Essay on Federalist No. 3


Before getting to the plain language summary of Federalist No. 3, I’d like to take a moment to voice my disagreements and intrigue with some statements by John Jay in Federalist No. 3. They are as follows.

1. Jay writes that “The JUST causes of war, for the most part, arise either from violation of treaties or from direct violence.” I personally would consider only direct violence, not the violation of treaties, as a just cause of war.

2. Jay states “It is of high importance to the peace of America that she observe the laws of nations towards all these powers.” Good to see an American statesman mentioning the importance of respecting international law. This is not something modern American statesmen seem to care about anymore. Thank you John Jay. However, in the second part of this statement he says “it appears evident that this will be more perfectly and punctually done by one national government than it could be either by thirteen separate States or by three or four distinct confederacies.” The historical record has proven this to be completely incorrect. The federal government of the United States has shown little respect for international law.

3. Jay says that “Because when once an efficient national government is established, the best men in the country will not only consent to serve, but also will generally be appointed to manage it; for, although town or country, or other contracted influence, may place men in State assemblies, or senates, or courts of justice, or executive departments, yet more general and extensive reputation for talents and other qualifications will be necessary to recommend men to offices under the national government,–especially as it will have the widest field for choice, and never experience that want of proper persons which is not uncommon in some of the States. Hence, it will result that the administration, the political counsels, and the judicial decisions of the national government will be more wise, systematical, and judicious than those of individual States, and consequently more satisfactory with respect to other nations, as well as more SAFE with respect to us.” It’s hard to say whether this is pure propaganda or unbelievable naivete. Its probably a little bit of both. One thing is for sure though, this has proven to be utter nonsense. The federal government is filled with corrupt and incompetent elected officials.

4. In discussing whether people in a state would be able to dissent from national policies under a federal government, Jay states “the national government, not being affected by those local circumstances, will neither be induced to commit the wrong themselves, nor want power or inclination to prevent or punish its commission by others.” There you have it, straight from the mouth of one of the Founders. The federal government would have the power and inclination to punish those within states that dissent from federal policy.

5. Jay mentions that “either designed or accidental violations of treaties and the laws of nations afford JUST causes of war.” Accidental violations of treaties are a justifiable cause for war only to warmongers. John Jay must be one.

6. Jay states “the pride of states, as well as of men, naturally disposes them to justify all their actions, and opposes their acknowledging, correcting, or repairing their errors and offenses. The national government, in such cases, will not be affected by this pride, but will proceed with moderation and candor to consider and decide on the means most proper to extricate them from the difficulties which threaten them.” Will the national government not be made up of men? Will they be magically transformed upon election to the federal government? Federal government officials are just as proud and susceptible to corruption as anybody else. The only difference is that they have more power and are therefor even more likely to be corrupted.


John Jay starts off Federalist No. 3 with the observation that a nation cannot continue to prosper if it interprets information regarding its interests incorrectly. Since the United States had been so prosperous up to that point, and it was universally accepted that a single federal government was in the best interests of the citizens, it must have been that the common opinion regarding a single federal government was the correct one.

The more Jay considered the reasoning behind this position, the more strongly he became convinced that such reasoning was sound and correct.

According to Jay, the strongest motivation in the people’s minds for forming a single, powerful, federal government was safety. Of course, the term safety in this case was not easily defined. It could mean safety from a great many things and those who wished to study the issue would have to take in to account a lot of different scenarios to correctly understand the situation.

For the purposes of Federalist No. 3, Jay meant safety as 1) keeping the peace locally, 2) protecting the United States from foreign aggression and influence, and 3) protecting each state from the aggression and influence of other states. To start, Jay wished to discuss whether the people were correct in believing that a single, powerful, national government would provide for the best possible defense against aggression by other countries.

Wars are started for specific reasons. Sometimes the reasons given for wars justify the wars. Other times the reasons given for wars are merely made up and in no way justify the wars. It follows that the more reasons, real or imagined, that arise for going to war, the more wars there will be. This being the case Jay intended to study “whether so many JUST causes of war are likely to be given by UNITED AMERICA as by DISUNITED America.” If the conclusion reached by his inquiry was that, indeed, less wars would be likely to occur under a single, powerful, national government it would be obvious that such a government would provide for a greater peace with other nations.

Justified reasons for going to war against other countries include the violation of treaties and direct aggression. Up to that time, the United States had already signed treaties with six other nations. All of them had navies, with the exception of Prussia, which meant that they all had the military capability to attack the United States. America also had extensive trade with Portugal, Spain, and Britain. In addition, Spain and Britain had their own colonies in very close proximity to the United States.

It was of crucial importance to American peace that the country be as diligent as possible in respecting international law. In Jay’s opinion it was “evident that this will be more perfectly and punctually done by one national government than it could be either by thirteen separate States or by three or four distinct confederacies.”

John Jay supports his claim that single, powerful, national government would be more efficient in complying with national law by stating that the most dignified, capable men in the country would want to participate, and be elected to participate, in the federal government. You see, local interests and crooked politics may have been good enough to get somebody elected to the local or state legislature or judiciary. However, to get elected to the federal government, politicians would need to be truly honest and talented statesmen. Further, because the federal government would be able to attract the finest men from all over the country it would never lack for qualified people. The States could only elect politicians from inside their borders and sometimes there just weren’t enough good ones. Therefore, according to Jay, “it will result that the administration, the political counsels, and the judicial decisions of the national government will be more wise, systematical, and judicious than those of individual States, and consequently more satisfactory with respect to other nations, as well as more SAFE with respect to us.”

Under the single, powerful, national government laws and treaties would be executed by a single political body, not thirteen states or a number of separate confederacies. This would ensure a single interpretation and single execution of the laws and policies. With many confederacies, there would would be many different laws and treaties and policies. This would be terribly inefficient and inconsistent. Also, there would be a variety of competing political influences electing the various politicians and judges within the various states and confederacies. This too would lead to inefficient management of relationships with other countries.  For these reasons, Jay thought it the most recommendable course of action to entrust these functions to the judgement of a single, national government.

It was certainly possible that one or two states would benefit from violating an existing treaty. However, under a federal government, if the rest of the states would not benefit and the violation of the treaty was not in the national interest, those states could be detained from taking such action. The recently signed treaty with Great Britain was good example of this scenario.

Even if the government of the state did not necessarily want to violate the treaty, if the people of the state felt strongly about the issue, they could force the state government to take action. The state government would be defenseless against the crowd and unable to punish those who would violate laws. However, the federal government, being a national government, would not be affected by such local interests. It could not be pressured to violate treaties by the people of a single state. Further, it would have the requisite power and resources to punish any such wrongdoers who try break the law.

As discussed earlier, the intentional or accidental violation of treaties are a justifiable cause for war. Obviously, the intentional or accidental violation of treaties is much less likely to occur under a single, powerful, national government. Therefor, the safety of the people, with respect to foreign aggression, was much more likely to be protected under a single, federal government.

With regard to providing safety from direct, illegal, aggression a national government would prove superior as well.

In the majority of cases, illegal aggression was undertaken by specific groups of people, not by the entire nation. Usually, the violence was carried out by one or two states acting alone. For example, the existing federal government, even though it didn’t have much power at that point, had never carried out an attack against the Indians.  However, the action of many individual states had resulted in numerous attacks against the Indians. The states’ had proved either unwilling or unable to punish those who carried out violence against the Indians. This had “given occasion to the slaughter of many innocent inhabitants.”

The British and Spanish colonies were located in much closer proximity to the borders of some states than others. It stands to reason, therefor, that these states were much more likely to find themselves with cause for a violent conflict. As Jay says, “the bordering States, if any, will be those who, under the impulse of sudden irritation, and a quick sense of apparent interest or injury, will be most likely, by direct violence, to excite war with these nations.” The surest way to prevent local interests from taking the nation to war was to create a national government. The farseeing statesman who managed the national government would not allow themselves to be influenced by those parties involved in the conflict when determining policy.

Not only would there be fewer causes for war under a national government, but there would be a better mechanism for settling conflicts once they arose. Those judging the issue would be detached from the situation and therefor in a better position to judge the issue than the State involved in the conflict. The States, and all men for that matter, are too proud to admit when they have made a mistake and are disinclined to correcting their errors. The national government, however, would not be influenced by pride. Instead it would act with cool reason to figure out the best solutions to problems.

According to Jay, it was a known fact that solutions to conflicts were much more likely to be accepted by a powerful and united nation that by mere states or local confederacies.

As an example, Jay cites the case of Genoa in 1685. Genoa upset Louis the XIV and wanted to make amends. Louis XIV told Genoa that they must send the executive of their government and four senators to France to receive his demands. Louis XIV would have never made such a request to a strong, united nation such as Britain or Spain.


One Response to Essay on Federalist No. 3

  1. Outstanding job Adam.

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