The Federalist No. 20
The Insufficiency of the Present Confederation to Preserve the Union
New York Packet
Tuesday, December 11, 1787
[James Madison, with Alexander Hamilton]
To the People of the State of New York:
Netherlands are a confederacy of republics, or rather of aristocracies of a very
remarkable texture, yet confirming all the lessons derived from those which we
have already reviewed.
The union is composed of seven coequal and sovereign
states, and each state or province is a composition of equal and independent
cities. In all important cases, not only the provinces but the cities must be
The sovereignty of the Union is represented by the
States-General, consisting usually of about fifty deputies appointed by the
provinces. They hold their seats, some for life, some for six, three, and one
years; from two provinces they continue in appointment during pleasure.
The States-General have authority to enter into treaties
and alliances; to make war and peace; to raise armies and equip fleets; to
ascertain quotas and demand contributions. In all these cases, however,
unanimity and the sanction of their constituents are requisite. They have
authority to appoint and receive ambassadors; to execute treaties and alliances
already formed; to provide for the collection of duties on imports and exports;
to regulate the mint, with a saving to the provincial rights; to govern as
sovereigns the dependent territories. The provinces are restrained, unless with
the general consent, from entering into foreign treaties; from establishing
imposts injurious to others, or charging their neighbors with higher duties than
their own subjects. A council of state, a chamber of accounts, with five
colleges of admiralty, aid and fortify the federal administration.
The executive magistrate of the union is the stadtholder,
who is now an hereditary prince. His principal weight and influence in the
republic are derived from this independent title; from his great patrimonial
estates; from his family connections with some of the chief potentates of
Europe; and, more than all, perhaps, from his being stadtholder in the several
provinces, as well as for the union; in which provincial quality he has the
appointment of town magistrates under certain regulations, executes provincial
decrees, presides when he pleases in the provincial tribunals, and has
throughout the power of pardon.
As stadtholder of the union, he has, however, considerable
In his political capacity he has authority to settle
disputes between the provinces, when other methods fail; to assist at the
deliberations of the States-General, and at their particular conferences; to
give audiences to foreign ambassadors, and to keep agents for his particular
affairs at foreign courts.
In his military capacity he commands the federal troops,
provides for garrisons, and in general regulates military affairs; disposes of
all appointments, from colonels to ensigns, and of the governments and posts of
In his marine capacity he is admiral-general, and
superintends and directs every thing relative to naval forces and other naval
affairs; presides in the admiralties in person or by proxy; appoints
lieutenant-admirals and other officers; and establishes councils of war, whose
sentences are not executed till he approves them.
His revenue, exclusive of his private income, amounts to
three hundred thousand florins. The standing army which he commands consists of
about forty thousand men.
Such is the nature of the celebrated Belgic confederacy,
as delineated on parchment. What are the characters which practice has stamped
upon it? Imbecility in the government; discord among the provinces; foreign
influence and indignities; a precarious existence in peace, and peculiar
calamities from war.
It was long ago remarked by Grotius, that nothing but the
hatred of his countrymen to the house of Austria kept them from being ruined by
the vices of their constitution.
The union of Utrecht, says another respectable writer,
reposes an authority in the States-General, seemingly sufficient to secure
harmony, but the jealousy in each province renders the practice very different
from the theory.
The same instrument, says another, obliges each province
to levy certain contributions; but this article never could, and probably never
will, be executed; because the inland provinces, who have little commerce,
cannot pay an equal quota.
In matters of contribution, it is the practice to waive
the articles of the constitution. The danger of delay obliges the consenting
provinces to furnish their quotas, without waiting for the others; and then to
obtain reimbursement from the others, by deputations, which are frequent, or
otherwise, as they can. The great wealth and influence of the province of
Holland enable her to effect both these purposes.
It has more than once happened, that the deficiencies had
to be ultimately collected at the point of the bayonet; a thing practicable,
though dreadful, in a confedracy where one of the members exceeds in force all
the rest, and where several of them are too small to meditate resistance; but
utterly impracticable in one composed of members, several of which are equal to
each other in strength and resources, and equal singly to a vigorous and
Foreign ministers, says Sir William Temple, who was
himself a foreign minister, elude matters taken ad referendum, by
tampering with the provinces and cities. In 1726, the treaty of Hanover was
delayed by these means a whole year. Instances of a like nature are numerous and
In critical emergencies, the States-General are often
compelled to overleap their constitutional bounds. In 1688, they concluded a
treaty of themselves at the risk of their heads. The treaty of Westphalia, in
1648, by which their independence was formerly and finally recognized, was
concluded without the consent of Zealand. Even as recently as the last treaty of
peace with Great Britain, the constitutional principle of unanimity was departed
from. A weak constitution must necessarily terminate in dissolution, for want of
proper powers, or the usurpation of powers requisite for the public safety.
Whether the usurpation, when once begun, will stop at the salutary point, or go
forward to the dangerous extreme, must depend on the contingencies of the
moment. Tyranny has perhaps oftener grown out of the assumptions of power,
called for, on pressing exigencies, by a defective constitution, than out of the
full exercise of the largest constitutional authorities.
Notwithstanding the calamities produced by the
stadtholdership, it has been supposed that without his influence in the
individual provinces, the causes of anarchy manifest in the confederacy would
long ago have dissolved it. "Under such a government," says the Abbé
Mably, "the Union could never have subsisted, if the provinces had not a
spring within themselves, capable of quickening their tardiness, and compelling
them to the same way of thinking. This spring is the stadtholder." It is
remarked by Sir William Temple, "that in the intermissions of the
stadtholdership, Holland, by her riches and her authority, which drew the others
into a sort of dependence, supplied the place."
These are not the only circumstances which have
controlled the tendency to anarchy and dissolution. The surrounding powers
impose an absolute necessity of union to a certain degree, at the same time that
they nourish by their intrigues the constitutional vices which keep the republic
in some degree always at their mercy.
The true patriots have long bewailed the fatal tendency
of these vices, and have made no less than four regular experiments by extraordinary
assemblies, convened for the special purpose, to apply a remedy. As many
times has their laudable zeal found it impossible to unite the public
councils in reforming the known, the acknowledged, the fatal evils of the
existing constitution. Let us pause, my fellow-citizens, for one moment, over
this melancholy and monitory lesson of history; and with the tear that drops for
the calamities brought on mankind by their adverse opinions and selfish
passions, let our gratitude mingle an ejaculation to Heaven, for the propitious
concord which has distinguished the consultations for our political happiness.
A design was also conceived of establishing a general tax
to be administered by the federal authority. This also had its adversaries and
This unhappy people seem to be now suffering from popular
convulsions, from dissensions among the states, and from the actual invasion of
foreign arms, the crisis of their distiny. All nations have their eyes fixed on
the awful spectacle. The first wish prompted by humanity is, that this severe
trial may issue in such a revolution of their government as will establish their
union, and render it the parent of tranquillity, freedom and happiness: The
next, that the asylum under which, we trust, the enjoyment of these blessings
will speedily be secured in this country, may receive and console them for the
catastrophe of their own.
I make no apology for having dwelt so long on the
contemplation of these federal precedents. Experience is the oracle of truth;
and where its responses are unequivocal, they ought to be conclusive and sacred.
The important truth, which it unequivocally pronounces in the present case, is
that a sovereignty over sovereigns, a government over governments, a legislation
for communities, as contradistinguished from individuals, as it is a solecism in
theory, so in practice it is subversive of the order and ends of civil polity,
violence in place of law, or the destructive coercion of
the sword in place of the mild and salutary
coercion of the magistracy.