Why One Government, Rather than Thirteen? Or Three?

June 18, 2024   Joseph Kochanek

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Why One Government, Rather than Thirteen? Or Three?
The Antifederalists argued that the Constitution would centralize too much power, robbing it from the states. If one takes that criticism seriously enough, then there might seem no logical reason to have a united government of the states at all. On this line of argument, one might say that the need for such unity was a response to the crises that led up to the American Revolution, and had expired with the end of the Revolution. Then too, if the states could be put together once, maybe they could be put together in different ways. After all, the lines dividing the states had been a legacy of British Imperialism. Why not remake them, into whatever divisions seem most logical?

John Jay’s Argument against Breaking up the Union
In Federalist No. 5 John Jay replied to the possibility of the USA being recrafted into smaller pieces with a few kinds of argument. First, Jay looked to British history. On Jay’s account, the union among England, Scotland, and Wales reflected their interests in foreign policy with respect to continental Europe. Jay argued that it would not be possible to divide the USA into three parts whose equality would be guaranteed into the future. Notably, Jay focused on the “envy and fear” that would be inspired by such inequality: “Both those passions would lead them to countenance, if not to promote, whatever might promise to diminish her importance; and would also restrain them from measures calculated to advance or even to secure her prosperity.” (both quotations from Federalist No. 5)
Jay then reminded his readers of the dangers of a politics of divide and conquer: should one of those three independent American states go to war, would not the others be tempted to become an ally of the enemy to the neighbor? This characteristic of international politics, Jay observed, was a mainstay of Roman conquest: first inflame local divisions, then conquer under the guise of friendship.

John Jay on the Necessity of United States
John Jay had a message in Federalist No. 5: unity. This idea, a strong element of the end of Federalist No. 4, was the main point of Federalist No. 5. The boundaries of the states were an inheritance of the colonial period. So the jurisdictional distinctness of the states had a long history leading up to the American Revolution. The arguments in defense of the Constitution were arguments in favor of a new form of government – an innovation. But the idea that what became the USA should be under a single non-British government was not a given.