Alexander Hamilton on the Necessary Extent of Federal Authority

Here’s another interesting tidbit from the Federalist Papers (in this case, Federalist No. 23 by Alexander Hamilton):

The question at hand is whether the proposed federal government (that is, the proposed constitution which was subsequently ratified) should be “intrusted [sic] with the care of the common defense.” Hamilton answers in the affirmative. The common defense is, after all, one of the obvious purposes of a federal government (and I would agree, by the way). But Hamilton takes it much farther than just that.

It must be admitted, as a necessary consequence [of an effective national defense], 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 (emphasis in original).

Limited government was anathema to the Federalists because limited government equaled ineffectual government. (Limited government as we think of it today is a function, by the way, not of the US Constitution proper, but of the Bill of Rights, which were allowed by the Federalists as a compromise with the anti-federalists, in order to get the U.S. Constitution passed.

Hamilton goes on to observe that it was presumed by the Continental Congress (our governmental structure from 1776 to 1789) that “the dictates of good faith” and a sense of “duty to the federal head” by the states would be enough to make the government work. Unfortunately, the Continental Congress demanded far more money, and obedience on the part of the individual states and their citizens than seemed either necessary or appropriate by the states themselves. In other words, the states and individual citizens resisted the massive increase in taxes and the power grab attempted by the Continental Congress.

(Is this sounding familiar?)

This situation, in Hamilton’s estimation, was totally untenable. Thus, Hamilton explains very clearly in Federalist No. 23 that an effective federal government must have “no limitation of [its] authority.”

In other words, Presidents Bush 43 and Obama, far from exceeding their constitutional power, are living up to the expectations of Alexander Hamilton (as well as John Jay and James Madison) by exercising the federal government’s limitless authority.

Or at least this is true of Bush 43 and the unlimited power of Homeland Security. Since President Obama’s power grab is in the areas of the financial and industrial markets and health care rather than national defense, it could be argued that Mr. Obama is exceeding even Hamilton’s expectations. But I’m pretty sure that some attorney in the administration can make a convincing case that the rescue of General Motors, Goldman Sachs, Fanny, Freddy, and the creation of nationalized healthcare is a matter of national security.

As Hamilton clearly explains, it’s not enough for the respective states their citizens to have “good faith” in federal authority, it’s also necessary for the federal government to be able to define the extent of that authority, even if that extends beyond the “good faith” of the respective states and their citizens.

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