The Federalist Papers (1787-1789)

  • Study Guide

Federalist Essays No.6 - No.9

Summary Federalist Essays No.6 - No.9

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.

Popular pages: The Federalist Papers (1787-1789)