The Federalist Project 6

“The Concept of Ratification” and The Federalist 29 – 36

In the first half of Rakove’s treatment of “The Concept of Ratification,” we undertake a legalistic and theoretical discussion of just what it meant to seek “ratification” of the recently drafted constitution, the product of an ad hoc working group of brilliant delegates drawing from what would become the first states of the Union. Many intriguing and vexing questions quickly surfaced, enough to find Madison bristling with anxiety over the fate of his beloved document, which already represented a tour de force in calculated compromise and delicate negotiation. What type of body should convene to ratify the constitution? Would Congress – the early prototype created under the Articles – play a role, and if so, how extensive would it be? Would the existing state legislatures or special state-level conventions be assembled to vote on approval? And most significantly, what role would revisions and amendments play in the “ratification” process, the operative word of which – at least to Madison’s understanding – meant “approval” and “affirmation,” in the legal sense of enactment?

    As we’ve already seen, Madison highly distrusted the state-level political minds who might preside over such conventions, and he had reason to worry that the constitution would die “in committee” if each state were permitted to attach specific amendments. Madison was a self-conscious, if well-deserved, elitist in this regard; he was very wary to delegate revision authority to parochial mediocrities. Further concerns surrounded whether or not ratification required unanimity and what kind of voting procedure would be employed. For example, could state-level conventions vote on individual articles, on the model of the “line-item veto” of contemporary presidential fantasy? Madison feared these and other factors, Rakove notes, “as ill advised initiatives that would transform an orderly process of reform into a chaotic cacophony of immeasurable acts” (107). The very alliteration of that presentiment brings chills to the spine.

    Hamilton begins in Federalist 29–36 a lengthy disquisition on the nature and types of taxation. With his usual systematic rigor, a variety of tax schemes and their degrees of justice come under evaluation. Reading these essays, one is easily (and profitably) reminded of taxation as the theme par excellence in American politics, and Hamilton’s educated sensitivity to the revolutionary spirit toward too onerous or disproportionate taxation reigns acute in this section. In a way, our entire political tradition hinges on questions of who, what, and how much to tax? To what use is a secondary if necessary concomitant to these basic pivot points. The rest of policy is just details, of little concern to average citizens, then as well as now. Our disagreements about concrete policy items, whatever the moral or ethical dimensions we care to assign to them, in most cases boil down to disagreements over the way tax dollars are collected and spent. We want national defense, but how much do we want to spend on it? We want access to cheap oil and manufactures, but how badly? We want universal health care or better schools, but is it our job to pay for them?

    Add to that the complexity of a farmer in Ohio paying for a new airport runway in Arizona or a bank teller in Arkansas paying for fishery subsidies in Maine and you have a dizzying array of taxation quandaries, and none of them is entirely new. In appreciation of that dilemma, Hamilton delivers himself of a remarkable utterance in Federalist 36: “Happy it is when the interest which the government has in the preservation of its own power coincides with a proper distribution of the public burdens and tends to guard the least wealthy part of the community from oppression” (222). Do we see this same candor, or anything akin to it, in our policymakers today? One certainly doesn’t envy Hamilton’s task: the source of the revolution had been the cumulative festering of oppressive taxes paid to a distant and unforgiving overlord. The framers now had to convince the states that the “preservation” of a national seat of “power” – seemingly distant and unforgiving to many at its outer fringes – was necessary to a “proper distribution of the public burdens,” burdens which themselves needed both explanation and justification. I can’t think of a more essential and concise phrase with which to describe the basic business of government.

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