May 20, 2010 – Federalist No. 17 – The Same Subject Continued: The Insufficiency of the Present Confederation to Preserve the Union, For the Independent Journal (Hamilton) – Guest Blogger: William C. Duncan, director of the Marriage Law Foundation

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

One of the most significant criticisms of the proposed Constitution was that it would eviscerate the autonomy and authority of the individual States. As Alexander Hamilton described it, the argument was that the Constitution “would tend to render to government of the union too powerful, and to enable it to absorb those residuary authorities, which it might be judged proper to leave with the states for local purposes.” While some today would not think of that as a weakness, this criticism was important because both the Framers and many of their contemporaneous critics believed that functioning States were crucial to ordered liberty. Thus, the Constitution provided that of all the appropriate objects of government authority, only a small and specifically identified set would be delegated to the national government, by the States.

So, in Federalist 17, Alexander Hamilton could respond to the criticism by arguing that the threat actually goes the other way (that the States might interfere with the proper ends of the national government). He supported his arguments for the likely predominance of State power by noting that: (1) the enumerated powers of the national government (commerce, finance, negotiations, war) will likely be very alluring targets for people driven by ambition so they won’t bother with the larger set of issues regulated by States, (2) meddling in local concerns would likely create enough trouble for the national government as to make doing so undesirable to national officials, (3) the people of the States would not likely stand for the usurpation and they are the constitutions of the national government.

In support of this last point, Hamilton notes that it accords with human nature: “It is a known fact in human nature, that its affections are commonly weak in proportion to the distance or diffusiveness of the object.” Thus, “a man is more attached to his family than to his neighbourhood, to his neighbourhood than to the community at large” so “the people of each state would be apt to feel a stronger bias towards their local governments, than towards the government of the union, unless the force of that principle should be destroyed by a much better administration of the latter.” The States also have the important advantage of being responsible for matters “of criminal and civil justice” which make them “the immediate and visible guardians of life and property.” The national government, dealing only with “more general interests” that are “less immediately under the observation of the mass of the citizens” is “less likely to inspire a habitual sense of obligation, and an active sentiment of attachment.” Since the States “will generally possess the confidence and good will of the people” they “will be able effectually to oppose all encroachments of the national government.”

Hamilton’s analysis is persuasive but might seem a little alien in a climate where the national government increasingly dominates not only the objects of proper governmental authority but areas of life the Framers would not have contemplated government would regulate. Nevertheless, Hamilton does hint at a motivation for this dramatic incursion of the national government. Thus he notes that hypothetically “mere wantonness, and lust for domination” could lead national leaders to desire to interfere in State prerogatives. He believed, however, that the political process would turn back any such incursions since the States, with the support of their citizens, would “control the indulgence of so extravagant an appetite.”

Why has this check not been more effective? Perhaps it would have been if the sole threat to the notion of a national government of limited powers was the personal ambition of national leaders and others who might have a financial stake in government functioning. A more menacing challenge, however, was developing in Europe at the time of the Framing but which had not taken root in the fledgling United States. This was the emergence of ideology and its attendant schemes for improving not only the administration of traditional government functions but rather human nature itself. The scope of such an ambition obviously would not be confined to interstate commerce and international relations but would also contemplate the objects of State governments like criminal and civil justice. In this project, the States have too often been complicit in order to secure largesse from the national government. Then, as the province of the power of the national government expanded, the subjects which might tempt ambitious individuals and financial speculators multiplied and created interest groups with a strong incentive to continue national involvement in traditional State concerns.

The best hope to change this state of affairs is a return to the modest scope of national power and the reemergence of robust State authority.

Mr. Duncan is director of the Marriage Law Foundation ( He formerly served as acting director of the Marriage Law Project at the Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law and as executive director of the Marriage and Family Law Research Grant at J. Reuben Clark Law School, Brigham Young University, where he was also a visiting professor.

33 Responses to “May 20, 2010 – Federalist No. 17 – The Same Subject Continued: The Insufficiency of the Present Confederation to Preserve the Union, For the Independent Journal (Hamilton) – Guest Blogger: William C. Duncan, director of the Marriage Law Foundation”

Carolyn Attaway says:
May 20, 2010 at 8:06 am
I appreciated Mr. Duncan’s insight into Paper 17, and realized as I read his analysis of Mr. Hamilton’s writing, that where the Paper was to warn of the dangers a very robust State may have on National authority; today we see the reverse to be true, where a robust National authority usurps the State’s power.
During Hamilton’s time, the men in Congress served part-time and worked a great deal in the private sector. So when Hamilton writes ‘relating to more general interests, they will be less apt to come home to the feelings of the people; and, in proportion, less likely to inspire an habitual sense of obligation, and an active sentiment of attachment’, I realize how far we have come from the framers original intent. Today our representatives in Congress are full-time delegates; many never having worked in the private sector, making laws over citizens with no sense of reality as to what it takes to survive in mainstream America.
This part of our framework I fear is broken. I believe our founders never intended Congress to be so removed from their citizens, taking on the role of knowing what is best for their constituents, and making laws without their consent. The Great Cement of society has cracked.
I enjoyed Hamilton’s reference to the feudal systems of Great Britain. Being an avid reader of that period of time, I could visualize the struggles between the feudal baronies and clans, not only against the crown, but with each other, and within each group of people. Hamilton writes ‘the separate governments in a confederacy may aptly be compared with the feudal baronies; with this advantage in their favor, that from the reasons already explained, they will generally possess the confidence and good-will of the people, and with so important a support, will be able effectually to oppose all encroachments of the national government.’
Again, during Hamilton’s time, I believe this statement had greater import, but today with the States giving the Federal Government so much of their power, they do not retain a great deal of the confidence and good-will of their citizens. Many of their citizens do not realize that a lot of the entitlements that they receive from the State are due to monies being received from the Federal Government in exchange for State authority. And if they do realize it, how many of them understand the consequence?
With the ratification of the 17th Amendment, I believe the power of the State diminished.

Charles Babb says:
May 20, 2010 at 9:00 am
Thank you Mr. Duncan, for that synopsis and for your analysis. Hamilton seemed to miss one “fact of human nature” regarding “its affections”; that is the one of individual and collective greed. “In this project, the States have too often been complicit in order to secure largesse from the national government.” We’ll give back some of your citizens’ tax dollars, for school construction as long as you agree to teach your children what we tell you to teach them.
And it could not be said better; that, “The best hope to change this state of affairs is a return to the modest scope of national power and the reemergence of robust State authority.”
What is needed now is a plan to accomplish that goal.

Susan Craig says:
May 20, 2010 at 10:52 am
While I grant that Hamilton’s point of view has merit from the divisiveness that comes from internal squabbling. But what happens to the country when the abuse comes from the other direction? What happens when the greed and power hunger abuses the intent of the enumerated powers? In Federalist 17, Alexander Hamilton responds to this by arguing that the threat actually goes the other way (that the States might interfere with the proper ends of the national government). He supported his arguments for the likely predominance of State power by noting that: (1) the enumerated powers of the national government (commerce, finance, negotiations, war) will likely be very alluring targets for people driven by ambition so they won’t bother with the larger set of issues regulated by States, (2) meddling in local concerns would likely create enough trouble for the national government as to make doing so undesirable to national officials, (3) the people of the States would not likely stand for the usurpation and they are the constitutions of the national government.
Today I don’t see much of that but I do see a lot of usurpation of State, local and individual rights by the Federal Government, this I think is a result of ignorance and laziness on the part of the individuals.

Linus Behne says:
May 20, 2010 at 1:04 pm
Boy, I sure wish that Alexander Hamilton was correct about the national government staying out of the business of the states. Hamilton would be shocked if he came back to life today. The Federal government wants to stick its’ nose into everything.
One of my favorite lines from Fed 17: “It is therefore improbable that there should exist a disposition in the federal councils to usurp the powers with which they are connected; because the attempt to exercise those powers would be as troublesome as it would be nugatory; and the possession of them, for that reason, would contribute nothing to the dignity, to the importance, or to the splendor of the national government”.

William Duncan says:
May 20, 2010 at 1:54 pm
Thank you for these excellent comments. I am much from your responses and am glad the essay sparked these thoughts.
I agree that our situation now is pretty grim in terms of centralization of power in the national government. One thing that I believe would make a difference is for states and individuals to resist the temptation to accept federal funding in some instances.

William Duncan says:
May 20, 2010 at 1:56 pm
The first sentence in the second paragraph of my comment should have read “I am learning much.”

Susan Craig says:
May 20, 2010 at 2:08 pm
How I wish that today’s iteration of our ‘Constitutional’ government would think that the usurpations were “nugatory” (of little or no consequence: trifling, inconsequential: having no force: inoperative: synonym – vain)

Carolyn Attaway says:
May 20, 2010 at 2:09 pm
Susan, I agree with you to some degree on the ignorance of the individual due to the lack of correct US History being taught in the public school system, however; I do not concur with the word laziness. The majority of Americans today are very hardworking people, many taking several jobs to keep afloat, and I think that is the crux of the problem. So many people are on auto pilot in political matters of our country, and do not have the time nor energy to keep up with all that is happening today. Many people work long hours and only look for a small reprieve from their work by the end of the day/week. Others honestly thought that the problems we are experiencing today never could happen.
I heard a current poll today that asked if you were satisfied with the direction the country is going. Only 23% of the people polled agreed, the rest were deeply dissatisfied. I think we can safely assume that the 23% is from the left who have very liberal agendas.
I believe with every day that goes by, more and more people are finding the energy and the courage to take a stand. Now if we could get our representatives in Congress to do likewise.

Maggie says:
May 20, 2010 at 2:11 pm
I don’t think that Hamilton ever envisioned things going so far in the opposite direction because it has always been the American Spirit to work hard for what we have. We have become a nation full of people with our hands out. When you expect others to take care of your every need without working for it yourself, you give up many rights in return. We the People have handed our rights over, slowly but surely because we have become lazy and complacent.

Ron Meier says:
May 20, 2010 at 2:43 pm
As others have noted, the current situation is greatly different from what could have been anticipated 200 years ago. States have allowed themselves to have their authorities and powers over certain areas of responsibility be minimized by federal mandates on a whole host of areas. As a consequence, the states have allowed themselves to become dependents of the national governmennt. Today, we see that many of the most populous and powerful states are in a state of almost permanent weakness, due to their own fiscal mismanagement, and thus are not able to take back what the federal government has taken away; they are responsible for all that is wrong in their states, but the federal government holds the reins of authority, and the states have no power to correct anything. Effectively, the states have been neutered in small bites by the feds.
Therefore, it is now up to the people. It seems that many of us have intuitively realized that the states cannot and will not fight back, and that is the genesis of the tea party movement. This movement is unfolding and untested, and we won’t know if it can effectively take back what has been taken from us over a hundred years. I remember Warren Buffett saying recently that “we have been selling our country to foreigners a little bit at a time.” Indeed we have; we’ve also been selling our individual and states’ rights a little bit at a time. Each tiny step didn’t hurt at all, so we kept selling. Now, while the individual steps were no problem, the cummulative effect of those tiny steps is killing us. Kinda like smoking; pleasurable over many years, but fatal sooner than hoped.

Will Morrisey says:
May 20, 2010 at 3:06 pm
I think that Hamilton’s key point is that the original design or structure of the U. S. federal system gave the states the means of resisting federal-government encroachment. The centerpiece of this was the Senate. Recall that the senators under the original system were not elected directly; they were appointed by the state legislatures. Quite often, those legislatures would sent `their’ man to Washington with expressly-stated directives on how to vote. Contrast this with the system brought in by the Progressives, under the Seventeenth Amendment. From then on, a U. S. Senator simply did not need to worry much about any directions or resolutions from his/her state legislature. A Senator’s political `power base’ is quite independent of the legislature of his home state. This is one major reason why federalism doesn’t work as intended. It’s not Hamilton’s fault, or the fault of any of the founders. It’s a much later development.

Constituting America says:
May 20, 2010 at 3:50 pm
Where did we go wrong as a country that we let the Federal government overtake the states? This was obviously not the intent of our founding fathers. As explained in Federalist Paper No. 16, the communities and local passions were to always be the stronghold against the homogeneous nature that springs from a Federal formation.
Obviously, Alexander Hamilton could envision great commerce and industry from such a fastidious people as Revolutionary Americans, but how could he see the vast transformation of communication and transportation? From his post in the 18th century, the local influences and perspectives were dominant, and the national sways were secondary.
He could not imagine the amazing feats in engineering that would revolutionize transportation broadening the horizons of the people. Nor could he foresee the formidable transformations resulting from the inventions of the telephone, radio and television. With this occurrence, the states lost their uniqueness, the people their distinctness and the federal government gained power – a shift occurred.
But was this enough to open the door for the Federal government to eat away at the core of the states’ powers?
What gave the Federal Government the power to encroach? Perhaps it was the Constitutional Amendment XVI – Income Taxes. What was the incentive that enticed the people to forfeit their individuality and their rights? Subsidies – the spoon-feeding mentality that usurped the American “can do” spirit.
The slippery slope began. Alexander Hamilton stated in Federalist No. 15, “When the sword is once drawn, the passions of men observe no bounds of moderation.”
Perhaps it should be, “When the sword of taxes is drawn, the passions of government observe no bounds of moderation.”
Knowledge is power. With the awareness and education of the true intention of our United States Constitution, the American spirit will be revived and the people will recognize the power of their vote. Our Republican form of government offers the way to rectify.
To quote Alexander Hamilton, “There is one transcendent advantage belonging to the province of state governments, which alone suffices to place the matter in a clear and satisfactory light.. I mean the ordinary administration of criminal and civil justice.”
The criminal and civil justice belong to the states.. something to ponder.
God Bless,
Janine Turner
May 20, 2010
P.S. I thank William C. Duncan for joining us today and for his insightful essay! Thank you, Mr. Duncan!

Susan Craig says:
May 20, 2010 at 4:09 pm
The ‘laziness’ I was alluding to was not that of hard labor but of intellect and inquiry. Our propensity to go along to get along. The laziness is in trusting what the ‘talking heads’ and politicians say not digging into the details of what is behind the pretty sounding titles and sound bites. My current example of this is the trust we had when the ‘talking heads’ and politicians said that the passed version of “Health Care” [prime example of a misleading title] did not contain a public option – THEY LIED! It is there just buried in the care of the Director of the Office of Personnel Management (Section 1334, pages 97-100).

Dave says:
May 20, 2010 at 4:24 pm
Carolyn, well said. You got me thinking about how different public officials and citizens were in Hamilton’s time compared to today. Citizens were probably not as mobile back then, so when they settled on a place, it was a place where they would invest considerable time and resources. Early Americans must have been very attached and loyal to their local communities and states. They knew that any public improvements would be improvements they would enjoy for many years, so public projects were heavily supported locally (no stimulus money needed back then.) How loyal to their local communities are today’s representatives of the people. They are in Washington more than their home states. They won’t even meet with constituents for town hall type meetings. They vote for social policies even when their constituents are against them 5 to 1 or even 10 to 1. How loyal were the Clintons to Arkansas? How many politicians sell out their states to obtain a federal post? From how many laws do the federal legislators exempt themselves? Arlen Specter wanted power so bad he switched parties and abandoned any principles he may have had.
As I read No. 17, I kept writing in the margin “wrong.” Hamilton had certain expectations of how things would play out. Evidently modern man has become much more imperfect and degraded than Hamilton could ever conceive. It’s obvious to me Hamilton has a blind side. He cannot envision the general government being the source of infringements on individual liberty. Granted the states at the time were not bastions justice and magnanimity, and something had to be done.
Hurray Charles. I’m sick and tired of what Ronald Reagan, many years ago, called the money merry-go-round—citizens compelled to send their hard-earned tax dollars to Washington, only to have it trickle back to their state at the whim and behest of federal bureaucrats. Federal money is for FEDERAL PROJECTS duly enacted that benefit the whole republic. Spending federal dollars on non-federal projects is unconstitutional.
Reps have a duty to protect their state’s enlightened self-interest and constitutional sphere of state authority on behalf of their constituents. This duty I’m suggesting is not to imply an abrogation of a state’s federal responsibilities, nor is there any implication to disparage or diminish the constitutional prerogatives of the federal government or those of the 49 other states. What cannot be allowed to continue is for the states, and the state actors, to continue to accept the role of mere agents for the federal government. Madison in Federalist No. 46 puts the agency relationship in the proper perspective: “The federal and State governments are in fact but different agents and trustees of the people, constituted with different powers and designed for different purposes.” In a nutshell, local money, to the greatest extent possible, should stay local for local purposes.
My thanks to Mr. Duncan.

Dave says:
May 20, 2010 at 4:44 pm
Thanks for bringing up the Seventeenth Amendment Professor Morrisey. What was it that sold the Amendment to the states? Why would they give up such a key component of federalism and a check on the passions of the people’s house with a different scheme of composition for the senate?

Carolyn Attaway says:
May 20, 2010 at 4:57 pm
I think it is more stupid arrogance of our elected officials. When in any other time of history would you have heard these responses:
“Many senators and congressmen have taken offense to the idea that they read these bills.
Representative John Conyers didn’t know what the point was in reading it because he wouldn’t understand it anyway.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer laughed at the idea of reading the health-care bill saying, “If every member pledged to not vote for it if they hadn’t read it in its entirety, I think we would have very few votes.”
Representative Henry Waxman admitted he didn’t know the details of his own Cap and Trade bill.
And Senator Arlen Specter said they couldn’t read the whole bill, because they have to “make adjustments very fast.” Link:
More constituents knew what was in the HC Bill than Congress did. I do agree many constituents are lazy when it comes to researching their candidates before voting for them; but hopefully this Novemeber that won’t be a problem!

Dave says:
May 20, 2010 at 5:48 pm
Susan, nihil sub sole novum (nothing new under the sun.) Jefferson had this in the Declaration of Independence: “all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” Hard-working Americans have been hard at work supporting themselves and their families. As individuals they give time and money to their churches, charitable organizations and to the community. They never saw the slow switch when public offices became places of profit instead of places of honor. Hard-working Americans have been too busy to be political activists and “organizers.” I think they’re realizing quickly that they cannot afford to be too busy too much longer.
I think the masses have become too accepting of pronouncements from a self-anointed elite class. Universal healthcare? Let’s see, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, PGBC, Amtrak; failure, failure, failure, failure, and failure. Why would anyone think the government being everyone’s doctor is a good thing?
The moral fabric of Americans having become frayed, Americans have succumbed to the siren song of the free lunch. Too many Americans think it is morally acceptable to have others provide for that which they can, but refuse to, provide for themselves. I love Janine’s
line about America being built by Americans, not with their hands out, but with their hands at work. Contrast that with Nancy Pelosi’s recent utterance about the healthcare bill: ““We see it as a entrepreneurial bill – a bill that says to someone, if you want to be creative and be a musician or whatever, you can leave your work, focus on your talent, your skill, your passion, your aspirations because you will have health care.”
So, if the marketplace has determined that you really suck at something, no worries, the taxpayers will subsidize your “artistic efforts.”

Jimmy Green says:
May 20, 2010 at 6:43 pm
Hamilton’s arguments that the Federal Government would never usurp the States sovereignty in its laws simply due to the lack of interest or as Hamilton states “can never be desirable cares of a general jurisdiction”. is something I agree with not because of a lack of desire by the fed’s but rather a restraining system of checks and balances working properly to enforce this restraint. Power generally begets more power when it can and Hamilton knew this so a simple belief the Feds would have no further interest to usurp state sovereignty regardless of a constitution seems week at best.
This paper seen in the perspective that the constitution will work as written would in effect allow everything Hamilton wrote in essay 17 to work as so written. In that context I agree with Hamilton and we could rewrite essay 17 as essay common sense.
Our attachments are greater to those nearer. Our bias would be towards our State. Even the state criminal and civil laws or justice will bind the people to their states. “Unless you’re guilty.” Okay all common sense.
The exception is Hamilton’s belief that the feds need to worry more about the states encroachment on the fed. The congress will be enacting “federal” legislation and since the “federal” courts will determine the constitutionality of the “federal” laws vs. the states.
I would have thought this alone would give Hamilton pause in his belief on the reality or not of state encroachment.
Hamilton upbringing and early adulthood probably colored his view differently from the average Americans as some have pointed out to me.
Also the essays were written to achieve consensus in New York on ratifying the constitution so some liberties may have expressed Hamilton’s desire but not actual beliefs.
I’m curious to know if Hamilton believed there was a threat to state sovereignty or if he cared. He understood the corrupting influence of power. The drive of power for powers sake and the inherent jealousy and ambitions to abuse the common man in pursuit of power. Yet he seems devoid of understanding that when the Federal Government is left to determine the constitutionality of any law against a sovereign state through the federal governments own federal courts that your only asking for trouble. The final arbiter of constitutional law is the Supreme Court. Just a bunch of federal “lawyers” sitting around deciding what they believe is write or wrong. If they follow a fairly strict interpretation of the constitution then were all reading from the same play book. Life is fine, the sun shines and the bees buzz. It’s when decisions based on egos or the sudden finding of a hidden meaning in the constitution that no one before them found or god forbid “I want to leave a legacy”. Then the rule book is always changing and we start to look like those feudal systems Hamilton discussed. This was an inherent danger the founders overlooked that we need to remedy today less we move further away from the founding documents.

Susan Craig says:
May 20, 2010 at 8:17 pm
There’s the rub. (to quote a famous Dane). What we have at federal level is not the deliberative body it was envisioned to be. They are trying to be all things to all people and being none to everybody. They are reactive thinking [and I use the term loosely] that we being an instant society need everything done yesterday if not sooner.

Roger Jett says:
May 20, 2010 at 8:34 pm
Dave, You asked earlier in reference to the 17th Admendment, ” what was it that sold the Admendment to the states?”. I think the answer to that question is that it was the desire of the people. Overtime their was enormous dissatifaction over the process of having U.S. Senators elected by state legislatures. Pressure was exerted on both the U.S. Congress and upon the state legislatures to allow their direct election by the citizens. Congress resisted, but state legislatures acquiesced to the will of the people. By 1912, (29) state legislatures elected U.S. Senators via state referenda. It was only after the state legislatures were on the verge of achieving a two-thirds majority in a movement to call for a convention for a constitutional admendment, that congress relented and proposed the 17th Admendment. The Admendment was ratified by 37 out of a possible 48 states with only one state explicitly rejecting it.

Susan Craig says:
May 20, 2010 at 8:46 pm
I don’t know but when it was briefly covered in either my high school or college history courses I think the selling points were supposedly “We the people” are supposed to be the final say in our ‘democracy’ (note how the fact we are a representative republic is not to be spoken) so why should there be another body of our ‘betters’ choosing the most powerful position in the legislature. Somehow they neglected to point out it is the directly elected representatives who have the power of the purse and that legislation at least nominally is to originate from there too.

Will Morrisey says:
May 20, 2010 at 9:47 pm
There had been numerous attempts to amend the Constitution to require direct election of senators; the first such attempt was in 1826. By the time the amendment was passed in 1912, 29 of the 48 states had direct elections `in effect’; that is, they had nonbinding elections, but the state legislators pledged to vote for the top vote-getter. Amendment 17 is one of the Progressive-era amendments; as one would expect, the argument was that democracy in principle should involve direct popular election of legislators. The Heritage Guide to the Constitution has a good, short account of the matter.
Janine Turner adds an important point about the income tax amendment, passed around the same time. These two amendments were characteristic moves of Progressivism: If you are out to build a centralized, modern state, you need big revenue source, such as an income tax (mere tariffs won’t do); in addition, you need political structures that do not in any way depend upon the will of the subordinate political structures in the system. This sets up a system that appears to be more democratic than its predecessor (and in some respects is more democratic) while at the same time funding a bureaucracy that will effectively serve as an UNelected `fourth branch of government’–that is, as a new and oligarchic element in the regime.

Roger Jett says:
May 21, 2010 at 12:55 am
Dr. Morrisey, Many seem to be in agreement that the 17th admendment was a poor decision. I’ve tried to listen and remain open on the matter, as I have evaluated the various arguments for and against it’s ratification. I have to entertain thoughts about where would we be now if we still left it up to the state legislatures to determine who represents in the Senate. Who can say what impact the 17th Admendment has had in the last 96 years or so, but certainly there has been some effect caused by it. What that might be is speculative at best. One point however is that the legislative landscape at the state level has been dominated by one party consistently for a long, long time, while at the national level there has been substantially more balance between the parties in the U.S. Senate. I don’t want to argue that we are always better off if a particular party is in the majority. However, I believe most people recognize that when we have a party that has too large a majority for too long a period of time, then abuses occur. Many Americans breathed a little easier when the balance of power shifted ever so slightly in the Senate this past January. If Article I, section 3, were still in effect , with partisan politics as it is, what would be the status in the Senate. We currently have Republican control over 14 state legislatures and Democrat control over 28 state legislatures. In seven state legislatures neither party controls and apparently Nebraska’s Legislature is considered nonpartisan. In my mind, I see this scenario resulting in at least 56 Democratic Senators and at least 28 Republican Senators, with a lot of contention transpiring in the remaining 8 states over how to decide who gets the remaining 16 Senate Seats. I for one am glad it’s the people who decde.

Dave says:
May 21, 2010 at 12:59 am
This is better than a college seminar. Thanks for all the great comments about the 17th Amendment. I think the amendment disrupted the balance the Founders’ tried to achieve in accommodating the different faculties of men and hence different material conditions as Madison wrote about in No. 10. The Senate seemed to be designed to keep the levelers at bay. But now you have two lower houses, one of which has a 6-year term–let the great leveling begin, for Madison tells us that “the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property.” (No. 10) To “the People” of the populism movement who wanted a senate that looked like them, I have one thing to say–”How’s that working out for you? A few years back a study was done of the financial wealth of senators and found that 40 percent of them were millionaires. Not quite a mirror image of the general populace.
Isn’t getting rid of the aristocratic leanings of the senate like Hamilton’s example of when the sovereign and the common people “effected a union between them fatal to the power of the aristocracy[?]” In this context, I can’t help thinking about the title of a history book on the Russian Revolution by Orlando Figes–”A People’s Tragedy.” The people always think they’re going to come out way ahead and they never do.
As I read more and more about our early republic, I’m troubled with a recurring thought–Have we become a people incapable of governing ourselves?

Susan Craig says:
May 21, 2010 at 8:18 am
The more we push self-esteem over self-accomplishment and allow “the devil made me do it” instead of insisting on the self-determination of ones actions the less governable we become. Governance begins with self.

Will Morrisey says:
May 21, 2010 at 9:09 am
Roger Jett makes a key argument. My point is simply that one can’t have two opposite things at once. That is, you can’t have federalism as “The Federalist” conceives it and also have the popular election of senators that has brought greater representation to the Republican Party in the Senate–unless you figure out some other institutional device that would shore up the states by giving them a more direct voice in the federal government. Alternatively, under a system of renewed control of state legislatures over the Senate, Republicans would need to take state legislative elections much more seriously and work to win majorities in them. There would undoubtedly be much more media focus on such elections if more were at stake in them. When it comes to state legislative elections, maybe Republicans have reaped the harvest of their own inattention.

Dave says:
May 21, 2010 at 10:31 am
Roger, thanks for your insight. But the people did decide before the 17th Amend., it’s just that under the framers’ plan they decided indirectly by electing the local legislators. The senate was to be the repository of the accumulated wisdom of the nation. It was set up to throw cold water on the heated passions of the lower house. They were supposed to be the best and the brightest; an aristocracy of merit not heredity (if my ancient Greek does not fail me, I think aristos means best or most noble.) The unique concerns of the senate laid out in the constitution were far removed from local concerns. Treaties, foreign trade, federal appointments, and national security were not what the common people were thinking about on a day-to-day basis–they wanted to know if the crops and animals were taken care of.
I haven’t had a chance to read up on the 17th Amend., but my guess is that there had to be corruption, or abuse of power of some kind, to upset the people of the time.
The American people of the 21st century are too ignorant of the long-term impact of their ill-considered public policy desires. Our rights of private property will always be sacrificed on the altar of democracy. If the masses can confiscate the wealth of the few through the use of government under the color of “social justice,” “economic justice,” “environmental justice,” and “shared responsibility,” they will. The senate was supposed to be populated with disinterested statesmen of integrity and honor–closer to Franklin than Franken. The civic knowledge landscape of the American electorate and the elected is not a pretty picture. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s ( reports for the last few years present a dismal, horrifying dumbing down of Americans. We’ve gotten to the point where someone like me, just a common man, could now be seen as an elitist.
Just give the people their bread and circuses (panem et circenses) and the individual rights and liberties of others can be trampled without notice or concern to the long-term detriment of all.

Dave says:
May 21, 2010 at 10:57 am
Susan, we do irreparable harm to the individual and his potential to lead a meaningful and fulfilling life when we show such little respect for his free will and his autonomous self-determination by not holding him accountable for the consequences of his actions.
I got an idea. If anyone wants a bailout, they must seek it from family, friends and willing strangers. The anonymity of individual and corporate welfare payments lacks the transparency to make people accountable. There’s no sense of shame, no sense of honor; just entitlement. It’s so easy to spend other people’s money.

Susan Craig says:
May 21, 2010 at 1:23 pm
Dave, that is my prime objection to a majority of national welfare programs. It subtly tells the recipient that they can’t make it therefore they need to be cared for. Enslaving those take the ‘entitlement’.

Dave says:
May 21, 2010 at 2:28 pm
Susan, to me it’s even more insidious than simply telling the recipients that they can’t make it. The “welfare” is sold as something they are entitled to because their situation came about through no fault of there own–certain external constraints kept them from living a life of excellence. But for certain classes of people holding the recipient back because of prejudice, monopoly power over capital, or any other made up reason our recipient would be the next Edison or Gates. The system allows people to forget that before the government can “benefit” certain individuals, it must necessarily deprive others. A government has nothing prior to taking from the governed.

Roger Jett says:
May 21, 2010 at 7:50 pm
Dave, I find that what Dr. Morrisey and you have had to say today has great merit and serves to help us focus more upon the real underlying issues and less upon the “appropriateness” or, perhaps the “inappropriateness” of the 17th Admendment. The Founders sought to preserve sovereignty to the states and to the people in those areas which were not specifically enumerated to the federal government. I believe we each agree that to the detriment of America we have drifted substantially away from where the Founding Fathers intended for us to be . In my opinion some of that drifting may have been the result of unrealistic expectations on their part. After all, much that they attempted was experimental and on a grand scale. However, while they may have been mistaken in a few of their methods, they proved to be overwhelmingly correct in their concepts, precepts and principles. Our goverment as built upon our Constitution, has withstood many tests over a period of time that is unequaled in history. However, I believe I’m on target when I say that there is a consensus that we are in grave danger of losing our republic form of government. We face many difficulties. By way of what Dr. Morrisey calls a Fourth Unelected Branch of the federal government (bureaucracy), the executive branch is managing to usurp power from the legislative branch. By judicial activism, the judiciary branch further usurps power from the legislature as they legislate laws from the bench. Of course as has often been discussed already, the federal legislative branch in conjunction with the federal judiciary has routinely overriddened the sovereignty of the state governments. We the people have grown selfish, complacent, apathetic and in increasing numbers more and more dependent upon the federal government. Such actions and lack of action invites bondage. We still have a “republic” and it’s time for us to wake up, cast off our fears and fight to save it.

Kay says:
May 21, 2010 at 11:21 pm
I have nothing to add, except my thanks for all the bloggers and essayist Mr. Duncan. As one of you mentioned, this is better than a class. I read today one little ray of hope: the Constitution is selling like hotcakes. The Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, and even our Congressional offices who have free copies are experiencing a rush of requests for the Constitution.

Dave says:
May 22, 2010 at 9:24 am
Roger, I wholeheartedly agree. Thanks for taking the time to write so many well thought out comments for this project. You used the word “drifted” and that is a word that has found its way into my vocabulary with increasing frequency. Paul Rahe used it in the title of his book Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift. I haven’t read it yet, but it did get me to read selections of Tocqueville–check out the short chapter six of part four in volume two entitled What Kind of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear. Tocqueville foresaw the Nanny State and the Administrative State 175 years ago.
I’m not well read enough to see the big picture yet, but I’m going to keep reading.

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