A New Kind of Federalism

The first and most obvious approach The Federalist Papers used was a new definition of federalism. Having just won a revolution against an oppressive monarchy, the former American colonists were in no mood to replace it with another centralized, unrestrained regime. On the other hand, their experience with instability and disorganization under the Articles of Confederation, due to jealousy and competition between the individual states, made them receptive to a substantial increase in national powers. A number of Federalist Papers argued that a new kind of balance, never achieved elsewhere, was possible. Indeed, the Papers were themselves a balance or compromise between the nationalist propensities of Hamilton, who reflected the commercial interests of a port city, New York, and the wariness of Madison, who shared the suspicion of distant authority widely held by Virginia farmers.

Madison proposed that, instead of the absolute sovereignty of each state under the Articles of Confederation, the states would retain a "residual sovereignty" in all those areas which did not require national concern. The very process of ratification of the Constitution, he argued, symbolized the concept of federalism rather than nationalism. He said:

This assent and ratification is to be given by the people, not as individuals composing one entire nation, but as composing the distinct and individual States to which they respectively belong.... The act, therefore, establishing the Constitution, will not be a national but a federal act.

Hamilton suggested what he called a "concurrency" of powers between the national and state governments. But his analogy of planets revolving around the sun, yet retaining their separate status, placed greater emphasis on a central authority. Hamilton and Jay (also from New York) cited examples of alliances in ancient Greece and contemporary Europe that invariably fell apart in times of crisis. To the authors of The Federalist Papers, whatever their differences, the lesson was clear: Survival as a respected nation required the transfer of important, though limited, powers to the central government. They believed that this could be done without destroying the identity or autonomy of the separate states.