Federalist No. 20
The Same Subject Continued
(The Insufficiency of the Present Confederation to Preserve the Union)
From the New York Packet.
Tuesday, December 11, 1787.
MADISON, with HAMILTON
To the People of the State of New York:
THE United Netherlands are a confederacy of republics, or rather of
aristocracies of a very remarkable texture, yet confirming all the
lessons derived from those which we have already reviewed.
The union is composed of seven coequal and sovereign states, and each
state or province is a composition of equal and independent cities. In
all important cases, not only the provinces but the cities must be
The sovereignty of the Union is represented by the States-General,
consisting usually of about fifty deputies appointed by the provinces.
They hold their seats, some for life, some for six, three, and one
years; from two provinces they continue in appointment during pleasure.
The States-General have authority to enter into treaties and alliances;
to make war and peace; to raise armies and equip fleets; to ascertain
quotas and demand contributions. In all these cases, however, unanimity
and the sanction of their constituents are requisite. They have
authority to appoint and receive ambassadors; to execute treaties and
alliances already formed; to provide for the collection of duties on
imports and exports; to regulate the mint, with a saving to the
provincial rights; to govern as sovereigns the dependent territories.
The provinces are restrained, unless with the general consent, from
entering into foreign treaties; from establishing imposts injurious to
others, or charging their neighbors with higher duties than their own
subjects. A council of state, a chamber of accounts, with five colleges
of admiralty, aid and fortify the federal administration.
The executive magistrate of the union is the stadtholder, who is now an
hereditary prince. His principal weight and influence in the republic
are derived from this independent title; from his great patrimonial
estates; from his family connections with some of the chief potentates
of Europe; and, more than all, perhaps, from his being stadtholder in
the several provinces, as well as for the union; in which provincial
quality he has the appointment of town magistrates under certain
regulations, executes provincial decrees, presides when he pleases in
the provincial tribunals, and has throughout the power of pardon.
As stadtholder of the union, he has, however, considerable prerogatives.
In his political capacity he has authority to settle disputes between
the provinces, when other methods fail; to assist at the deliberations
of the States-General, and at their particular conferences; to give
audiences to foreign ambassadors, and to keep agents for his particular
affairs at foreign courts.
In his military capacity he commands the federal troops, provides for
garrisons, and in general regulates military affairs; disposes of all
appointments, from colonels to ensigns, and of the governments and posts
of fortified towns.
In his marine capacity he is admiral-general, and superintends and
directs every thing relative to naval forces and other naval affairs;
presides in the admiralties in person or by proxy; appoints
lieutenant-admirals and other officers; and establishes councils of war,
whose sentences are not executed till he approves them.
His revenue, exclusive of his private income, amounts to three hundred
thousand florins. The standing army which he commands consists of about
forty thousand men.
Such is the nature of the celebrated Belgic confederacy, as delineated
on parchment. What are the characters which practice has stamped upon
it? Imbecility in the government; discord among the provinces; foreign
influence and indignities; a precarious existence in peace, and peculiar
calamities from war.
It was long ago remarked by Grotius, that nothing but the hatred of his
countrymen to the house of Austria kept them from being ruined by the
vices of their constitution.
The union of Utrecht, says another respectable writer, reposes an
authority in the States-General, seemingly sufficient to secure harmony,
but the jealousy in each province renders the practice very different
from the theory.
The same instrument, says another, obliges each province to levy certain
contributions; but this article never could, and probably never will, be
executed; because the inland provinces, who have little commerce, cannot
pay an equal quota.
In matters of contribution, it is the practice to waive the articles of
the constitution. The danger of delay obliges the consenting provinces
to furnish their quotas, without waiting for the others; and then to
obtain reimbursement from the others, by deputations, which are
frequent, or otherwise, as they can. The great wealth and influence of
the province of Holland enable her to effect both these purposes.
It has more than once happened, that the deficiencies had to be
ultimately collected at the point of the bayonet; a thing practicable,
though dreadful, in a confedracy where one of the members exceeds in
force all the rest, and where several of them are too small to meditate
resistance; but utterly impracticable in one composed of members,
several of which are equal to each other in strength and resources, and
equal singly to a vigorous and persevering defense.
Foreign ministers, says Sir William Temple, who was himself a foreign
minister, elude matters taken ad referendum, by tampering with the
provinces and cities. In 1726, the treaty of Hanover was delayed by
these means a whole year. Instances of a like nature are numerous and
In critical emergencies, the States-General are often compelled to
overleap their constitutional bounds. In 1688, they concluded a treaty
of themselves at the risk of their heads. The treaty of Westphalia, in
1648, by which their independence was formerly and finally recognized,
was concluded without the consent of Zealand. Even as recently as the
last treaty of peace with Great Britain, the constitutional principle of
unanimity was departed from. A weak constitution must necessarily
terminate in dissolution, for want of proper powers, or the usurpation
of powers requisite for the public safety. Whether the usurpation, when
once begun, will stop at the salutary point, or go forward to the
dangerous extreme, must depend on the contingencies of the moment.
Tyranny has perhaps oftener grown out of the assumptions of power,
called for, on pressing exigencies, by a defective constitution, than
out of the full exercise of the largest constitutional authorities.
Notwithstanding the calamities produced by the stadtholdership, it has
been supposed that without his influence in the individual provinces,
the causes of anarchy manifest in the confederacy would long ago have
dissolved it. ¨Under such a government,¨ says the Abbe Mably, ¨the Union
could never have subsisted, if the provinces had not a spring within
themselves, capable of quickening their tardiness, and compelling them
to the same way of thinking. This spring is the stadtholder.¨ It is
remarked by Sir William Temple, ¨that in the intermissions of the
stadtholdership, Holland, by her riches and her authority, which drew
the others into a sort of dependence, supplied the place.¨
These are not the only circumstances which have controlled the tendency
to anarchy and dissolution. The surrounding powers impose an absolute
necessity of union to a certain degree, at the same time that they
nourish by their intrigues the constitutional vices which keep the
republic in some degree always at their mercy.
The true patriots have long bewailed the fatal tendency of these vices,
and have made no less than four regular experiments by EXTRAORDINARY
ASSEMBLIES, convened for the special purpose, to apply a remedy. As many
times has their laudable zeal found it impossible to UNITE THE PUBLIC
COUNCILS in reforming the known, the acknowledged, the fatal evils of
the existing constitution. Let us pause, my fellow-citizens, for one
moment, over this melancholy and monitory lesson of history; and with
the tear that drops for the calamities brought on mankind by their
adverse opinions and selfish passions, let our gratitude mingle an
ejaculation to Heaven, for the propitious concord which has
distinguished the consultations for our political happiness.
A design was also conceived of establishing a general tax to be
administered by the federal authority. This also had its adversaries and
This unhappy people seem to be now suffering from popular convulsions,
from dissensions among the states, and from the actual invasion of
foreign arms, the crisis of their distiny. All nations have their eyes
fixed on the awful spectacle. The first wish prompted by humanity is,
that this severe trial may issue in such a revolution of their
government as will establish their union, and render it the parent of
tranquillity, freedom and happiness: The next, that the asylum under
which, we trust, the enjoyment of these blessings will speedily be
secured in this country, may receive and console them for the
catastrophe of their own.
I make no apology for having dwelt so long on the contemplation of these
federal precedents. Experience is the oracle of truth; and where its
responses are unequivocal, they ought to be conclusive and sacred. The
important truth, which it unequivocally pronounces in the present case,
is that a sovereignty over sovereigns, a government over governments, a
legislation for communities, as contradistinguished from individuals, as
it is a solecism in theory, so in practice it is subversive of the order
and ends of civil polity, by substituting VIOLENCE in place of LAW, or
the destructive COERCION of the SWORD in place of the mild and salutary
COERCION of the MAGISTRACY.
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Created - April 13, 2004
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