Parillo Examines Federalist 17 to 19

Editors Note: The major purpose of American Free News Network, is education; education on American Civics and how our government is supposed to work. John Parillo has put forth a stellar effort to explain not only what the Framers did when they wrote our Constitution, but why.


In Federalist 17, Hamilton addresses the concern that, while the new Federal government must have authority over individuals as well as states, it would not get involved in things where it does not belong like justice between individuals within a state, or agriculture because these kinds of items “can never be desirable cares of a general jurisdiction.” [1]  To attempt to control those items at the national level would, “contribute nothing to the dignity, to the importance, or to the splendor of the national government.”

Hamilton believed that the states would remain preeminent because of something that we explored in our discussions about Aristotle.  Aristotle likened the existence of the city state to the creation of the family, the community and larger organizations, because they grow naturally from the ability of these organizations to provide safety and security.  He describes it similarly in that,

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.” 

Hamilton believes that the states would act as a check on the power of the federal government and that the individual states would be, “dangerous rivals to the power of the Union.”  He is not saying this is a flaw of the proposed constitution, but rather as a feature. 

It is interesting that Publius uses the feudal example to reinforce his point.  There might be a king of a territory and then lessor nobles, princes, and barons exercising governance over smaller groups.  As long as these lesser nobles were performing well there would be no reason for the king to get involved. 

Federalist 18 is a joint effort between Hamilton and Madison.  It is a lengthy discussion of two examples of confederations from ancient Greece.  The first example is of the Amphictyony council which they argue is representative of the current Articles of Confederation.  Under that ancient agreement the individual cities retained their independence and the council held certain powers including the ability to declare war, and to settle disputes between the individual cities. 

While the agreement appeared to be useful, the Amphictyony council began to usurp powers and to use their powers to coerce the individual cities.  They go on to point out that Athens was the preeminent power and began to assert that power over the lesser cities.  But it was more than just the stronger city preying on the weaker one.  Publius points out that the weaker cities representatives were corrupted by those of the stronger cities and that their representation was therefore compromised. 

At the time, Greece was besieged by the Persians and, even with this clear threat, the Amphictyony council was beset by parochial infighting, and that, when they were not fighting external enemies, they were quarreling internally.  

The second example that they use from ancient Greece was the Achaean league.  Though it is not mentioned in these writings, it is this league that is credited with the introduction of proportional representation whereby the larger cities states were given more voting power than the smaller ones.  This arrangement appears to have been more successful because,

the popular government, which was so tempestuous elsewhere, caused no disorders in the members of the Achaean republic, BECAUSE IT WAS THERE TEMPERED BY THE GENERAL AUTHORITY AND LAWS OF THE CONFEDERACY.” (Emphasis in the original).  

Ultimately Greece is conquered by the Romans and the implication is that a better form of government might have been able to resist this take over. 

We should recall however, that the big concern of the states and their representatives here in the new nation was that a federal government would become tyrannical.  To this Publius responds that the examples cited, “emphatically illustrate(s) the tendency of federal bodies rather to anarchy among the members, than to tyranny in the head”

In Federalist 19 Publius continues the example of failed confederacies but leaves ancient Greece for the example of Christian Germany.  Germany was, in the early ages of Christianity, a confederation of seven distinct districts.  The Franks conquered the Gauls (who fought the Romans) and eventually Charlemagne conquered most of what is now Germany.  His kingdom was divided by his sons and these fiefdoms gradually became more independent.  These individual confederations eventually fought with each other until the last of the emperors, lost what was left of the sovereignty of Charlemagne. 

They point out that out of this feudal system arises the federation of Germany with an executive magistrate, an imperial chamber, and a judiciary with jurisdiction over the entire empire.  They go on to explain the various features of this arrangement including a legislative “diet”, rules against the individual confederacy members doing anything that hurts the larger empire, the right of the emperor to veto, etc. all of which make this prince one of the most powerful rulers in Europe.  One would suppose that this arrangement would lead to a powerful country but the key component of this arrangement, that the empire is merely a collection of sovereigns, results in much infighting and a country that is, “incapable of regulating its own members, insecure against external dangers, and agitated with unceasing fermentations in its own bowels.”

They go on to detail the various wars that this arrangement has caused in Germany and then to ask the logical question.  If this arrangement is so bad, why is the country still together.  “The answer is obvious: The weakness of most of the members, who are unwilling to expose themselves to the mercy of foreign powers; the weakness of most of the principal members, compared with the formidable powers all around them; the vast weight and influence which the emperor derives…”

Publius closes with a brief discussion of both Poland and Switzerland, the latter country which is composed of Cantons that are largely independent. He points out that these Cantons will associate with countries that more closely match their religious beliefs rather than other Cantons of their own country. 

To read all of John Parillo’s work on the Federalist Papers, check here.

[1] All quotes are from

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