Tag: Alexander Hamilton

Taxes, Contributions, and Impositions

Taxes, Contributions, and Impositions


It has been established that the federal government of the United States, as presently constituted, cannot act on its own but must rely on the States to carry out its every measure. And if these states are unwilling to do as the government directs them, the federal authority must compel them by force. Furthermore, to use force against the disobedient State, the government, powerless in itself, must enlist the other States to align against the delinquent and make war against one of their own.

The most ordinary and necessary decrees may be flouted and they can only be put through by resorting to civil war. The offending State may plead that they can’t comply or that they shouldn’t. They can insist that the demand is beyond their means and there is nothing they can do. They can stand on their rights and claim that they’re protecting the liberties of their own citizens and that the exactions of the federal government are unconstitutional. They will seek to paint these decrees as unfair or unjust and they will win a great deal of sympathy from their fellow States.

The other States won’t be eager to enforce demands to which they themselves are equally liable. Every disobedient or delinquent State will find others just as impatient of these unpopular measures and ready to support them in throwing off the yoke. If the federal authority is persuasive or lucky enough to find other States willing to assist them in enforcing their prerogatives, those States aligned with them may very well be outnumbered by the resisting combination.

If the recalcitrant State can’t find support among her sisters, she may appeal to foreign powers. Nations are always willing to sow dissension and turmoil within their rivals. How many claimants and pretenders has the French crown hosted over the centuries. The French didn’t stint to pay for a court in exile and to maintain these useful nuisances in the sumptuous lifestyle in keeping with royalty so long as it unsettled the English throne. Hostile powers will be just as ready to come to the aid of rebellious members of a confederacy that, if firm and united would pose a grave challenge to their own pretensions, but, if divided and weak, may also furnish a fertile ground for their ambitions.

The main point of contention between the federal and subordinate governments will always be taxation. Consider how difficult it is for a merchant, a bank, or even a government to dun a solitary debtor. They must obtain the right to pry into the debtor’s wages and holdings, and they must bring an action against him to garnish his wages or confiscate his property. It is already troublesome to shake down one puny individual, and how much more daunting must it be to collect from a sovereign state? Nations reserve the right to repudiate their debts and their creditors must usually entreat rather than compel them to repay what they owe.

When several States stand by and witness one of their own refusing to comply with a measure they themselves believe to be onerous or harmful, they will hardly be willing to attack and invade their fellow to make them obey. Instead they will be sure to quickly follow such a tempting example. If all are guilty, there is none left to compel and punish. States who don’t want to fulfill the duties imposed on them or to pay the taxes levied by a federal government don’t need to incite rebellion. Instead of fire and blood, fury and frenzy, they can take far cooler and milder courses of passive resistance. They can plead poverty. They can make excuses, temporize, delay, and befuddle. It is far easier to confuse, whither, and obfuscate than to snarl in open rebellion. And how harsh and unjust it will seem for the federal authority to prey on members who profess themselves perfectly willing but, sadly, find themselves too poor and weak to comply.

The plausibility of this objection will vanish the moment we advert to the essential difference between a mere NON COMPLIANCE and a DIRECT and ACTIVE RESISTANCE. If the interposition of the State-Legislatures be necessary to give effect to a measure of the Union, they have only, NOT TO ACT or TO ACT EVASIVELY, and the measure is defeated. The neglect of duty may be disguised under affected but unsubstantial provisions, so as not to appear, and of course not to excite the alarm in the people for the safety of the constitution. The State leaders may even make a merit of their surreptitious invasions of it, on the ground of some temporary convenience, exemption, or advantage.

But if the execution of the laws of the national government, should not require the intervention of the State Legislatures; if they were to pass into immediate operation upon the citizens themselves, the particular government could not interrupt their progress without an open and violent exertion of an unconstitutional power. No omissions, or evasions, would answer the end. They would be obliged to act, and in such a manner, as would leave no doubt but that they had encroached on the national rights.


As Hamilton foresaw, when certain States sought to champion those among their subjects who held slaves, against a federal government they perceived to be abolitionists, it was they who were called upon to be the initiators and aggressors. They invaded and occupied federal installations. They attacked and appropriated federal arsenals. They laid siege to Fort Sumter and in the anxious days that followed, it was the national government that out-waited the States. The Army offered no violence and only attempted to provision their own garrison and it was the rebels fired on them.

When they tried to find allies among the envious, greedy, and hostile powers across the sea, they sought in vain. These nations would have liked nothing more than to disable or dismember the powerful and rapidly growing republic, but the suppliants had drawn their sword against their own countrymen. They were nothing more than rebels in defiance of the law, and in service to an institution odious to the whole world.

Alliances, Confederations, and Republics

Alliances, Confederations, and Republics


Hamilton begins by reviewing the weakness of the American nation and the inconveniences and insults that follow from that weakness. He blames the Articles of Confederation but he doesn’t find fault with them, seeing provisions that are not as they should be and may be altered for the better. He holds out no hopes for improving or fixing the Articles of Confederation because they aren’t inadequate in certain particulars but they are inadequate by their very principle:

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. Though this principle doesn’t run through all the powers delegated to the Union; yet it pervades and governs those, on which the efficacy of the rest depends. Except as to the rule of apportionment, the United States have an indefinite discretion to make requisitions for men or money: but they have no authority to raise either by regulations extending to the individual citizens of America. The consequence of this is, that though in theory their resolutions concerning these objects are laws, constitutionally binding on members of the Union, yet in practice they are mere recommendations, which the States observe or disregard at their discretion.

He find the present arrangement so unsatisfactory that an alliance between the several States may be no less pernicious and would at least be consistent and practicable. A man who defaults on his debts and breaks faith becomes generally distrusted and there are none who will loan him money or join with him in any enterprise. Yet countries will betray their allies and make a separate peace against the most solemn and binding assurances and they will be spurned and shunned for a period but eventually they will find other countries willing to treat with them. Before long they will be ardently courted. Why is this? Perhaps the number of nations is so few compared with the millions upon millions of men, and that there are too few for any one to be shut out in perpetuity. Perhaps an entire country will have resources and commodities that far outstrip even the wealthiest banker or industrialist.

This is true but it isn’t the reason. Nations may disavow the ministers who broke these treaties and in their own eyes and in the eyes of the world they are thus exonerated and completely innocent of any perfidy. What is more, the ministers who brought their country into dishonor are attainted as traitors. They brought disgrace upon their nation for the benefit of a few greedy souls, but their crimes are not passed down to future generations. The nation is something over and above its servants or officials.

The animate is distinguished from the inanimate because living things move themselves while inanimate bodies are moved only by forces from without. In their motions. Living things never depart from the laws of mechanics and in their obedience they are indistinguishable from the inanimate bodies around them. Yet somehow they are different and in their origins, their movements are more various and mysterious.

Similarly, the simplest organisms respond only to sensation. They come upon organic material and they absorb it to sustain their own metabolism. They act upon what they sense. Higher organisms form models of their environment and retain them, basing their behavior on these models. They don’t need to sense in order to act. They think. They can anticipate. A leopard will carry the body of an antelope he’s killed upon into a tree and wedge it between in a fork. Later it will return to that same tree. It may not be able to smell the antelope and view of the body may be obstructed by leaves. But the leopard is looking forward to enjoying a fine meal with no effort needed.

Yet because the animal is working from a model that accurately represents his environment, that model may be inaccurate. The animal may be wrong. Another leopard may have found the kill and taken it. The leopard springs up into the tree and finds nothing. He’d thought to find his dinner awaiting him but he was in error. The leopard is perplexed and disappointed by this reverse. Paramecia can never be perplexed or disappointed but leopards can be.


In comparison to adult humans, even intelligent animals and children are considered not quite fully rational. Their reason is imperfect or undeveloped. Men and women punish their pets and their children at their own discretion. The offender is being chastised by a wiser and more powerful being. But an adult holds the status of being fully rational and any punishment is a matter of law. The citizen is a rational member of the body politic and thereby has obligations and rights. Any punishment is a legal act.

When the accused stands before a judge, the judge may be wiser and more powerful, and this is often the case, but that is adventitious. The judge is the representative of the state itself. The accused must be shown to have transgressed the law and, if found guilty, will face a legal penalty.

Individuals when acting by themselves are animate and rational but acting in a collective or corporate capacities they are something more. When men and women bind themselves under law to form a state, in their collective body they become something over and above what they were as individuals. They are now the officers or citizens of a state and they are different from mere men and women just as the animate is different from the inanimate and the rational from the irrational. Their actions become policy.

A government can’t command an outside or a subordinate government as it can command a citizen. When the state commands an individual it is coercion of the magistries while to command another government it is coercion by arms. Coercion by the magistries is more than simple coercion, the domination of the weaker by the stronger, it is legitimate coercion. For a government to attempt to compel a subordinate government it must do so by force of arms. A body of many individuals will have much greater powers of resistance than one single individual but that isn’t the distinction. It isn’t that they’re a gang of malefactors and in the place of the two constables needed to arrest one miscreant, a posse of two thousand is required to round up a thousand. Rather their resistance is legitimate and it is far more forceful than the desperate and furtive resistance of the criminal.

Injudicious attempts to refer to wars as police actions have been met with ridicule and indignation. Wars are something far graver, hotter, and bloodier:

The gentle Archbishop of York is up with well-appointed powers: he is a man who with double surety binds his followers. My lord your son had only but the corpse, but shadows and the shadows of men to fight: for that same word, rebellion, did divide the actions of their bodies from their souls; and they did fight with queasiness, constrained as men drink potions; but their weapons only seem’d on our side, but their spirits and souls, this word, rebellion, it had froze them up, as fish are in a pond. But now the archbishops turns insurrection to religion:

The federal government cannot tax or compel State governments as it does individuals. If they attempt to do so the respective members on the state level will undertake to judge of the propriety of those measures. They will either consent or refuse boldly, overtly, and in good conscience. The federal government and any subordinate levels of government which it happens to comprehend must both rule in their constitutionally allotted spheres, separately and independently. In their rule, they will deal with the citizens directly without any intermediary and in so ruling, they will be answered with the obedience subjects render to their lawful government. The Governors of Florida and Illinois pay federal taxes just like everyone else, but the States of Florida and Illinois do not. All government, whether on the national level stretching from sea to sea or the most local falling well within the boundaries of a single county, is the give and take of the citizens with the government they’ve appointed to rule over them.




Sea Power and Mercantilism

Sea Power and Mercantilism


Nearly all of what Hamilton had written in the previous papers about the thirteen States on the Atlantic seaboard of the North American continent applied with an equal force to all nations on every continent. This paper shows the benefits that come from one powerful navy maintained by the states united in one nation, and how this one navy may contend with the fleets of the great naval powers of Europe. Up to this point, he’d attempted to show that, in general, extensive confederate republics are more stable, more prosperous, and more formidable than the puny democracies of the ancient world. Here, he’ll attempt to show that one confederate republic in particular, strung along the eastern coast of one particular continent, can defend its own ports and control its own waters. Properties specific to the geography of these American States: their great distance from their foes, their long coastline, their several great harbors, will allow them to defy the fleets of richer, more populous, and more experienced nations who will seek to stifle her commerce and dominate her markets.

It was principally Great Britain that Hamilton had in mind, the mother the American States had defied when she’d previously tried to control their trade, the country they’d fought to win their independence, the country that dominated the fleets of Europe. Geography favored the naval power of the British isles. The Dutch could reach the Atlantic only by squeezing through the English channel or by sailing far north into polar waters and going around Scotland. The North Sea became so shallow near their coasts that they couldn’t harbort the huge battleships that made up the Royal Navy. Any fleet that made its home in the Baltic could be bottled up in the Straits of Denmark. The French fleet in the Mediterranean was far too dependent on the one harbor at Toulon.

If the American States were separate and tried to take on the Royal Navy alone, they would suffer the same drawback. Few of the States had a deep-water port and none had more than one. If any of these States fought the Royal Navy alone, the British could use their whole strength to blockade that one port. Together the States had Boston, New York, Chesapeake Bay, and Charleston, along with many smaller, shallower inlets. Not even the Royal Navy could covert so many openings so widely separated.

Moreover, the whole eastern coast fronted open ocean. There were no straits that any enemy fleet can turn into bottlenecks. Ships leaving port can head north, south, or any point in between. And these ships can from harbors separated by hundreds of miles, an expanse so enormous that no fleet can ever track them.

If the British want to strike at the American mainland, they must cross the Atlantic Ocean, a long and wearing voyage that will foul their hulls, rot their sails, dishearten and enfeeble their crews. So far from their own shores, they can be resupplied and reinforced only with great effort and after long delay.

It may seem that Hamilton is unreasonably belligerent, or is at least unreasonably afraid of the belligerence of the maritime powers of Europe. But in this age, most of the trade of the world was carried by ship, and it was the commercial policy of most of these great maritime powers to gain a balance of trade favorable to themselves. If this balance of trade was inequitable and must be brought about by force, they were quite willing for the guns of their battleships to open markets to their own trade, close it to those of their rivals, and wring concessions from unwilling partners.

States united and guarded by a powerful navy may impose their own terms:

By prohibitory regulations, extending at the same time throughout the States, we may oblige foreign countries to bid against each other, for the privileges of our markets. This assertion will not appear chimerical to those who are able to appreciate the importance of the markets of three millions of people-increasing in rapid progression, for the most part exclusively addicted to agriculture, and likely from local circumstances to remain so-to any manufacturing nation; and the immense difference there would be to the trade and navigation of such a nation, between a direct communication in its own ships, and an indirect conveyance of its products and returns, to and from America, in the ships of another country. Suppose, for instance, we had a government in America, capable of excluding Great Britain (with whom at present we have no treaty of commerce) from all our ports, what would be the probable operation of this step upon her politics? Would it not enable us to negotiate with the fairest prospect for success for commercial privileges of the most valuable and extensive kind in the dominions of that kingdom?

The American States are fortunate in their size and their situation and together they may extract terms that are fair and maybe advantageous from the parasitic maritime powers of Europe. If they drift apart and confront these same powers separately, they will be overpowered, the terms of their own commerce dictated to them, their markets preyed upon by mercantilist exploitation, and their wealth siphoned off to another hemisphere.

City-states, Demagogues, and Confederate Republics

City-states, Demagogues, and Confederate Republics



Hamilton shifts his attention from the enemies without to those within:

A Firm Union will be of the utmost moment to the peace and liberty of the States as a barrier against domestic faction and insurrection. It is impossible to read the history of the petty Republics of Greece and Italy, without feeling sensations of horror and disgust at the distractions with which they were continually agitated, and at the rapid succession of revolutions, by which they were kept in a state of perpetual vibration, between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy. If they exhibit occasional calms, these only serve as short-lived contrasts to the furious storms that are to succeed. If now and then intervals of felicity open themselves to view, we behold them with a mixture of regret arising from the reflection that the pleasing scenes before us are soon to be overwhelmed by the tempestuous waves of sedition and party-rage.

The petty Republics of Greece and Italy Hamilton is referring to are Athens and Rome. The reference is clear but the adjective ‘petty’ is noteworthy. Hamilton admits his own feelings of horror and disgust at the perpetual assassinations, conspiracies, and riots that tore and shook both Athens and Rome, and while the casual reader of history may find these chronicles of blood and treachery lively reading, the student who wanted to use these republics as a model, however imperfect, for a republic founded in the present age will be brought to despair.

If the Greeks and Romans had learned something from the past, if they’d hit upon some measure to curb the violence and heal the state, if some improvement, some progress had been made, there would be grounds for hope. We’d feel pity for the victims, the brothers Gracchi, Aristides, Coriolanus, Cimon, Sertorius, and all those who perished anonymously in the strife never to be immortalized by Plutarch, but we could take solace that they hadn’t died in vain. But neither the Greeks nor the Romans found a remedy for the distemper, and in the end they were doomed by their folly, ingratitude, and feuding.

When Hamilton describes Athens and Rome as petty, he is moved to scorn by frustration and regret, but he also means petty as synonymous with tiny. Neither of these ancient republics were much larger than the Philadelphia of Hamilton’s day and their small size made them vulnerable to much larger enemies. The Athenians were faced with the enormous Persian Empire, a colossus they never hesitated to antagonize, and the Romans fought the Carthaginians, a nation far greater and more powerful than they, in war after war. Against all odds, Athens and Rome prevailed through courage, superb leadership, and luck, and their victories brought spoils. The Athenians formed the Delian Confederacy and siphoned the moneys contributed to defend against the Persians into erecting magnificent but hugely expensive temples and buildings like the Parthenon. With Carthage destroyed, the Romans were free to plunder the entire Mediterranean world. The laws and institutions set down to administer a large town were far too frail to withstand this flood of treasure and when Athens and Rome acceded to empire they doomed themselves as republics.

These disheartening examples have led many to despair of free government, and they conclude that as tantalizing as civil liberty might seem, it always proves fatal to the order and peace of society. Recent developments, however, give cause for hope. Don’t despond because the science of government has taken great strides forward. ‘Stupendous fabrics reared on the basis of liberty’ have come to flourish, stumbled upon by Englishmen, pondered and praised by a Frenchman. England’s system of checks and balances, its separation of executive, legislative, and judicial powers in king, parliament, and the courts, showed a way forward.

Yet England was a limited monarchy, and after the Civil War the victors had tried again and again to found a republic upon English common law and constitutional precedent and again and again their creations had broken down. But that was an England distraught and furious after nearly a decade of civil war, and rent by religious discord. To establish a republic in that torn and bleeding nation was like building a house during an earthquake in a thunderstorm.

The Americans are mild and forgiving observers of a faith shared by nearly all, compared to the wild Puritans, Presbyterians, and Fifth Monarchists of the Protectorate. They enjoy one more advantage. In surveying the history and constitution of England, the ingenious Frenchman Montesquieu has come up with the expedient of a Confederate Republic.

A confederate republic is a number of small republics like Rome and Athens assembled into one much larger republic. Each of these member republics will be responsible for its own local administration and they will be left to enact and enforce their own peculiar laws. A confederate republic will enjoy the signal advantage of size, many puny republics bound together to raise a Leviathan formidable enough to stand against huge menacing empires or mighty kingdoms like France. The story of the survival of Athens and the rise of Rome are thrilling because they’re improbably, and no statesman should trust to a repeat of such stupendous luck. Huge expanses of territory, deep pools of manpower, and enormous resources are much surer safeguards than the exploits of Miltiades or Scipio.

Hamilton goes on to enumerate further advantages:

If a single member should attempt to usurp the supreme authority, he could not be supposed to have an equal authority and credit, in all the confederate states. Were he to have too great an influence in one, that would alarm the rest. Were he to subdue a part, that which would still remain free would oppose him with forces, independent of those which he had usurped, and overpower him before he could be settled in his usurpation.

The present or the future may be fundamentally different from the past. With the means of communication available to the late eighteenth century, Hamilton’s aspiring demagogue will find it impossible to reach a wide audience. However thrilling his oratory, his voice can carry only so far, and to hear him the masses must shoulder their way into a public square. If he should cry out through a newspaper as his mouthpiece, his propaganda will reach only as far as the paper can be carried. If he appeals to the grievances, the interests, the biases of his own canton, these will be of little interest, and may rather dismay the citizens of neighboring and rival cantons.

The legacy of Thomas Edison launches us into a new world. The same demagogue will no longer need bellow from a platform to a standing crowd, but chatting from some cramped booth in a basement, his voice and his messge will pipe into every living room across the globe. His face, his fears, his demands, his answers will carry across the planet in an instant. As soon as he speaks he’s heard, as soon as he postures he’s observed, as soon as he pleases he’s cheered. In our age, the peoples across the world hear the same songs, buy or covet the same clothes, and hang on the same spectacles. They will come to speak the same tongue in the accent favored by talent, dress their bodies, style their hair, and adorn their bodies as favored by a common fashion, waste their money on the same follies, share the same dreads, and hold onto the same hopes. The demagogue is no longer a parochial agitator and when he mounts the platform, the eyes of the whole world are upon him.