Federalist No. 15 as Bleak Picture of Present Circumstances 

Federalist No. 15 as Bleak Picture of Present Circumstances 

Federalist Papers 
Politics & Society Tutorial 
Mr. Grenke 
Fall 2023 

To convince the people of New York to vote for the new Constitution, the writers of the Federalist Papers need to explain why the current government formed by the Articles of Confederation are lacking. Hamilton writes Federalist No. 15 with this purpose and uses all manner of mockery and hyperbole to malign the current governmental structure, even going so far as to say that it is not a “government.”  

He begins with an appeal to support the Constitution and its Union for each citizen’s political safety and happiness. This reference to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is a call to the philosophical reasons for our existence in the first place and the rights that we declared our independence in order to maintain.  

He begins that there is a great threat in untying the knot of Union that already exists because of ambition, avarice, jealousy or misrepresentation. He is referring to the existing relationship between the States, but not to the Articles of Confederation, implying that there are some people who do not believe we should have an umbrella government at all. The reader can infer that if you are against the Constitution, it is one of these causes that is compelling the opponent. This would encourage people who are undecided to look unfavorably on the arguments of those against an umbrella government for the States by questioning their motives to be power-seeking, greedy, envious or lying.  

Hamilton pulls back on the accusation of misrepresentation by saying that it is hard to untangle the mazes of information and promises to remove obstacles to understanding. This push and pull of the argument keeps the reader attentive, like a boxer alternating jabs with hooks to keep the opponent on his heels. Throughout the text he bounces between rational arguments and emotional entreaties causing the reader to try to move from one state of mind to the other and makes it more difficult to refute the claims one after another. 

After belittling those who are against any kind of Union, he focuses on the “insufficiency of the present Confederation to the preservation of the Union.” He claims that everyone agrees that the Articles of Confederation has “material imperfections” and that “something is necessary to be done to rescue us from impending anarchy.” He does not list the imperfections here, but claims that opponents and proponents of the Constitution agree that they regret the Articles. 

His next salvo is an emotional one to say that we have “almost reached the last state of national humiliation.” Using the word “national” is powerful, as most people would have not thought that America was a *nation* but instead a confederation of states. Nation comes from the Latin route of “born” and is usually associated with a group of people who share a common tradition, language and culture. At this time, America would certainly not be considered a nation across state lines. Even calling America a “country” would have been a stretch, as the Articles of Confederation defined the government as “confederation and perpetual union between states” reading more like a treaty than a document forming a government. 

Humiliation is a fear that challenges pride. Citizens of each state had differing sources of pride depending on their origin as a colony and the individual or his ancestry’s reason for coming to America. By making humiliation the threat to the people in not holding onto their independence, he is attempting to bring back into focus the idea that we may be embarrassed in our attempt to remain independent from European powers.  

For Paragraph 3, he begins to enumerate the flaws in the Articles, the current state of affairs and situation at hand that threatens impending wounded pride and degraded character.  

The primary list of the flaws of our current condition are as follows with commentary addressing each one:  

(1) “owing debts to foreigners and our own citizens;” The first flaw of owing debts is a serious one, as there was no real plan or ability for the country to repay these debts. Most of the people in America did not want to owe anything to anyone, but the New Yorkers he was writing to persuade were involved in finance markets. During the Revolution, the French Government provided the Continental Congress with more than two million dollars in loans, and it also owed money to the Spanish government, Dutch government and private Dutch and French citizens. By bringing this into focus, he is suggesting that the Constitution may force the other states to participate in repaying the debts owed.  

(2) “valuable territories and important posts in the possession of a foreign power;“ and (8) “are not respectable enough to safeguard against foreign encroachments with imbecility of government and ambassadors that mimic sovereignty.” European powers were fortifying the territories to the west of the thirteen States and beginning to encroach on the States and take land that we had fought to control. This highlights property as a key interest in American happiness.  

(3) “no troops, treasury or government to repel the aggression;“ and (4) “are not in a good position to even remonstrated with dignity;” The third issue of no troops or treasury seemed obvious, but to include “no government to repel the aggression” he is beginning the argument that the Articles have not created a government at all even to complain about the encroachment. By defining three items that should be included in a government – soldiers, funds and administration of laws – that are not included in the Articles, he is pointing out that we are not living in a unified government and each State will have to repel invaders individually and rely on their own ability to tax in order to field an army. 

(5) “unable to navigate the Mississippi freely;” and (7) “have declining commerce;” The fifth issue is important, as navigating the Mississippi was the primary way of moving commercial goods north and south. The Atlantic was a much more treacherous path to trade amongst the states. The seventh item of declining commerce was a direct result of trouble navigating the Mississippi. 

(6) “have little public credit;” and (11) “limited private credit;” Without public credit, we would be unable to pay troops or gather the resources needed to hold back encroachment. 

(9) “rampant land devaluation;” (10) “insufficient appreciation of improved land;” By focusing on land value, he is speaking directly to those who have been in the Americas for generations and seek to sell their land to newcomers at a profit.  

(12) “an imbalance of valuation between our natural resources and our public misfortunes.” This phrase seeks to impart of sense of the potential of America by reminding the reader that we have so much to build upon, and yet we are unable to take advantage of our resources because of our lack of status in the world, lack of credit and inability to hold the very land we have claimed.  

This list of flaws seems to focus on three main areas – (1) debt/money, (2) foreign invasion/need for army; and (3) land devaluation. Each of these is included in the “pursuit of happiness” part of the Declaration more than the “life & liberty.” part. Within this Federalist Paper, he does not address safety and freedom much at all and seems wholly focused on property and reputation.  

After these primarily concrete and rationally stated weaknesses, he uses a series of harrowing terms like the brink of a precipice and plunge into an abyss making it seem as though we are moments away from national disaster for each land holder. Public and private confidence seems to lie at the heart of many of these shortcomings.  

After painting a bleak picture of our present circumstances, he appeals to the reader at the end of Paragraph 4 to “make a firm stand for our safety, our tranquillity (sic), our dignity, our reputation” to lead us to felicity and prosperity.”   

He again asserts that everyone agrees that what we have is not working, quoting several of the opponents’ admission of the present state: (1) destitute of energy (yet the opposition will not supply the requisite energy by conferring power on the government; (2) they want to increase State power without increasing national power. “The still in fine, seem to cherish with blind devotion the political monster of an imperium in imperio.”  

In researching this phrase, I found the meaning of IMPERIUM IN IMPERIO is “a government, power, or sovereignty within a government, power, or sovereignty.” This idea of an empire of each State inside an empire of the United States creates a 13-headed monster where each government has the ability to act independently and is barely attached to a common body. Could he be calling the States a political monster and referencing Hobbes’ Leviathan? 

At Paragraph 6, there are fundamental errors in the structure and not minute or partial imperfections. he states “The great and radical vice in the construction of the existing Confederation is in the principle of LEGISLATION for STATES or GOVERNMENTS, in their CORPORATE or COLLECTIVE CAPACITIES, and as contradistinguished from the INDIVIDUALS of whom they consist.”  

He outlines that they may have the authority to make requisitions for men or money, they have no power to do so. The government can make laws that are binding, “yet in practice they are mere recommendations which the States observe or disregard at their option.”   

He calls out opponents of the new Constitution for holding onto an idea that is old and “evidently incompatible with the idea of a Government.” He continues that treaties and compacts regulate many independent nations “leaving nothing to future discretion,” but they rarely hold because they have “no other sanction than the obligations of good faith.” He essentially says that the Articles are not a government, but are instead a “simple alliance offensive and defensive” which would lead to jealousies and rivalships with foreign nations enflaming the intrigues.  

In paragraph ten, he calls the Articles a “league” and entreats the reader to embrace a “government.” This differentiation between a treaty and a government is the key point of this paper. The idea that there are no reprocussions for noncompliance in the current government structure means that it is not really a governing document.  

Defining the differences, he states that a “Government implies the power of making laws” that have sanctions for disobedience. Without penalty, the resolutions “pretend to be laws.” He says there are only two ways to sanction – through coercion of the magistracy or coercion of arms. In paragraph twelve, Hamilton writes that some say that breaches are not to be expected because common interest would prevent it. “Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without constraint.”  

He mocks that “members of a confederacy will at all times be ready, with perfect good-humor, and an unbiased regard to the public weal, to execute the resolutions or decrees of the general authority.” I believe this statement to be total sarcasm. “The rules of the respective members, whether they have a constitutional right to do it or not, will undertake to judge of the propriety of the measures themselves.” This discretion will result in fluctuations in following the general agreements.  

He finalizes the argument that “the concurrence of thirteen distinct sovereign wills is requisite under the Confederation, to the complete execution of every important measure that proceeds from the Union.” He says that this is already occurring where “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.” With empires inside of the empire, we will not be a nation unless we change our form of government.  

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