Posted by: George | September 3, 2017

Lessons from the Federalist Papers, No. 20

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 governs, a legislation for communities, as it is a solecism in theory, so in practice it is subversive of the order and the ends of civil polity, by substituting violence in place of law, or the destructive coercion of the sword in place of the mild and salutary coercion of the magistracy.

Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, Federalist No. 20

In Federalist No. 20, Hamilton and Madison offer another “melancholy and monitory lesson of history,” this one from recent times—the troubles produced by the loose confederacy of the United Netherlands. They explain how a weak confederacy like that in the United Netherlands leads to problems and they attempt to solve the problems by covering it with patches, essentially ad hoc committees without clear authority or traditions. The result is that the “government over governs” in an attempt establish order.

What I find most interesting about this essay is what drives the analysis. Hamilton and Madison trust in the unequivocal truth that can be found in history and experience. History and experience may not be simple, but we can find truth there. We are also better off with a government that establishes order through rule of law rather than violence. But, to have rule of law, we need laws and a legal system. For Hamilton and Madison, the first step toward rule of law was the adoption of a strong constitution with checks and balances.

We have those institutions. They were established, at least as concepts, by the very constitution that Hamilton and Madison promoted in their essays. Since the adoption of our constitutions, these institutions have historically evolved, building the traditions that add strength and authority to a concept.

Notice the word concept. Go searching for the material reality of our legal system. You will find buildings, yes. A building can be turned into a parking lot easy enough. You will find lawyers and judges and police officers, certainly. They can be fired. You don’t even have to fire all of them, just some of them. If those who remain feel vulnerable, the institution collapses.

The only material reality, the only foundation we can trust, is informed citizens who support our institutions.

Consult for background and texts relating to The Federalist Papers.

I also invite your to read Homo Academicus, my serial novel, which is being published at



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