Pragmatic Arguments for Unity Among the States in the Federalist Papers

October 9, 2023   Joseph Kochanek

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One of the most famous features of the Federalist Papers is the emphasis laid by Madison, Hamilton, and Jay on the need for the states to stick together. When recalling that the USA had so recently successfully overthrown the rule of the British Empire, under the Articles of Confederation no less, it may be puzzling that this focus on the continued need for unity among the states was such a prominent element of the arguments of the Federalist Papers.  

A Practical Justification of Unity

One might be inclined to understand this in terms of a positive case, stressing the benefits of union, or even a sentimental one, looking back to shared sacrifice, looking back to the revolution. A striking feature of the Federalist Papers, however, is the use of arguments in favor of union that rests on avoiding the hazards of the alternatives. In part, one can understand this with respect to the civil unrest of the period, thinking especially, as Hamilton did in Federalist 6, of Shays’s Rebellion. Notably, there seems also to have been a fear that the USA would divide into smaller jurisdictions that might attempt to be independent, whether along state lines or other regional lines.

One America, Two, Three, Four, or Thirteen

More than once, the authors of the Federalist Papers pointed to the possibility that the USA might divide into two, three, or four political entities. As suggested above, these concerns were not grounded in a merely sentimental attachment to the union. Rather, they were animated by hard-headed political concerns, focused on international relations as much as domestic politics. The fear expressed, especially clearly by Jay in Federalist 4, was that the dissolution of the union into individual states or regional political entities would make it more likely that other powerful countries would use the logic of divide and conquer to inflame animosities among the Americans, and use the leverage of political rivalry within America to pursue other geopolitical ends.  

One of the surprising elements of the Federalist Papers, thinking about the arguments for unity among the states one finds there, is the systematic character of political analysis found there, bringing together domestic political concerns with necessities driven by international politics. The need for unity among the states was justified in a number of ways, but one important way was with reference to the mode in which international politics might shape, or misshape, domestic politics. 

Read another Federalist Papers post considering puzzles about the Separation of Powers and the Centralization of Power or listen to the Federalist Podcast.