In this paper, Madison continues the theme of the previous several papers that unions composed of co-equal or sovereign states ultimately end in weakness, ineffectual government, civil war, and foreign predation. Madison discusses the United Netherlands, which he describes as a confederacy of aristocracies. He details the extension authorities granted to the central governing body, called the states-general, but then contends that this confederacy is marked by “imbecility in the government; discord among the provinces; foreign influences and indignities; a precarious existence in peace, and peculiar calamities from war.” The cause of the Netherlands’ troubles, Madison contends, is a system based on “a sovereignty over sovereigns, a government over government, a legislation for communities, as contradistinguished from individuals.”
Madison shows that having a weak and “defective constitution” like the Netherlands’ can actually lead to tyranny when the central government is pressured to go beyond its constitutional authority in order to respond to crises. In the name of public safety, a central government may simply go beyond the powers allotted to it by a weak and ineffectual constitution.
Paper 20 brings to a conclusion the extended argument, begun in paper 15, that the Articles of Confederation do not afford enough power and authority to the national government. The system of government provided for in the Articles ultimately amounts to collection of independent, sovereign states, loosely united under a weak central government. The central government is unable to impose laws directly on the citizens and can only require action from the states. As a result, these paper argue, violence and the “coercion of the sword” inevitably replace law and “coercion of the magistracy.” In a system composed of multiple sovereigns, the only way to compel one of those entities to act is through violence. The national government cannot bring a state to court as it can an individual. This is ultimately a recipe for instability, division and civil war.
What the authors of these papers are calling for is a system that allows the national government to create laws that are directly applicable to individual citizens. The national government must have supreme authority. Otherwise, disunion and even anarchy will result from multiple sovereigns (i.e. the thirteen states) competing with one another for supremacy.