Summary and Analysis Section III: Disadvantages of Existing Government: Federalist No. 15 (Hamilton)



This section contains eight essays, Chapters 15–22, centered on the theme that the United States could not long survive if the country continued to be governed under the Articles of Confederation, and emphasizing the point that the crisis was imminent and necessitated immediate action against "impending anarchy."

The point next in order, wrote the author, is the "insufficiency of the present confederation to the preservation of the Union," an insufficiency that had led the country to the "last stage of humiliation," being both weak at home and flouted abroad.

The chief vice of the Confederation lay "in the principle of LEGISLATION for STATES or GOVERNMENTS, in their CORPORATE or COLLECTIVE CAPACITIES as contradistinguished from the INDIVIDUALS of whom they consist." The consequence was that the resolutions of Congress were not laws, but mere recommendations to the states, which accepted or rejected them as they chose. "The authority of the union," under a "general DISCEETIONARY SUPERINTENDENCE," should be extended "to the persons of the citizens, — the only proper objects of government."

Government implies the power to make laws; laws, if they are to mean anything at all, have to be attended with a "sanction" — that is, a penalty or punishment for disobedience. Under the Confederation, the central government did not have the authority or the power to impose penalties on recalcitrant states, which left it a mere shadow of government, scarcely deserving the name. With what result?

"The measures of the Union have not been executed; and the delinquencies of the States have step by step matured themselves to an extreme; which has at length arrested all the wheels of the national government, and brought them to an awful stand . . . 'till the frail and tottering edifice seems ready to fall upon our heads and to crush us beneath its ruins."


Hamilton here again stressed that the "insufficiency" of the American Confederation arose from the fact that there was no general "superintendence," and such superintendence should be extended beyond the confederated state governments to the people themselves in their persons as citizens, "the only proper objects of government."

Under the Articles of Confederation, the central government had no power to make laws and impose "sanctions" for disobedience. The central government made recommendations which the states followed or not, as they pleased. The result was a shambles, with the "frail and tottering" governmental structure ready to collapse on everybody's head.

The situation was not nearly as desperate as Hamilton painted it for the purpose of advancing his own arguments. But it was generally agreed that some constitutional changes (not necessarily those advocated in The Federalist) might well improve things.