The Federalist Papers

The Federalist Papers Summary and Analysis of Essay 42


Madison defends two more classes of powers afforded to the general government: the regulation of intercourse with foreign nations and the regulation of intercourse among the states. Madison argues that the national government must be able to conduct diplomacy and act independently on the international stage just as all other nations do. It must be able to send and receive ambassadors, make binding treaties, and punish piracy.

Madison also discusses the provision in the Constitution allowing for the importation of slaves until 1808, after which Congress may decide to ban importation. It is very clear that Madison strongly opposes slavery as an inhumane and barbaric practice. However, he argues that while it would have been better to abolish the trade immediately, it is nevertheless better to place some sort of time limit on the trade than to leave it completely unfettered forever.

Madison goes into considerable detail in describing and defending the many specific powers granted to the general government to manage relations between the states. Perhaps the most important is the authority of the national government to regulate interstate commerce. Madison argues that if the national government is not authorized to perform this role, tensions and “serious interruptions of the public tranquility” will result from states imposing various kinds of taxes and restrictions on goods coming from other states.


The powers of the national government described in these papers may strike modern readers as perfectly reasonable and perhaps even obvious. Of course a national government must be able to conduct diplomacy, regulate a single national currency, and serve as a final authority over issues of interstate commerce. However, this paper must be understood within the context of American colonial history.

Since their founding, the individual American colonies, although part of the British Empire, enjoyed a considerable amount of independence and self-government. In fact, the American Revolution was sparked in part by British attempts to limit the independence of the colonies. Consequently, after the war, many Americans were extremely suspicious of central governments with powers superior to the state governments. Madison is trying to make the case in this paper for why, if America is to be a strong, independent and cohesive nation, the states must be willing to accept the creation of a general government with considerable powers.

Madison also deals briefly with what may be considered one of the great moral failings of the constitution: the clause permitting the continuation of the slave trade until 1808. This stipulation was the result of a compromise between Southern states, the plantation economies of which depended on slave labor, and Northern states, the economies of which were based more on trade and industry and which were home to many anti-slavery activists.