What Attaches Citizens to Government?

August 25, 2011

Federalist 17: What Attaches Citizens to Government?

Alexander HamiltonCareful students of American history know the famous essays in the Federalist Papers on faction, separation of powers, and an extended republic. But scattered throughout that great work are many less famous essays containing useful arguments and nuggets of wisdom. A key argument is offered in Federalist 17. Here, while analyzing the defects of the Articles of Confederation, Publius finds occasion to discuss what it is that attaches citizens to government.

After noting the “known fact in human nature” that men are more attached to what is close by and tangible than to what is far away and “diffuse” (to one’s own family, for example, than to one’s community in general or to the nation at large), he argues that more than anything else what impresses upon the minds of the people an affection, esteem, and even “reverence” towards government is the “ordinary administration of criminal and civil justice.” The administration of justice is “the immediate and visible guardian of life and property” and it regulates “all those personal interests, and familiar concerns, to which the sensibility of individuals is more immediately awake.” In other words, the most powerful and universal source of popular obedience and attachment to government is its protection of those things about which we care the most: the things that are closest to us–our own lives, our properties, our families.

Publius made these arguments to put at ease those citizens who feared that the proposed Constitution would create a federal government too strong for the states. Your concerns are misplaced, he says in effect, since human nature and the administration of justice at the state level will always give the states a “transcendent advantage” over the federal government. And yet we can’t help but notice that the states have this advantage only “if they administer their affairs with uprightness and prudence;” indeed, the fundamental principle that we love most what is closest to us favors the states, “unless the force of that principle should be destroyed by a much better administration” in the government of the union. Is Publius hinting that the federal government might protect our lives and property better than the states do, thereby coming to deserve greater allegiance? Or is it that some principle other than the love of our own and familiar things might attach us more strongly to the federal than to the state governments? These questions cannot be answered without reading the second half of the Federalist, where Publius pays much closer attention to virtue, wisdom, and republican liberty than in the first half. But in considering those themes, we must never forget the statement in #17 on the fundamental basis of attachment to government.

It is difficult to say from this distance in time what part these arguments played in persuading critics to support the Constitution. But Publius’ argument is worth reconsidering today, when concerns about the size and reach of the federal government are once again a prominent theme in public debate. Moreover, the reflections in Federalist 17 give an important example of what Publius means in his famous statement that government is the “greatest of all reflections on human nature.”

David Foster, Associate Professor of Political Science and Chair of the Department of History and Political Science, Ashland University

Read Federalist 17:

Visit Our Interactive Website: Ratification of the Constitution

Here you can read the texts of those Federalist papers deemed essential by Gordon Lloyd, Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University, coauthor of three books on the American Founding, and Instructor in the Master of American History and Government program at Ashland University. Professor Lloyd has designed this and a companion website on the Constitutional Convention as comprehensive resources on the history of the Constitution, the goals, actions and accomplishments of the Founders, and the enduring questions raised by the debates over the document that established the American governmental system.

September 17 is Constitution Day

The Ashbrook Center’s Constitution Day lecture will be given Friday, September 16, by Christopher Burkett, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Ashland University. He will discuss James Madison’s Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, an invaluable resource for study of the convention’s deliberations and debates.

A complete digital version of Madison’s Notes may be found online at Included is Madison’s complete record of the proceedings, as well as additional information about the delegates themselves.

Ashbrook Center and Liberty Fund Team to Offer Seminars for Teachers

Applications are being accepted now through November 1, 2011 for the Ashbrook Center’s weekend seminars on the ratification of the Constitution. The seminars, to be held in the spring of 2012, will be held within states that were home to the most important ratification debates.

While high school teachers of American history or government are preferred, all teachers of kindergarten to grade twelve are invited to apply. Eighteen teachers will be selected to participate at each site. Each seminar begins on a Friday afternoon and concludes on Sunday afternoon. The seminars are offered at no cost to the participant, except for the participant’s travel to and from the program site. Participants will receive a $425 travel and expense stipend.

To learn about the seminars or to apply, visit

Start the School Year with EDSITEment Lesson Plans

Pastor Jonathan Mayhew

EDSITEment, the online resource for educators provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, offers this month a number of lesson plans useful to teachers beginning surveys of American history and government, including a unit developed by the Ashbrook Center:

Religion in 18th-Century America
. This curriculum unit, through the use of primary documents, introduces students to the First Great Awakening, as well as to the ways in which religious-based arguments were used both in support of and against the American Revolution. Other EDSITEment lesson plans on early American topics include:

Magna Carta: Cornerstone of the U.S. Constitution. This resource helps students understand the origins of key concepts of American law in an agreement between King John of England and his nobles, signed in 1215. Students may read historical background to and analysis of the document, read an annotated translation of the document itself, and study four themes in the document that laid the basis both for the British Parliamentary system and the American Constitution: the rule of law, the fairness of the laws and their execution, the due process of law, and respect for economic rights.

King John signs the Magna Carta

What Was Columbus Thinking? Students read excerpts from Columbus’s letters and journals, as well as recent considerations of his achievements, in order to reflect on his motives for exploring the New World as well as consequences of his voyages that he did not foresee.

Images of the New World. How did the English picture the native peoples of America during the early phases of colonization of North America? This lesson plan enables students to interact with written and visual accounts of this critical formative period at the end of the 16th century, when the English view of the New World was being formulated, with consequences that we are still seeing today.

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