Alexander Hamilton

Debate – Federalist Papers and the Origins of Hamiltonian Federalism

Alexander HamiltonAny birth, including the birth of a nation, usually involves the pains of labor.  The birth of the United States is no exception.  The controversy over how to shape a new Constitution pitted court and country parties to form around two movements, the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists.  Led by Alexander Hamilton, Federalists sought to improve upon the weaknesses in the Articles of Confederation and lay the groundwork for a stronger centralized national government that would exist in concert with state governments.  It was the Anti-Federalists, led by Thomas Jefferson, who preferred the status quo of the Articles.  The fight reveals a sense of class hostility.  “Anti-Federalists charged their opponents with an aristocratic ambition to control the new government in the interest of the wealthy few, while Federalists attacked critics of the Constitution as irresponsible and unprincipled demagogues, preoccupied with the pursuit of selfish local interests.”[1] Did the rural, localized Anti-Federalists not see the bigger picture of how the colonies as a whole unit would fit in with the rest of the world?  Were Federalists really just in it for their own economic and aristocratic self-interests?  It is in this turbulent atmosphere that the true revelations of new Federalist theory emerge.

The names of each group, however, are not necessarily true to their meanings.  Federalists did not necessarily promote a strict federalist society as the definition of federalism implied.  If so, they would have been proponents of the Articles of Confederation, as they existed in 1788.  However, the Federalists were proponents of a new form of mixed federalism and Unitarian government systems to strengthen and promote the growth of America.  “The powers granted the new government reflected in part American experience with federalism under the British Empire and the Articles of Confederation.”[2]

As the debate over ratification raged, fierce propaganda exchanges took place in New York, where Hamilton advocated for the ratification of the new Constitution.  Together with John Jay and James Madison, Hamilton wrote and published The Federalist Papers, a set of eighty-five papers in total, all under the pen name ‘Publius’.  Writing fifty-one papers out of the eighty-five, Hamilton’s overall philosophy permeates the spirit of the sum total of the documents. The Federalists pushed three important ideals to support ratification of the Constitution: 1) the protection against factions, 2) the combination of confederate and unitary governments, and 3) popular sovereignty.  The opening papers of express Federalist opinion towards the weaknesses of the current Articles of Confederation.  Numbers 10, 15, 16 and 17 deal with the crippling affects of multiple factions or sovereigns.  This is where Madison shines in particular.  However, it is Hamilton, in Numbers 21-36, who lays out in detail the desired reforms that he viewed would strengthen the central government.  These enumerate the powers of the central government, with a majority of his views finding their way into the U.S. Constitution.   Hamilton returns in Numbers 67-83 to expound upon the newly offered suggestion of the separation of powers, specifically outlining the specific powers and duties of the Executive and the Judiciary.[3]

To fully understand the Hamilton’s desire for a strong central government, we must delve deeper into the mind of Hamilton and the influences that were formative over his entire life.  Economically, Hamilton’s insight was global. He experienced import/export trade work while clerking as a young boy in the British West Indies.  He was also an avid reader.  Hamilton’s exposure to global trade and access to Enlightenment readings no doubt had a profound impact on his life.[4] His experience lent him a keen understanding of what a true sovereign nation looked like as a trading and economic power.  In his mind’s eye, Hamilton believed that we must fundamentally alter our society to be mercantilist producers, not just remain small agrarian farmer suppliers, dependent on the trade barriers, tariffs and other economic policies of other countries that would surely stifle the growth of the new nation.  Such a nation could stand alongside others throughout the rest of the world.  Why fight the revolution only to remain dependent on the whims of foreign governments?  The political aspect was less important to Hamilton.  Strong central government was a means to an economic end for Hamilton.

Structurally, Hamilton saw firsthand the weaknesses of the Confederation. He witnessed the shortcomings and felt the frustrations during his service in the Revolutionary War.  He felt the frustration of his soldiers who could not get their pay or pensions.  The lack of funding and supplies for his troops caused severe strains on his efforts.  The current government could not pull together the separate state factions to unify behind the support of the very troops fighting for their independence in order to remain their sovereign selves.

Now that we understand Alexander Hamilton’s perspective, let us examine the Anti-Federalist arguments against a centralized government.  The Anti-Federalists argued that a strong central government was a threat to individual liberty.  They did not want a repeat of the fallacies of the British system, nor to fall under the control of a tyrannical sovereign.  They feared sectional strife and class struggle.  According to Robert Yates, they preferred “a number of independent states entering into a compact, for the conducting certain general concerns, in which they have a common interest, leaving the management of their internal and local affairs to their separate governments.”[5] In other words, they supported the status quo of individual state sovereign power as provided by the Articles of Confederation.

Also important to their argument was the desire to maintain a standing army in peacetime, viewing this as highly dangerous to public liberty.  “The power to raise armies, is indefinite and unlimited, and authorizes the raising forces, as well in peace as in war. Whether the clause which empowers the Congress to pass all laws which are proper and necessary, to carry this into execution, will not authorize them to impress men for the army, is a question well worth consideration? If the general legislature deem it for the general welfare to raise a body of troops, and they cannot be procured by voluntary enlistments, it seems evident, that it will be proper and necessary to effect it, that men be impressed from the militia to make up the deficiency.”[6] Further, Anti-Federalists viewed the power of establishing national credit and currency, as well as the Necessary and Proper Clause, as highly dangerous to the states.  “By this means, they may create a national debt, so large, as to exceed the ability of the country ever to sink.[7]

Finally, on separation of powers, Anti-Federalists believed that judicial power would extend legislative authority, increase jurisdiction and diminish or destroy both the legislative and judiciary of the states.  “The judicial power of the United States, will lean strongly in favor of the general government, and will give such an explanation to the constitution, as will favor an extension of its jurisdiction.”[8] Anti-Federalists, such as Yates, viewed the eventual dissolution of the states if the new Constitution becomes law due to such overreach by the national government.

Hamilton’s response to the Anti-Federalists was precise and decisive. The current government was too ambiguous.  The need to strengthen the central government and break the status quo was at the heart of his argument.  Hamilton’s attack against the Anti-Federalist position in Federalist No. 15 bears this out.  “While they (critics of the Philadelphia draft) admit that the Government of the United States is destitute of energy; they contend against conferring upon it those powers which are requisite to supply that energy; They seem still to aim at things repugnant and irreconcilable – at an augmentation of Foederal authority without a diminution of State authority – at sovereignty in the Union and complete independence in the members.  They still in fine seem to cherish with blind devotion the political monster of an ‘imperium in imperio’.”[9] In Hamilton’s view, the states must think in terms of a world power, not limited localized vision.  To survive, the new nation must become an equal on the world stage.

The central government must also be strong enough become a fully functioning power that creates the conditions to thrive.  Powers missing from the Articles of Confederation, according to Hamilton, included 1) the power to conduct trade and regulate commerce, 2) the power to tax, 3) the power to manage national affairs, and 4) the power to create a proper military.  Regarding commerce, the lack of such power “has already operated as a bar to the formation of beneficial treaties with foreign powers.”[10] The potential problems associated with varying trade agreements across thirteen different colonies were numerous.  Merchants would face an insurmountable struggle of trying to accommodate so many varied provisions.

The power to tax and raise revenue was especially and personally important to Hamilton, given his Revolutionary War experiences.  “The necessities of a nation in every stage of its existence will be found at least equal to its resources.”[11] Hamilton believed that revenue was the lifeblood of any nation in order to conduct its affairs and to promote growth and prosperity.  “How is it possible that a government half supplied and always necessitous can fulfill the purposes of its institution – can provide for the security of – advance the prosperity – or support the reputation of the commonwealth?”[12]

In Hamilton’s view, the current workings of the Confederation ran counter to the third strength he promoted – the power to manage national fairs in a uniform manner.  It was not practical to submit treaties, business and foreign relations to the different views and approvals of thirteen different legislatures.  “The faith, the reputation, the peace of the whole union, are thus continually at the mercy of the prejudices, the passions, and the interests of every member of which it is composed.  Is it possible that foreign nations can either respect or confide in such government?”[13]

Creating a unified military for the common defense is yet another national power Hamilton advocated fiercely.  “The authorities essential to the care of the common defense are these – to raise armies – to build and equip fleets – to prescribe rules for the government of both – to direct their operations – to provide for their support.”[14] Hamilton was adamant that these powers be unlimited “because it is impossible to foresee or define the extent and variety of national exigencies, or the correspondent extent and variety of the means which may be necessary to satisfy them.”[15] As he was well aware, these very problems almost cost the colonies in the Revolutionary War and still caused problems with soldiers marching on Congress demanding pay and pensions even after wartime.

Hamilton’s push for national powers in a centralized government did not go without the temperance of reality.  He, like Madison, also believed that man was not perfect in virtue.  Yes, the people should owe allegiance to a single sovereign. That sovereign, however, is not embodied in the structure of the national government, but rather in ‘we the people’ themselves.  “Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of man will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without constraint.”[16] Our nature and tendency is to a lesser level of virtue.  This idea of virtue stems from Montesquieu, who believed that a republic was only possible where all the people are virtuous.  Hamilton also drew influence from Hume.  “Take mankind as they are, and what are they governed by?  Their passions.  There may be in every government a few choice spirits, who may act from more worthy motives.  One great error is that we suppose mankind more honest than they are.  Our prevailing passions are ambition and interest; and it will ever be the duty of a wise government to avail itself of those passions, in order to make them subservient to the public good.”[17] From this influence comes Hamilton’s advocacy for separation of powers, which he views as necessary to prevent “popular tyranny”.  Madison concurred, invoking a “republican remedy…to enlarge the sphere of government in which factions might compete.”[18] In other words, without a strong national government that limits the passions and less virtuous aspects of the sovereign (the people), the people are actually more prone to tyranny.

Hamilton did not believe that they were creating a singular sovereign, but a system through which the true sovereign, the people, would rule.  This was a key argument that would break the Anti-Federalist position.  “For if the people possessed and were the source of power to begin with, they could give some of it to the central government and some to the states without internal contradiction.  Assigning sovereignty to the people thus meant the rejection of sovereignty in anything like its traditional sense.”[19] From Hamilton’s perspective, “it would not have all powers, just the final say in disputes between the parts…it would have the “power to conclude the whole.”[20]

Again, the new government structure is a mechanism, not a sovereign.  “Separation of powers calls for a division of forces in terms of function.  It looks to a horizontal alignment, a division of labor to deal with different tasks – with the enaction of law, with the execution of it, and with judgments on that execution.[21] Hamilton’s idea of separation of powers was simply an approach to increase efficiency.  The Senate would provide accountability.  The Executive would provide the energy and “dispatch” of decisive action[22], and the Judiciary would provide independent deliberation.[23] Addressing the potential overreach of this new national government system into state affairs and state sovereignty, Hamilton maintains that there would be no practical reason to do so.  It would be “inconceivable to think that a federal government would or could want to descend into enforcement of local laws.”[24]

In drafting a call for a Constitutional Convention, Hamilton did not want to continue the stagnant and powerless government under the Articles of Confederation.  As government is a contract, a confederation, are we not free, by the very argument of thinkers such as Locke, to dissolve it to form a more perfect union under a new mechanism that is better for us when necessary?  Hamilton believed so.  Federalist support of popular sovereignty created an effective counter to the Anti-Federalists charge that creating a new Constitution was illegal.  “Federalists answered it by declaring that the exigencies of union demanded substantive changes in disregard of established forms…according to the republican constitutional theory, the voice of the people was heard apart from ordinary governmental institutions.”[25]

In the end, as we all now realize, the Federalists were on the winning side.  Their efforts pushed New York towards ratification and in so doing, persuaded others to follow suit.  Their only compromise was on the eventual inclusion of a Bill of Rights, which placated the Anti-Federalists enough to win the remaining support needed to establish the new Constitution as the law of the land.  Anti-Federalists such as John Lansing and Robert Yates never signed the Constitution.  Others, such as Melanchthon Smith and George Mason, crossed over with their votes, undoubtedly due to the compromise made on the bill of rights.  As a result, American government reflects Hamilton’s philosophies to this day.  After the Federalist victory, Hamilton later became the first Secretary of the Treasury under Washington.  He spent six years in that position structuring the Cabinet and establishing what is now known as the U.S. Coast Guard.  Most of all, he continued his efforts to bring further efficiency and energy to the national government by creating several reports establishing a national debt, a national mint and pro-active mercantilist polices critical to the industrial growth of the United States.


[1] Kelly, Alfred Hinsey, Winfred Audif Harbison, and Herman Belz. The American Constitution: Its Origins and Development. 7th ed. New York: Norton, 1991. pg 112.

[2] Kelly, Harbison, and Belz, p. 116.

[3] Hamilton, Alexander, James Madison and John Jay.  The Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton James Madison and John Jay. New York: Bantam Classics, 1982.


[5] ‘Brutus’, Anti-Federalist Papers No. 5

[6] ‘Brutus’, Anti-Federalist Papers No. 8

[7] ‘Brutus’, Anti-Federalist Papers No. 8

[8] ‘Brutus’, Anti-Federalist Papers No. 11

[9] Hamilton, Federalist Papers – No. 15

[10] Hamilton, Federalist Papers No. 22

[11] Hamilton, Federalist Papers No. 30

[12] Hamilton, Federalist Papers No. 30

[13] Hamilton, Federalist Papers No. 22

[14] Hamilton, Federalist Papers No. 23

[15] Hamilton, Federalist Papers No. 23

[16] Hamilton, Federalist Papers No. 15

[17] Hall, Kermit. Major Problems in American Constitutional History: Documents and Essays. Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath, 1992, p. 65.

[18] Kelly, Harbison, and Belz, p. 107

[19] Kelly, Harbison, and Belz, p. 109

[20] Hamilton, Madison and Jay, p. xiv

[21] Hamilton, Madison and Jay, p. xvi

[22] Hamilton, Federalist Papers No. 70

[23] Hamilton, Federalist Papers No. 79

[24] Hamilton, Madison and Jay, p. xiv

[25] Kelly, Harbison, and Belz, p. 110

Posted in History - American Constitution.