“A System Without a Precedent”: The Federalism of the Federalist Papers

Authored by: Quentin Taylor

The Ashgate Research Companion to Federalism

Print publication date:  August  2009
Online publication date:  April  2016

Print ISBN: 9780754671312
eBook ISBN: 9781315612966
Adobe ISBN: 9781317043454


 Download Chapter



Among the many difficulties facing the delegates who assembled in Philadelphia in 1787, few were as formidable as drawing the line between the power and jurisdiction of the general government and that of the states. The idea of dividing sovereignty between two or more entities had received the stern rebuke of history and the admonishment of the best political writers. To set up a power within a power, an imperio in imperium, was “a solecism in politics,” contradictory in theory and untenable in practice. For many the experience of the United States under the Articles of Confederation only confirmed the verdict of Clio and reinforced the received wisdom: America’s brief experiment in federalism had failed. In light of this false start, the new nation’s leaders faced a harrowing dilemma. Some, like Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, concluded that only a system that firmly subordinated the states to the central government, even to the point of reducing them to administrative districts, could overcome their centrifugal tendencies, protect liberty, and preserve the Union. The perceived need for something approaching a consolidation of the states under a national authority signaled a deep skepticism toward, if not a total abandonment of, the federal idea. This, however, was the minority view, both inside and outside the Federal Convention. Virtually all the delegates in Philadelphia agreed that the national government should be strengthened and the states restrained, but few were willing to go as far as Madison, and none as far as Hamilton, who was openly contemptuous of the states. Outside the Convention a truly “national” system that would turn sovereign states into mere counties was unthinkable for the vast majority of Americans. As it was, the federal compromise hammered out in Philadelphia raised cries of “consolidation” from the Constitution’s opponents and nearly defeated its adoption in key states like Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia.

Search for more...
Back to top

Use of cookies on this website

We are using cookies to provide statistics that help us give you the best experience of our site. You can find out more in our Privacy Policy. By continuing to use the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies.