Federalist No. 39

Federalist No. 39 seems to contain the central argument that is being addressed in the debate over ratifying the constitution:

"But it was not sufficient," say the adversaries of the proposed Constitution, "for the convention to adhere to the republican form. They ought, with equal care, to have preserved the FEDERAL form, which regards the Union as a CONFEDERACY of sovereign states; instead of which, they have framed a NATIONAL government, which regards the Union as a CONSOLIDATION of the States." And it is asked by what authority this bold and radical innovation was undertaken?

It seems that it was commonly assumed that the only proper form of government was a republican form. If we had a new constitutional convention today I would not be surprised if many people felt that the proper form of government would rightly be a democratic form. I believe that the reason for this lies in the distinction between a federal government and a national government:

The idea of a national government involves in it, not only an authority over the individual citizens, but an indefinite supremacy over all persons and things, so far as they are objects of lawful government. Among a people consolidated into one nation, this supremacy is completely vested in the national legislature. (a national government) Among communities united for particular purposes, it is vested partly in the general and partly in the municipal legislatures. (a federal government) In the former case, all local authorities are subordinate to the supreme; and may be controlled, directed, or abolished by it at pleasure. In the latter, the local or municipal authorities form distinct and independent portions of the supremacy, no more subject, within their respective spheres, to the general authority, than the general authority is subject to them, within its own sphere. (my notes added)

As our government has taken on a more national character (as the local levels of government have become more subordinated to the federal government) it is natural for people to want a more direct say in the actions of that general government and thus the assumption of the desireability of a democratic form of government. I worry about this mindset.

The conclusion is that the government formed by the Constitution is a balance of federal and national in form. The proper solution to our national political ills is not to advance further down the misguided path that the founders were studiously avoiding (a democratic form and a national form) but to return to the solution that they so wisely pursued (the republican form balanced between national and federal in character). We need to teach the body politic the virtues of the republican form of government and the virtues of a balance between federalism and nationalism so that they will demand that their government, which is structured  for just that balance, will act as it was designed to act so that their liberty is preserved as it was intended to be.

2 comments for “Federalist No. 39

  1. December 17, 2008 at 5:25 pm

    States used to fight the federal government for control. Now states are asking the central government to exert more control. Any money states panhandle from the federal government to bail out their spendthrift budgets will not come without strings attached. States will take another significant step in jettisoning any semblance of the sovereignty they once enjoyed.

    At least some governors are just saying no. See http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122818170073571049.html .

    • December 17, 2008 at 6:12 pm

      That’s great news. I had fully expected 50 governors asking for help from our oh-so-financially-wise Congress. I only wish that the number would fall below 48 now.

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