“The principal purposes to be answered by union are these the common defense of the members; the preservation of the public peace as well against internal convulsions as external attacks; the regulation of commerce with other nations and between the States; the superintendence of our intercourse, political and commercial, with foreign countries”.
In Federalist 23, Alexander Hamilton details the purpose—the reason—for a stronger national government. Pay careful attention to his words. He doesn’t say that the national government is necessary to provide greater healthcare, more jobs, increased welfare, a better climate, education or a litany of other topics that our federal government now considers its job. He says that the federal government needs to provide for the common defense, protect from external attacks, and regulate commerce.
In Defense of a Standing Army
For those of you who have never read my blog before, Hamilton wrote the Federalist papers as a way to convince the American citizenry that the new Constitution and stronger federal government was a good thing. This means the Federalist papers are an excellent tool to help us understand the Constitution and point of the federal government. We must understand the reason for government to know what to expect (or not expect) of government.
So, Hamilton, in Federalist 23, specifically argues in defense of the federal power to provide for the common defense, or more specifically, for Congress to have the sole power of raising and supporting the army and navy. If you think logically about this power, it makes sense.
It’s difficult to defend a country when the power to do so is broken up amongst a variety of states with a variety of different militaries and training and resources. The founders were very practical in their approach to federal power. Which powers would help protect the country and would help prevent increasing chaos amongst the states?
The ability to raise and support the army and navy was a power that the federal government ought to have because the protection and preservation of the people and their private property is of utmost importance to the federal government. Hamilton, one of the more wordy founders, puts it this way:
“Who is likely to make suitable provisions for the public defense, as that body to which the guardianship of the public safety is confided; which, as the centre of information, will best understand the extent and urgency of the dangers that threaten; as the representative of the WHOLE, will feel itself most deeply interested in the preservation of every part; which, from the responsibility implied in the duty assigned to it, will be most sensibly impressed with the necessity of proper exertions; and which, by the extension of its authority throughout the States, can alone establish uniformity and concert in the plans and measures by which the common safety is to be secured?”
In other words, the federal government alone has the interest of the whole country at heart, as it (more specifically Congress) represents the whole country. Therefore, the federal government should have the primary power of defending the whole country. .
At the time, the citizenry was immensely skeptical of a standing army. There were far too many examples of abuse by standing armies for the country to be comfortable with standing armies. However, the founders realized that without a standing army to protect the nation, the consequences could be great or worse.
Hamilton explains: “Whether there ought to be a federal government intrusted with the care of the common defense, is a question in the first instance, open for discussion; but the moment it is decided in the affirmative, it will follow, that that government ought to be clothed with all the powers requisite to complete execution of its trust. And unless it can be shown that the circumstances which may affect the public safety are reducible within certain determinate limits; unless the contrary of this position can be fairly and rationally disputed, it must be admitted, as a necessary consequence, that there can be no limitation of that authority which is to provide for the defense and protection of the community, in any matter essential to its efficacy that is, in any matter essential to the FORMATION, DIRECTION, or SUPPORT of the NATIONAL FORCES.”
Put this way, if we’re going to give the federal government the power to provide for the national defense, we ought to give them that power completely, otherwise, we endanger everyone by putting a handicap on the government that is supposed to protect us. Further, Hamilton says, unless someone has a valid and rational argument to the contrary, the Constitution is the best option for protection of the nation.
Now, the Constitution gives the federal government no right—no powers—to limit an individual’s right to defend themselves—in other words, we the people have the liberty to buy guns, ammunition and the like to defend ourselves from any who would endanger that liberty, including government itself.
In Defense of Federal Power Generally
So, Congress, entrusted with the ability to make laws about a very select few topics, must, Hamilton argues, be fully equipped and allowed to make all laws necessary and proper to carry out the powers they’ve been given. Congress must not be fettered by anything as long as it pertains to the powers it was specifically given by the Constitution. “Every view we may take of the subject, as candid inquirers after truth, will serve to convince us, that it is both unwise and dangerous to deny the federal government an unconfined authority, as to all those objects which are intrusted to its management.”
He bases his argument upon the sad state of public affairs under the Articles of Confederation, a government that was severely handicapped and limited beyond function, thereby resulting in a chaotic, violent and unruly citizenry.
As I’ve stated before, the founders gave to Congress the ability to make laws about very specific national topics. Hamilton says, “A government, the constitution of which renders it unfit to be trusted with all the powers which a free people OUGHT TO DELEGATE TO ANY GOVERNMENT, would be an unsafe and improper depositary of the NATIONAL INTERESTS.” In other words, the powers the new Constitution gives to the new federal government are necessary powers for any federal government to function and to function appropriately.
Further, he says, “The POWERS are not too extensive for the OBJECTS of federal administration, or, in other words, for the management of our NATIONAL INTERESTS; nor can any satisfactory argument be framed to show that they are chargeable with such an excess.”
He argues that the powers are well confined, well limited, and not beyond the scope of simple federal administration. The powers given to the federal government by the Constitution, are limited but necessary for the national interest of the country.
Hamilton spends this article (and many others) defending the powers given to the federal government by the Constitution, arguing that, the federal government only has a select few powers and must be equipped to carry those select powers out.
To put it simply, the Constitution both defines and subsequently confines federal power. For anyone who believes that a federal government is unnecessary, I have to point out that the founders wanted a decently strong and well-equipped federal government. But, they made sure that the federal government would be given strict orders about what it could do, leaving anything else to the states.
So, the Constitution gives our federal government power and in doing so, limits its power by giving it specific powers. Something akin to giving a manager power but making sure that that manager’s power is limited by his or her job description.
If nothing gave the federal government power, if it just had power by virtue of being government, then government power would be arbitrary, unconfined, limitless and despotic.
The founders knew that the federal government was necessary for the preservation of liberty. Otherwise, chaos and anarchy from the inside or threats and attacks from the outside would end up destroying it. Americans would do well to remember the point, the end goal, of the federal government.
To protect us and our private property.
The Liberty Belle