Federalist Papers Summary 59
The Federalist Essays Summary No 59: Alexander Hamilton February 22, 1788
Hamilton reappears in this and the next two papers to discuss Article I Section 4. of “the Constitution which authorizes the national legislature to regulate in the last resort the election of its own members”. The authorization is in these words “The times and places and manner of holding elections for Senators and Representatives shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by law make or alter such regulations except as to places of choosing Senators”. Italics are his.
A thoughtful reading of this clause by someone familiar with the Constitution might result in some confusion. For example the previous section of the same article says Senators are chosen by the State Legislatures but here it talks about elections for Senators in the same reference as elections for Representatives which are by the people. Further in times and places and manner, the places are clearly polling places located throughout the states but what are the places of choosing Senators which the congress can not regulate? They clearly are not polling places scattered about the state. The confusion is eliminated when realizing that the places of choosing Senators are the State Legislatures and the election of the Senators is made by the members of the legislatures voting for senate candidates.
But then another issue arises. My copy of the Constitution distributed by “The Heritage Foundation” marks every word of the original Constitution that has been changed by an amendment but it fails in this single case for it does not mark “except as to places of choosing Senators” where the places means in the State Legislatures and that was changed by the seventeenth amendment requiring popular elections of Senators. It is as if this phrase forbidding the Congress from changing the place of choosing Senators did not exist for if the Constitution specifically does not give Congress the power to make this change then the seventeenth amendment should not exist. We have seen in previous papers and later in this one why it was considered necessary that the states appoint the Senators so as to preserve those rights reserved to the states and that is why this phrase is included in the document and why it should not have been amended.
Returning to Hamilton’s arguments, he claims that the national government has the final authority because “every government ought to contain in itself the means of its own preservation”. There are three ways elections laws could have been inserted in the Constitution; either wholly controlled by the states, or wholly controlled by the national government or as written above. If wholly state controlled then the federal government would be at the mercy of the states who could annihilate it by neglecting to send representatives. A federal power to regulate the state elections would also be condemned by any unbiased observer.
The provision giving the states the power to appoint senators gives them the capability to destroy the federal government by refusing to send senators. This possibility although remote is given because it is outweighed by the benefits to the states of being able to appoint the senators. In Hamilton’s words speaking of this power and the evil states could do to the national government, “it is an evil, which could not have been avoided without excluding the States, in their political capacities, wholly from a place in the organization of the National Government. If this had been done, it would doubtless have been interpreted into an entire dereliction of the federal principle; and would certainly have deprived the State governments of that absolute safeguard which they will enjoy under this provision.” And now the State’s safeguard from the national government is gone along with this provision.
The state’s entire control of elections for the House could annihilate the national government by the same means of not sending representatives and that could be accomplished by only several of the largest states. At present, he says, there is some talk of states forming confederacies which could if sufficient in number prevent the national government from actions by preventing quorums. There could be foreign interest in destroying the national government and if the states had the whole power to regulate the elections of representatives they could try to influence some states or confederacies of states.
For these reasons the national government must have the authority to regulate in the last resort the election of its own members.
Federalist Papers Summary 59 Written by Donald Mellon