Constitution Sunday: “Publius,” The Federalist XVI

“Publius,” The Federalist XVI [Alexander Hamilton]

New-York Packet, December 4, 1787

When any union or confederacy of states or provinces decide to form a nation, it does so with its citizens knowing that members may “alarm the apprehensions, inflame the passions, and conciliate the good will even” in those states that were not “chargeable with any violation, or omission of duty” but had influence to be obtained. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist XVI, when there are associates not found “at home, recourse would be had to the aid of foreign powers, who would seldom be disinclined to encouraging the dissentions of a confederacy, from the firm Union of which they had so much to fear.” The consequences of such an event are substantial: “When the sword is once drawn, the passions of men observe no bounds of moderation. The suggestions of wounded pride, the instigations of irritated resentment, would be apt to carry the States, against which the arms of the Union were exerted to any extremes necessary to revenge the affront, or to avoid the disgrace of submission. The first war of this kind would probably terminate in a dissolution of the Union.”

Hamilton went on to note that states, rather than turn to foreign powers, were more likely to “pursue the milder course of putting themselves upon an equal footing with the delinquent members.” However, some issues would inevitably divide the nation’s member states, and a portion of those issues would be likely to be “mortal feuds” that led to “revolutions and dismemberments of empire.” While no form of government is capable of avoiding those or controlling them altogether, Hamilton wrote, “[i]t is vain to hope to guard against events too mighty for human foresight or precaution, and it would be idle to object to a government because it could not perform impossibilities.”

The federal government and the state governments, as arranged in the draft Constitution, comprised a system that was and continues to be one that fosters compromise without states or the federal government having to seek assistance from foreign governments. Nonetheless, foreign powers, recognizing that a wedge can be put between the federal and state governments within the United States, will always seek to do so for their own benefit. Most notably, when there are issues that serve as a divide between the federal government and state governments and foreign powers take up those issues to their own benefit, the complications can be even more damaging than the “revolutions and dismemberments of empire” of which Hamilton warned. A foreign power may utilize tactics that are not only outside the traditions of the country but have no constructive value other than to the foreign power. For those reasons, even a failed attempt at foreign intervention can be detrimental and lead to long-term institutional damage that culminates in the revolution or dismemberment that a nation may fear most.

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