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The Federalist Papers (1787-1789)

The Founding Fathers

Federalist Essays No.6 - No.9

Federalist Essays No.1 - No.5

Federalist Essays No.10 - No.17


A great danger exists in the competition between states themselves if they are left entirely to their own sovereignty, with no unifying government. Men are by their nature ambitious, and independent states will naturally compete with one another for love of power, control of commerce and domination of territory.

Nations that have been commercial, such as Athens, Carthage, Holland and Great Britain have historically been embroiled in wars with competitors over commerce. What would lead us to believe that our individual states, if separate in commerce, would not be reduced to such wars?

Nations also make war over territorial disputes and conquests. This would be especially threatening to this country, if out states were independent nations, because of the vast amount of unsettled territories to the west. This dispute has already come to fruition in debates over which state is entitled to the rightful ownership of the former "crown lands," and in disputes over lands that are claimed by one or more state.

Further competition between states would be aggravated by the existence of many different state commercial policies and plans to pay off public debt. States would have no reason to obey each other's policy, and costly and complicated system of inter-state imposts would result. States would approach the payment of public debt differently leading to conflict over should pay the burden of the debt. This could cause external threat also, as European creditors demand repayment of their loans, and the delinquencies of some states would complicate this.

We cannot assume that a confederacy can be constructed in any way different from the one under the Articles of Confederation, and many of the problems noted above have already occurred. It can be concluded, then, that if America is not connected or connected only loosely, it will become devoured by its parts, open to invasion by enemies equally threatening to them all.

Additionally, independent states that became threatened by their neighbors would be forced to amend their constitutions in ways that are repressive of civil rights. Under a constant threat of invasion, state governments would resort to standing armies, a strengthened executive, and the destruction of civil rights. The smallest states would have to resort to this first out of fear of larger neighbors, but the largest would soon follow.

In contrast, a military that exists in a country that does not fear invasion can sustain the civil state in full vigor. Citizens neither love nor fear the military because they don't need to rely upon it for protection. An example is the well-fortified Britain, in which a long history of liberty has been sustained.

If people really think about the natural consequences to a weak or nonexistent union, they will not hesitate to part with their small objections to the proposed Constitution. Rejecting the U.S. Constitution will inevitably lead to the final destruction of the union.

A firm union is essential, as is a republican form of government to support that union. Although critics point to the ancient Greek and Roman republics of examples of government in constant change between anarchy and tyranny, they do not recognize that much has improved in politics and the understanding of government since ancient times. Having learned about the importance of separation of powers, and the people's representation in a legislature, the farmers of the Constitution have empowered the good things about republican government, while lessening or avoiding its imperfections.

Critics also disapprove of a confederacy, and use Montesquieu's argument of compactness as justification that the current nation is too large and spread out for an effective republican government. This argument may apply to justify breaking up large states like Virginia, New York and Massachusetts, but not to preventing the formation of what Montesquieu calls a confederate republic. A republic that is formed by smaller states agreeing to become members of a larger one is ideal for extending the sphere of popular government without reducing its compactness.

A confederate republic is an association of 2 or more states into one state without abolishing the separate organization of each state, but by compelling them to be in perfect subordination to the authority of the union. The state governments exist on constitutional necessity for local purposes, are directly represented in the Senate, and still retain very important sovereign powers. The proposed plan of government is still a confederacy, but one that corresponds fully with the idea of a federal government.


In highlighting the inherent weaknesses of confederacies in general, the Federalist essays expose the overly optimistic views of the framers of the Articles of Confederation that the states would willingly work together without a strong outside force. Additionally, Publius argues that such a confederacy ultimately threatens the civil liberties of the citizens and that the union can only be effectively protected by a republican form of government, that happens to be fully justified by the writings of Montesquieu.

Delegates that constructed the Articles of Confederation expressed a lofty idealism when they talked about the "friendship" of the 13 states and of the states' willingness to work together for their mutual benefit and towards the common good. The reality of the situation was that each state jealously guarded its own power, had no qualms about usurping power from, or abusing the power of less powerful states, and ruthlessly supported its own cause at the expense of the common good. The bonds of friendship, rather than being enforced by a structured and centralized government, faltered because of the unwillingness of states to focus on their role as part of a bigger nation.

The federalist essays highlight the power struggles that arose between competing states over land and commerce and argue that such power struggles would eventually lead to states treating one another like hostile enemies rather than friendly neighbors. A strong central government was needed to resolve boundary disputes, establish uniform regulations on interstate commerce, and to force the states into accepting these policies.

Territorial disputes over land had always threatened the union and almost prevented the formation of the union under the Articles. Maryland originally refused to accept the Articles in protest of its policy favoring "landed" states. Like other "landless" states, Maryland had boundaries that were clearly defined and limited by the presence of the ocean to the east, and by other states in every other direction. They argued that unsettled lands west of the Appalachian Mountains rightfully belonged to all the states as administered through Congress. "Landed" states, whose original charters granted them land west of the Appalachian Mountains (and in some cases to the Pacific Ocean) argued that the declaration of war meant that each state returned to the sovereignty, rights and privileges as granted in its original colonial charter. Therefore claiming the western land was legally theirs.

Although Virginia eventually ceded a large portion of its land claim to Congress, and Maryland ratified the Articles when it was under threat of naval invasion, the jealousies over land continued into the Constitutional Convention when the geographically small states argued for protection against large states that threatened to swallow them up. Territorial disputes were not only debated in Congress, but were fought for on the territories themselves. The Green Mountain Boys staged a revolt to establish the independent state of Vermont, carved out from land that was claimed by both New York and New Hampshire. Territorial disputes between states threatened to only worsen as the central government's authority of states weakened and expansion into western territory increased.

Inter-state competition for commerce also worsened as the Confederation Congress' authority became weaker, and individual states acted on their own interest. Although Congress was endowed with the sole authority to negotiate foreign treaties, without the power to control trade between individual states and foreign countries, it was worthless. States were solely granted the right to levy imposts on foreign goods, and they freely interpreted this to mean goods from other countries as well as other states in the United States. Bordering states that shared the same rivers struggled to exert their control by imposing competing tolls. In addition to a variety of different customs regulations and currencies, state governments sought commercial advantage over other states, and based their policies on what would bring their state the biggest rewards, not what was best for the common economic good.

Competing navigation claims to the Potomac River eventually led to a meeting of leaders from Virginia and Maryland at the Mt. Vernon Convention to establish uniform regulations that would be beneficial to both states. This convention led to the Annapolis Convention, which involved a greater number of states eager to establish more uniform regulations for commerce and navigation, and eventually to the calling of the Constitutional Convention. Leaders realized that inter-state competition could eventually destroy the prosperity of all states. This sentiment is both reflected in the federalist essays, and in the U.S. Constitution's strict placement of commerce in the hands of the central government.

Having established that a confederacy would eventually lead to the destruction of the union and the common good, the authors of The Federalist begin their justification of an alternative form of government, the republic. Although critics claim that Montesquieu would disapprove of a republic spread over such a large distance, the authors argue that a "confederate republic," or one that does not eliminate the individual states, makes the best use of the features of a republic and of a confederacy. A confederate republic allows for the "compactness" needed for an effective republic, but also extends the sphere of popular government to take advantage of the features of a confederacy for mutual defense. A reference to Montesquieu in this portion of the argument lends solid philosophical weight to the form of government proposed by the U.S. Constitution, and bolsters the argument of the federalists by providing theory to support the previous historical examples.

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