The Federalist #22: Majority vs. Minority Rule, B.S. vs. Passion


Let’s move on to Federalist #22, again by Alexander Hamilton. While I sometimes find Hamilton tedious, as I mentioned earlier, he can also display a ferocious command of logic, political acuity, historical example, and rhetoric. These passages serve as a demonstration of this. Here he discusses how the Constitution addresses majority vs. minority power of the states, as opposed the idea of equality amongst the states, which had been an operating principle of the Articles of Confederation. At that time, the approval of all nine states was required in order to approve a bill, treaty, or other legislation:

The right of equal suffrage among the States is another exceptionable part of the Confederation. Every idea of proportion and every rule of fair representation conspire to condemn a principle, which gives to Rhode Island an equal weight in the scale of power with Massachusetts, or Connecticut, or New York; and to Delaware an equal voice in the national deliberations with Pennsylvania, or Virginia, or North Carolina. Its operation contradicts the fundamental maxim of republican government, which requires that the sense of the majority should prevail. Sophistry may reply, that sovereigns are equal, and that a majority of the votes of the States will be a majority of confederated America. But this kind of logical legerdemain will never counteract the plain suggestions of justice and common-sense. . .

Great rhetoric there, while also demonstrating the frequent insertion of breathy commas–a grammatical oddity throughout the Papers and a reflection, no doubt, of the stylistic conventions of the time.

It may be objected to this, that not seven but nine States, or two thirds of the whole number, must consent to the most important resolutions; and it may be thence inferred that nine States would always comprehend a majority of the Union. But this does not obviate the impropriety of an equal vote between States of the most unequal dimensions and populousness; nor is the inference accurate in point of fact; for we can enumerate nine States which contain less than a majority of the people; and it is constitutionally possible that these nine may give the vote. Besides, there are matters of considerable moment determinable by a bare majority; and there are others, concerning which doubts have been entertained, which, if interpreted in favor of the sufficiency of a vote of seven States, would extend its operation to interests of the first magnitude. In addition to this, it is to be observed that there is a probability of an increase in the number of States, and no provision for a proportional augmentation of the ratio of votes.

But this is not all: what at first sight may seem a remedy, is, in reality, a poison. To give a minority a negative upon the majority (which is always the case where more than a majority is requisite to a decision), is, in its tendency, to subject the sense of the greater number to that of the lesser. . .

Again, great use of rhetoric and logic. He furthermore demonstrates political acuity in acknowledging that the republic would not be static, and was likely to expand. The principle of a majority rule is so commonplace in governance dynamics that we now seem to take it for granted. “Majority rules”: a flippant phrase we throw off while electing which movie to see. Yet at this time, the young states, newly independent, were protective of their rights and demanded equality. As Hamilton notes, though this seems like a just principle, in reality, it provides obstruction to even routine governance processes.

Now these next few passages get interesting, when you read it through the lens of our current perspective. All we see our government doing now is obstruct, delay, and filibuster:

This is one of those refinements which, in practice, has an effect the reverse of what is expected from it in theory. The necessity of unanimity in public bodies, or of something approaching towards it, has been founded upon a supposition that it would contribute to security. But its real operation is to embarrass the administration, to destroy the energy of the government, and to substitute the pleasure, caprice, or artifices of an insignificant, turbulent, or corrupt junto, to the regular deliberations and decisions of a respectable majority. In those emergencies of a nation, in which the goodness or badness, the weakness or strength of its government, is of the greatest importance, there is commonly a necessity for action. The public business must, in some way or other, go forward. If a pertinacious minority can control the opinion of a majority, respecting the best mode of conducting it, the majority, in order that something may be done, must conform to the views of the minority; and thus the sense of the smaller number will overrule that of the greater, and give a tone to the national proceedings. Hence, tedious delays; continual negotiation and intrigue; contemptible compromises of the public good. . .

The mistake has proceeded from not attending with due care to the mischiefs that may be occasioned by obstructing the progress of government at certain critical seasons. When the concurrence of a large number is required by the Constitution to the doing of any national act, we are apt to rest satisfied that all is safe, because nothing improper will be likely TO BE DONE, but we forget how much good may be prevented, and how much ill may be produced, by the power of hindering the doing what may be necessary, and of keeping affairs in the same unfavorable posture in which they may happen to stand at particular periods. . .

What could better describe the overuse of filibuster we witness today, and the consistent impasse that arises now at what should be navigable issues of governance?

Evils of this description ought not to be regarded as imaginary. One of the weak sides of republics, among their numerous advantages, is that they afford too easy an inlet to foreign corruption. . .

No, Alexander, we most definitely now know them not to be imaginary. They have become our political reality. Does this suggest that we need to further reduce the minority party’s “negative upon the majority,” as Hamilton put it?

What’s interesting about that last line above is how we can spin the meaning of “foreign corruption.” Hamilton meant it in the literal sense, but today, we could read it in the sense of any entity operating outside of the government, such as corporations, lobbyist groups, and other special interests, which have an out-sized influence on the operations of our government.

In an article in The New Yorker, there’s a bit more on viewing this as a screed against the filibuster, as well as some interesting caution against viewing The Federalist Papers as “secular scripture.” To quote:

The Federalist Papers—so often quoted to rationalize governmental stasis and congressional gridlock—are almost always treated as secular scripture. They’re not. They’re newspaper op-ed pieces, written in haste to sell a particular set of compromises, some of which their authors had adamantly opposed and accepted only with the greatest reluctance.

This is interesting, and it may explain in part why I’ve found some of Hamilton’s contributions to the papers tedious: he really may be bullshitting when he sounds like he’s bullshitting. The passages above, however, reflect real passion, and this stood out as I read them.

Author: manderson

I live in NYC.

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