November 26 2020
Home / Miles Kimball / The Federalist Papers #21 A: Constitutions Need to be Enforced—Alexander Hamilton

The Federalist Papers #21 A: Constitutions Need to be Enforced—Alexander Hamilton

Summary:
Enforcing constitutions is quite a tricky business. Some sort of judicial apparatus is usually required, combined with judicial independence and respect for the courts. The difficulty of enforcing a constitution is illustrated by the fact that many countries that have copied the US Constitution in large measure have at one point or another ended up with dictatorships. In the US, the reason I don’t worry much about our lapsing into dictatorship is because, as I understand it, our soldiers are taught that their primary duty is to uphold the constitution and only at a lower level than that to obey an particular commander in chief. To put a point to

Topics:
Miles Kimball considers the following as important:

This could be interesting, too:

Menzie Chinn writes Business Cycle Indicators as of November 25th

Menzie Chinn writes Covid-19 Weekly Fatalities and Excess Fatalities, as of November 25

Timothy Taylor writes What If All Jobs Were Potentially Part-time?

FT Alphaville writes Maradona’s contribution to monetary theory

The Federalist Papers #21 A: Constitutions Need to be Enforced—Alexander Hamilton

Enforcing constitutions is quite a tricky business. Some sort of judicial apparatus is usually required, combined with judicial independence and respect for the courts. The difficulty of enforcing a constitution is illustrated by the fact that many countries that have copied the US Constitution in large measure have at one point or another ended up with dictatorships.

In the US, the reason I don’t worry much about our lapsing into dictatorship is because, as I understand it, our soldiers are taught that their primary duty is to uphold the constitution and only at a lower level than that to obey an particular commander in chief. To put a point to it, in the US, in a very thorny disputed election, I think that whoever is declared by the Supreme Court to be the President of the United States, would be followed by US soldiers. And unlike some, I believe that the members of the US Supreme Court do have a loyalty to the law, where the law is reasonably clear.

The ability of a judicial branch to enforce a constitution depends heavily on individual citizens and companies being subject to the laws of the nation. If only the subordinate governments (in the US, preeminently the States) were subject de jure to the constitution, it is hard to see how the judicial branch could enforce that. It has no army! Much better if a large share of constitutional issues can be handled by court actions vis a vis individual citizens and companies.

Of course, some constitutional violations are so large that an army or the equivalent of an army is necessary to enforce them. In the the first half of the Federalist Papers #21, Alexander Hamilton argues that the federal government should, in particular, be the guarantor of state constitutions. But it had no such authority under the Articles of Confederation. Alexander Hamilton argues also that some realistic enforcement provisions are needed to ensure performance of the duties states have officially taken on in relation to the federal government.

Below is the text for the first half of the Federalist Papers #21.

FEDERALIST NO. 21

Other Defects of the Present Confederation

For the Independent Journal.

Author: Alexander Hamilton

To the People of the State of New York:

HAVING in the three last numbers taken a summary review of the principal circumstances and events which have depicted the genius and fate of other confederate governments, I shall now proceed in the enumeration of the most important of those defects which have hitherto disappointed our hopes from the system established among ourselves. To form a safe and satisfactory judgment of the proper remedy, it is absolutely necessary that we should be well acquainted with the extent and malignity of the disease.

The next most palpable defect of the subsisting Confederation, is the total want of a SANCTION to its laws. The United States, as now composed, have no powers to exact obedience, or punish disobedience to their resolutions, either by pecuniary mulcts, by a suspension or divestiture of privileges, or by any other constitutional mode. There is no express delegation of authority to them to use force against delinquent members; and if such a right should be ascribed to the federal head, as resulting from the nature of the social compact between the States, it must be by inference and construction, in the face of that part of the second article, by which it is declared, "that each State shall retain every power, jurisdiction, and right, not EXPRESSLY delegated to the United States in Congress assembled." There is, doubtless, a striking absurdity in supposing that a right of this kind does not exist, but we are reduced to the dilemma either of embracing that supposition, preposterous as it may seem, or of contravening or explaining away a provision, which has been of late a repeated theme of the eulogies of those who oppose the new Constitution; and the want of which, in that plan, has been the subject of much plausible animadversion, and severe criticism. If we are unwilling to impair the force of this applauded provision, we shall be obliged to conclude, that the United States afford the extraordinary spectacle of a government destitute even of the shadow of constitutional power to enforce the execution of its own laws. It will appear, from the specimens which have been cited, that the American Confederacy, in this particular, stands discriminated from every other institution of a similar kind, and exhibits a new and unexampled phenomenon in the political world.

The want of a mutual guaranty of the State governments is another capital imperfection in the federal plan. There is nothing of this kind declared in the articles that compose it; and to imply a tacit guaranty from considerations of utility, would be a still more flagrant departure from the clause which has been mentioned, than to imply a tacit power of coercion from the like considerations.

The want of a guaranty, though it might in its consequences endanger the Union, does not so immediately attack its existence as the want of a constitutional sanction to its laws.

Without a guaranty the assistance to be derived from the Union in repelling those domestic dangers which may sometimes threaten the existence of the State constitutions, must be renounced. Usurpation may rear its crest in each State, and trample upon the liberties of the people, while the national government could legally do nothing more than behold its encroachments with indignation and regret. A successful faction may erect a tyranny on the ruins of order and law, while no succor could constitutionally be afforded by the Union to the friends and supporters of the government. The tempestuous situation from which Massachusetts has scarcely emerged, evinces that dangers of this kind are not merely speculative. Who can determine what might have been the issue of her late convulsions, if the malcontents had been headed by a Caesar or by a Cromwell? Who can predict what effect a despotism, established in Massachusetts, would have upon the liberties of New Hampshire or Rhode Island, of Connecticut or New York?

The inordinate pride of State importance has suggested to some minds an objection to the principle of a guaranty in the federal government, as involving an officious interference in the domestic concerns of the members. A scruple of this kind would deprive us of one of the principal advantages to be expected from union, and can only flow from a misapprehension of the nature of the provision itself. It could be no impediment to reforms of the State constitution by a majority of the people in a legal and peaceable mode. This right would remain undiminished. The guaranty could only operate against changes to be effected by violence. Towards the preventions of calamities of this kind, too many checks cannot be provided. The peace of society and the stability of government depend absolutely on the efficacy of the precautions adopted on this head. Where the whole power of the government is in the hands of the people, there is the less pretense for the use of violent remedies in partial or occasional distempers of the State. The natural cure for an ill-administration, in a popular or representative constitution, is a change of men. A guaranty by the national authority would be as much levelled against the usurpations of rulers as against the ferments and outrages of faction and sedition in the community.

Here are links to my other posts on The Federalist Papers so far:

Miles Kimball
Miles Kimball is Professor of Economics and Survey Research at the University of Michigan. Politically, Miles is an independent who grew up in an apolitical family. He holds many strong opinions—open to revision in response to cogent arguments—that do not line up neatly with either the Republican or Democratic Party.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *