Federalist paper #15

PSCI 110 – Summary Paper #1

Glenn Booker  9/26/2012

Federalist Paper #15 was written by Alexander Hamilton to discuss inadequacies in the current government under the Articles of Confederation.  He apologizes for the subject, since those inadequacies are “a position which is not either controverted or doubted.” ([1]101)  The matter at hand is urgent, because something must be done “to rescue us from impending anarchy.” (101)  The nation is described in very anthropomorphic terms, as they have “reached almost the last stage of national humiliation,” and there is hardly anything left that can further “wound the pride or degrade the character” of the nation. (both 101)

More specifically, ” we owe debts to foreigners and to our own citizens” which cannot be repaid, and we have “valuable territories and important posts in the possession of a foreign power” which should have been surrendered to them. (both 101)  They have no effective military capability nor a way to pay troops; “we have neither troops, nor treasury, nor government.” (101)  Spain has excluded them from “free participation in the navigation of the Mississippi” river. (102)  They have no credit, and commerce is at “the lowest point of declension.” (102)  Their ambassadors have no respect abroad; they are “the mere pageants of mimic sovereignty.” (102)  Real estate prices have plummeted; “a violent and unnatural decrease in the price of land.” (102)  Private credit has dried up; it has been “reduced within the narrowest limits, and this still more from an opinion of insecurity than from a scarcity of money.” (102)

Given this context for their situation, Hamilton clearly favors adopting the proposed Constitution; “let us make a firm stand for our safety, our tranquility, our dignity, our reputation.” (102)  It appears that his opponents favor keeping the Confederation, and want “an augmentation of federal authority without a diminution of State authority,” a combination Hamilton describes as “repugnant and irreconcilable.” (both 103)  His goal is to show the Confederation has major defects, “fundamental errors in the structure of the building.” (103)

The “great and radical vice” in the Confederation is “legislation for states or governments, in their corporate or collective capacities” as opposed to the individuals in them. (both 103)  As a result of this approach, “the United States have an indefinite discretion to make requisitions for men and money; but they have no authority to raise either by regulations extending to the individual citizens of America.” (103)  As a result, federal laws are “mere recommendations which the States observe or disregard at their opinion.” (103)  Hamilton then chastises them for breaking rules of government which are well known.  The outcome of their approach is that violence or military solutions will prevail instead of peaceful law-abiding solutions; their government “must substitute the violent and sanguinary agency of the sword to the mild influence of the magistracy.” (104)

Hamilton recognizes that independent nations may form leagues or alliances to meet their interests, and discusses how this has been done often earlier in the (18th) century.  The existing Confederation treats the States much like independent nations in an alliance, which is a possible form of government, but “abandoning all views toward a confederate government, this would bring us to a simple alliance offensive and defensive” where we would be “alternate friends and enemies of each other” just like friendly nations can turn on their former allies.  (both 104)  Hamilton distinguishes between a league and a government.  For the latter, “we must extend the authority of the Union to the persons of the citizens – the only proper objects of government.” (105)

Governments create laws, which must be enforced by either court penalties, or by military force.  The former applies to men, the latter to States.  As a result, if the government only applies to communities or organizations, “every breach of the laws must involve a state of war.” (105)  Furthermore, the States were expected to be strictly law-abiding; “breaches by the States of the regulations of the federal authority were not to be expected” (105) but this won’t happen “because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without constraint.” (106)  Groups of men act with less rectitude than individuals, because “regard to reputation has a less active influence when the infamy of a bad action is to be divided among a number than when it is to fall singly upon one.” (106)

Hamilton describes sovereign power as having “an impatience of control” which results in weaker members of an association “to fly off from the common center.” (both 106)  As a result, intervention is needed to ensure that the members of the Confederacy comply with its measures, or each member will comply or not according to its whims and interests.  This has been seen in the “thirteen distinct sovereign wills” (107) of the Union having not executed the latter’s measures.  This has “arrested all the wheels of the national government and brought them to an awful stand.” (107)  This condition came about over time, as some States complied less with Union requisitions, setting a precedent (“pretext of example” (107)) for others to also non-comply.  Then the complying States wondered why they bothered to comply; “why should we do more in proportion than those who are embarked with us in the same political voyage?” (108)  And this concludes this paper, summarizing the effect of this gradual withdrawal of support from the common Union; “each State yielding to the persuasive voice of immediate interest or convenience has successively withdrawn its support, till the frail and tottering edifice seems ready to fall upon our heads and to crush us beneath its ruins.” (108)


In Federalist Paper #15, Alexander Hamilton is conveying the urgency to support the new Constitution because the United States under the Articles of Confederation is ready to collapse.  The issues identified include:  debts to foreigners and citizens which can’t be repaid, land unfairly in the hands of foreign powers, no military power, no treasury, no right to navigate the Mississippi river, no public or private credit available, and little commerce.  As a result, our ambassadors are a laughingstock, and real estate prices have dropped.

The main cause of these problems is that the Confederation legislates only for corporations or communities, not individuals.  The only way to enforce such laws is through violence, which everyone knows won’t happen, so the States can ignore Union laws they don’t like without consequence.  This has reduced the national government to a figurehead, completely without power.  Essentially, the Confederation became like the European Union, a loose collection of mostly independent states.  Hamilton wants to reunify the Unites States through the new Constitution.

[1] All references are page numbers from Hamilton, A., Madison, J., & Jay, J.  (1961) The Federalist Papers.  New York; Signet Classics.


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