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The Federalist Papers #9 B: A Large Confederation May Be More Politically Stable Than a Small Nation—Alexander Hamilton Cites Montesquieu

Summary:
Alexander Hamilton considered Montesquieu to be in such high regard among his readers that in the Federalist Paper #9, he takes pains to parry Montesquieu’s praise of small nationsto trumpet Montesquieu’s praise of confederationsto argue that it is OK to have the federal government interject itself into state governments to a considerable extentto argue that it is OK to have more populous states have more votes in the federal government.The subject to which Alexander Hamilton applies this treatment of Montesquieu is the “enlargement of the orbit” of the type of republican systems that existed within each of the states:To this catalogue of

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The Federalist Papers #9 B: A Large Confederation May Be More Politically Stable Than a Small Nation—Alexander Hamilton Cites Montesquieu

Alexander Hamilton considered Montesquieu to be in such high regard among his readers that in the Federalist Paper #9, he takes pains

  1. to parry Montesquieu’s praise of small nations

  2. to trumpet Montesquieu’s praise of confederations

  3. to argue that it is OK to have the federal government interject itself into state governments to a considerable extent

  4. to argue that it is OK to have more populous states have more votes in the federal government.

The subject to which Alexander Hamilton applies this treatment of Montesquieu is the “enlargement of the orbit” of the type of republican systems that existed within each of the states:

To this catalogue of circumstances that tend to the amelioration of popular systems of civil government, I shall venture, however novel it may appear to some, to add one more, on a principle which has been made the foundation of an objection to the new Constitution; I mean the ENLARGEMENT of the ORBIT within which such systems are to revolve, either in respect to the dimensions of a single State or to the consolidation of several smaller States into one great Confederacy. The latter is that which immediately concerns the object under consideration. It will, however, be of use to examine the principle in its application to a single State, which shall be attended to in another place.

Alexander Hamilton parries Montesquieu’s praise of small nations by pointing out that following this opinion of Montesquieu would require breaking up some of the larger of the thirteen states, then depending on his readers to think that would be a ridiculous thing to do:

The utility of a Confederacy, as well to suppress faction and to guard the internal tranquillity of States, as to increase their external force and security, is in reality not a new idea. It has been practiced upon in different countries and ages, and has received the sanction of the most approved writers on the subject of politics. The opponents of the plan proposed have, with great assiduity, cited and circulated the observations of Montesquieu on the necessity of a contracted territory for a republican government. But they seem not to have been apprised of the sentiments of that great man expressed in another part of his work, nor to have adverted to the consequences of the principle to which they subscribe with such ready acquiescence.

When Montesquieu recommends a small extent for republics, the standards he had in view were of dimensions far short of the limits of almost every one of these States. Neither Virginia, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New York, North Carolina, nor Georgia can by any means be compared with the models from which he reasoned and to which the terms of his description apply. If we therefore take his ideas on this point as the criterion of truth, we shall be driven to the alternative either of taking refuge at once in the arms of monarchy, or of splitting ourselves into an infinity of little, jealous, clashing, tumultuous commonwealths, the wretched nurseries of unceasing discord, and the miserable objects of universal pity or contempt. Some of the writers who have come forward on the other side of the question seem to have been aware of the dilemma; and have even been bold enough to hint at the division of the larger States as a desirable thing. Such an infatuated policy, such a desperate expedient, might, by the multiplication of petty offices, answer the views of men who possess not qualifications to extend their influence beyond the narrow circles of personal intrigue, but it could never promote the greatness or happiness of the people of America.

Then Alexander Hamilton cites Montequieu as seeing great virtues in a confederation. (I am trying to use forms of the word that do not conjure up the Civil War Confederacy.) Montesquieu’s main arguments in favor of what he calls a “confederate republic” are:

  • A large enough confederation has enough military power to provide security against external threats.

  • It is harder for a tyrant to gain power in a large confederation than in a small nation.

  • It is harder for a popular insurrection to succeed in a large confederation than in a small nation.

Here is how Alexander Hamilton cites Montesquieu in these regards (I tried to make one footnote easier to understand):

Referring the examination of the principle itself to another place, as has been already mentioned, it will be sufficient to remark here that, in the sense of the author who has been most emphatically quoted upon the occasion, it would only dictate a reduction of the SIZE of the more considerable MEMBERS of the Union, but would not militate against their being all comprehended in one confederate government. And this is the true question, in the discussion of which we are at present interested.

So far are the suggestions of Montesquieu from standing in opposition to a general Union of the States, that he explicitly treats of a CONFEDERATE REPUBLIC as the expedient for extending the sphere of popular government, and reconciling the advantages of monarchy with those of republicanism.

"It is very probable,'' (says he [“The Spirit of the Laws,'' vol. i., book ix., chap. i ) "that mankind would have been obliged at length to live constantly under the government of a single person, had they not contrived a kind of constitution that has all the internal advantages of a republican, together with the external force of a monarchical government. I mean a CONFEDERATE REPUBLIC.

"This form of government is a convention by which several smaller STATES agree to become members of a larger ONE, which they intend to form. It is a kind of assemblage of societies that constitute a new one, capable of increasing, by means of new associations, till they arrive to such a degree of power as to be able to provide for the security of the united body.

"A republic of this kind, able to withstand an external force, may support itself without any internal corruptions. The form of this society prevents all manner of inconveniences.

"If a single member should attempt to usurp the supreme authority, he could not be supposed to have an equal authority and credit in all the confederate states. Were he to have too great influence over one, this would alarm the rest. Were he to subdue a part, that which would still remain free might oppose him with forces independent of those which he had usurped and overpower him before he could be settled in his usurpation.

"Should a popular insurrection happen in one of the confederate states the others are able to quell it. Should abuses creep into one part, they are reformed by those that remain sound. The state may be destroyed on one side, and not on the other; the confederacy may be dissolved, and the confederates preserve their sovereignty.

"As this government is composed of small republics, it enjoys the internal happiness of each; and with respect to its external situation, it is possessed, by means of the association, of all the advantages of large monarchies.''

I have thought it proper to quote at length these interesting passages, because they contain a luminous abridgment of the principal arguments in favor of the Union, and must effectually remove the false impressions which a misapplication of other parts of the work was calculated to make. They have, at the same time, an intimate connection with the more immediate design of this paper; which is, to illustrate the tendency of the Union to repress domestic faction and insurrection.

Alexander Hamilton was a proponent of a strong federal government. He was also a proponent of more populous states having more votes within the federal government. He is alert to set out arguments in favor of both of these. He begins by simply saying the case for a weak federal government or equal voting power by each state is not clear and asserts without providing evidence that equal voting power in a confederation regardless of population “has been the cause of incurable disorder and imbecility in the government:

A distinction, more subtle than accurate, has been raised between a CONFEDERACY and a CONSOLIDATION of the States. The essential characteristic of the first is said to be, the restriction of its authority to the members in their collective capacities, without reaching to the individuals of whom they are composed. It is contended that the national council ought to have no concern with any object of internal administration. An exact equality of suffrage between the members has also been insisted upon as a leading feature of a confederate government. These positions are, in the main, arbitrary; they are supported neither by principle nor precedent. It has indeed happened, that governments of this kind have generally operated in the manner which the distinction taken notice of, supposes to be inherent in their nature; but there have been in most of them extensive exceptions to the practice, which serve to prove, as far as example will go, that there is no absolute rule on the subject. And it will be clearly shown in the course of this investigation that as far as the principle contended for has prevailed, it has been the cause of incurable disorder and imbecility in the government.

Alexander Hamilton then argues that the proposed Constitution doesn’t take away too much power from the states:

The definition of a CONFEDERATE REPUBLIC seems simply to be "an assemblage of societies,'' or an association of two or more states into one state. The extent, modifications, and objects of the federal authority are mere matters of discretion. So long as the separate organization of the members be not abolished; so long as it exists, by a constitutional necessity, for local purposes; though it should be in perfect subordination to the general authority of the union, it would still be, in fact and in theory, an association of states, or a confederacy. The proposed Constitution, so far from implying an abolition of the State governments, makes them constituent parts of the national sovereignty, by allowing them a direct representation in the Senate, and leaves in their possession certain exclusive and very important portions of sovereign power. This fully corresponds, in every rational import of the terms, with the idea of a federal government.

Finally, Alexander Hamilton cites Montesquieu to argue it is OK for a federal government to interject itself into state government affairs in an important way and that voting rights in the federal government that depend on population are OK:

In the Lycian confederacy, which consisted of twenty-three CITIES or republics, the largest were entitled to THREE votes in the COMMON COUNCIL, those of the middle class to TWO, and the smallest to ONE. The COMMON COUNCIL had the appointment of all the judges and magistrates of the respective CITIES. This was certainly the most, delicate species of interference in their internal administration; for if there be any thing that seems exclusively appropriated to the local jurisdictions, it is the appointment of their own officers. Yet Montesquieu, speaking of this association, says: "Were I to give a model of an excellent Confederate Republic, it would be that of Lycia.'' Thus we perceive that the distinctions insisted upon were not within the contemplation of this enlightened civilian; and we shall be led to conclude, that they are the novel refinements of an erroneous theory.

PUBLIUS.

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.

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