The Federalist Papers

The Federalist Papers Summary and Analysis of Essay 17


Hamilton seeks to address concerns that the proposed Constitution will lead to tyranny at the hands of a power-hungry national government. He argues that it is unlikely that men in national office would even be interested in usurping the powers from the states, which relate to concerns that “can never be desirable cares” of a general government.

However, Hamilton argues that even if the national government were to try and usurp power from the states, it would be very difficult for it to do so. He contends that state governments will likely have far more influence over and support from the people then the national government. Essentially, Hamilton is arguing that since states deal with issues that more directly impact the day-to-day lives of the people, especially criminal and civil justice issues, they are more likely to inspire feelings of attachment from the people than a distant, national government would.

As evidence, Hamilton points to European feudal societies and notes that it was very difficult for the sovereign to control his feudal baronies. Hamilton asserts that state governments in the American confederacy are analogous to these feudal baronies in that both are able to effectively resist central control. If anything, Hamilton warns, Americans should be concerned about a federal system leading to anarchy, not tyranny.


Hamilton continues to make the case that the present system of government in America, the Articles of Confederation, provides too weak a central government. He is addressing one of the core fears of post-revolution America: that a strong central government will quickly turn into the kind of monarchical system the country fought to escape. Hamilton’s argument is based on the belief that human affections are, by nature, “weak in proportion to the distance or diffusiveness of the object.” That is, the further away a governmental organization is, the more difficult it will be for that organization to secure the support of the people. Hamilton uses Europe’s feudal history, which was characterized by weak central governments, to make the case that federal systems are more likely to lead to anarchy than tyranny.

What is particularly notable about this paper is that Hamilton is using one of the core political beliefs of the anti-federalists against them. The anti-federalists believed that state governments ought to be given significant powers, since they can be most trusted to serve the interests of the people and protect their liberties. The anti-federalists believed that the national government under the proposed constitution would pose a threat to the people and overpower the states. However, Hamilton bases his response on a professed faith in the enduring strength and influence of state governments. His argument implies that the states are indeed, as the anti-federalists believed, guardians of the rights of the people. He argues that, therefore, Americans have nothing to fear from a powerful central government since they will always have the state governments to stand up for their rights.