Federalist No. 17
The Same Subject Continued
(The Insufficiency of the Present Confederation to Preserve the Union)
For the Independent Journal.
Wednesday, December 5, 1787
To the People of the State of New York:
AN OBJECTION, of a nature different from that which has been stated and
answered, in my last address, may perhaps be likewise urged against the
principle of legislation for the individual citizens of America. It may
be said that it would tend to render the government of the Union too
powerful, and to enable it to absorb those residuary authorities, which
it might be judged proper to leave with the States for local purposes.
Allowing the utmost latitude to the love of power which any reasonable
man can require, I confess I am at a loss to discover what temptation
the persons intrusted with the administration of the general government
could ever feel to divest the States of the authorities of that
description. The regulation of the mere domestic police of a State
appears to me to hold out slender allurements to ambition. Commerce,
finance, negotiation, and war seem to comprehend all the objects which
have charms for minds governed by that passion; and all the powers
necessary to those objects ought, in the first instance, to be lodged in
the national depository. The administration of private justice between
the citizens of the same State, the supervision of agriculture and of
other concerns of a similar nature, all those things, in short, which
are proper to be provided for by local legislation, can never be
desirable cares of a general jurisdiction. It is therefore improbable
that there should exist a disposition in the federal councils to usurp
the powers with which they are connected; because the attempt to
exercise those powers would be as troublesome as it would be nugatory;
and the possession of them, for that reason, would contribute nothing to
the dignity, to the importance, or to the splendor of the national
But let it be admitted, for argument's sake, that mere wantonness and
lust of domination would be sufficient to beget that disposition; still
it may be safely affirmed, that the sense of the constituent body of the
national representatives, or, in other words, the people of the several
States, would control the indulgence of so extravagant an appetite. It
will always be far more easy for the State governments to encroach upon
the national authorities than for the national government to encroach
upon the State authorities. The proof of this proposition turns upon the
greater degree of influence which the State governments if they
administer their affairs with uprightness and prudence, will generally
possess over the people; a circumstance which at the same time teaches
us that there is an inherent and intrinsic weakness in all federal
constitutions; and that too much pains cannot be taken in their
organization, to give them all the force which is compatible with the
principles of liberty.
The superiority of influence in favor of the particular governments
would result partly from the diffusive construction of the national
government, but chiefly from the nature of the objects to which the
attention of the State administrations would be directed.
It is a known fact in human nature, that its affections are commonly
weak in proportion to the distance or diffusiveness of the object. Upon
the same principle that a man is more attached to his family than to his
neighborhood, to his neighborhood than to the community at large, the
people of each State would be apt to feel a stronger bias towards their
local governments than towards the government of the Union; unless the
force of that principle should be destroyed by a much better
administration of the latter.
This strong propensity of the human heart would find powerful
auxiliaries in the objects of State regulation.
The variety of more minute interests, which will necessarily fall under
the superintendence of the local administrations, and which will form so
many rivulets of influence, running through every part of the society,
cannot be particularized, without involving a detail too tedious and
uninteresting to compensate for the instruction it might afford.
There is one transcendant advantage belonging to the province of the
State governments, which alone suffices to place the matter in a clear
and satisfactory light, -- I mean the ordinary administration of
criminal and civil justice. This, of all others, is the most powerful,
most universal, and most attractive source of popular obedience and
attachment. It is that which, being the immediate and visible guardian
of life and property, having its benefits and its terrors in constant
activity before the public eye, regulating all those personal interests
and familiar concerns to which the sensibility of individuals is more
immediately awake, contributes, more than any other circumstance, to
impressing upon the minds of the people, affection, esteem, and
reverence towards the government. This great cement of society, which
will diffuse itself almost wholly through the channels of the particular
governments, independent of all other causes of influence, would insure
them so decided an empire over their respective citizens as to render
them at all times a complete counterpoise, and, not unfrequently,
dangerous rivals to the power of the Union.
The operations of the national government, on the other hand, falling
less immediately under the observation of the mass of the citizens, the
benefits derived from it will chiefly be perceived and attended to by
speculative men. Relating to more general interests, they will be less
apt to come home to the feelings of the people; and, in proportion, less
likely to inspire an habitual sense of obligation, and an active
sentiment of attachment.
The reasoning on this head has been abundantly exemplified by the
experience of all federal constitutions with which we are acquainted,
and of all others which have borne the least analogy to them.
Though the ancient feudal systems were not, strictly speaking,
confederacies, yet they partook of the nature of that species of
association. There was a common head, chieftain, or sovereign, whose
authority extended over the whole nation; and a number of subordinate
vassals, or feudatories, who had large portions of land allotted to
them, and numerous trains of INFERIOR vassals or retainers, who occupied
and cultivated that land upon the tenure of fealty or obedience, to the
persons of whom they held it. Each principal vassal was a kind of
sovereign, within his particular demesnes. The consequences of this
situation were a continual opposition to authority of the sovereign, and
frequent wars between the great barons or chief feudatories themselves.
The power of the head of the nation was commonly too weak, either to
preserve the public peace, or to protect the people against the
oppressions of their immediate lords. This period of European affairs is
emphatically styled by historians, the times of feudal anarchy.
When the sovereign happened to be a man of vigorous and warlike temper
and of superior abilities, he would acquire a personal weight and
influence, which answered, for the time, the purpose of a more regular
authority. But in general, the power of the barons triumphed over that
of the prince; and in many instances his dominion was entirely thrown
off, and the great fiefs were erected into independent principalities or
States. In those instances in which the monarch finally prevailed over
his vassals, his success was chiefly owing to the tyranny of those
vassals over their dependents. The barons, or nobles, equally the
enemies of the sovereign and the oppressors of the common people, were
dreaded and detested by both; till mutual danger and mutual interest
effected a union between them fatal to the power of the aristocracy. Had
the nobles, by a conduct of clemency and justice, preserved the fidelity
and devotion of their retainers and followers, the contests between them
and the prince must almost always have ended in their favor, and in the
abridgment or subversion of the royal authority.
This is not an assertion founded merely in speculation or conjecture.
Among other illustrations of its truth which might be cited, Scotland
will furnish a cogent example. The spirit of clanship which was, at an
early day, introduced into that kingdom, uniting the nobles and their
dependants by ties equivalent to those of kindred, rendered the
aristocracy a constant overmatch for the power of the monarch, till the
incorporation with England subdued its fierce and ungovernable spirit,
and reduced it within those rules of subordination which a more rational
and more energetic system of civil polity had previously established in
the latter kingdom.
The separate governments in a confederacy may aptly be compared with the
feudal baronies; with this advantage in their favor, that from the
reasons already explained, they will generally possess the confidence
and good-will of the people, and with so important a support, will be
able effectually to oppose all encroachments of the national government.
It will be well if they are not able to counteract its legitimate and
necessary authority. The points of similitude consist in the rivalship
of power, applicable to both, and in the CONCENTRATION of large portions
of the strength of the community into particular DEPOSITORIES, in one
case at the disposal of individuals, in the other case at the disposal
of political bodies.
A concise review of the events that have attended confederate
governments will further illustrate this important doctrine; an
inattention to which has been the great source of our political
mistakes, and has given our jealousy a direction to the wrong side. This
review shall form the subject of some ensuing papers.
Al Rights Reserved
Created - April 13, 2004
This web page is created, hosted, and maintained by Clark Simmons with personal resources. It is suggested that hyperlinks be used rather than copying and pasting. Plagiarism will be addressed in an appropiate manner.