Essay on Federalist No. 4


Before getting to the plain language summary of Federalist No. 4, I’d like to take a moment to voice my disagreements and intrigue with some statements by John Jay in Federalist No. 4. They are as follows.

1. Jay says “absolute monarchs will often make war when their nations are to get nothing by it, but for the purposes and objects merely personal, such as thirst for military glory, revenge for personal affronts, ambition, or private compacts to aggrandize or support their particular families or partisans.” It’s not only absolute monarchies that do that. Our current “constitutional republic” does it as well.

2. Jay says “with most other European nations we are rivals in navigation and the carrying trade; and we shall deceive ourselves if we suppose that any of them will rejoice to see it flourish; for, as our carrying trade cannot increase without in some degree diminishing theirs, it is more their interest, and will be more their policy, to restrain than to promote it.” In a sense he is right, surely the owners of the sipping companies based in other countries would be dismayed to see American shippers winning more business. However, consumers and business people in other countries may have been perfectly happy to see American shippers win more business if they provided a better service for a better price. This is a good illustration of how governments use the cover of promoting the national interest to subsidize politically well connected entities.

3. Jay makes the point that “One government can collect and avail itself of the talents and experience of the ablest men, in whatever part of the Union they may be found. It can move on uniform principles of policy. It can harmonize, assimilate, and protect the several parts and members, and extend the benefit of its foresight and precautions to each.” Jay is correct that the national government would be able to centralize policy and make it more uniform. However, under his system there is no escape from bad policy. No matter how many states disagreed with the policy they would be forced to participate. Further, wars would become much larger and more bloody as a result of this provision. Instead of minor regional conflicts taking place, the entire nation with all of its resources would be embroiled in wars.

4. Jay says “Let England have its navigation and fleet–let Scotland have its navigation and fleet–let Wales have its navigation and fleet–let Ireland have its navigation and fleet–let those four of the constituent parts of the British empire be be under four independent governments, and it is easy to perceive how soon they would each dwindle into comparative insignificance.” This statement seems to me to imply that the United States might be better off joining back up with the British Empire. After all, any nation that has its own government becomes lame by comparison. Better yet, all countries should join together and form truly significant nations. Imagine the navies those behemoths would produce!

5. Jay asks ” If one was attacked, would the others fly to its succor, and spend their blood and money in its defense? Would there be no danger of their being flattered into neutrality by its specious promises, or seduced by a too great fondness for peace to decline hazarding their tranquillity and present safety for the sake of neighbors, of whom perhaps they have been jealous, and whose importance they are content to see diminished?” It would appear that Jay can imagine no situation in which a group of people should have the right to not be involved in a war. Why should a peace loving state be obligated to get involved in a war that has nothing to do with them? Sending somebody to fight and die in a war that they don’t believe in is the ultimate breach of liberty.

6. Jay asks “But admit that they might be willing to help the invaded State or confederacy. How, and when, and in what proportion shall aids of men and money be afforded?” There is a fallacy here . Where does he think the national government gets its men and money from? The people of the states! Where would states get their men and money? Also from the states! The national government has nothing, no men, no money, no nothing, that it doesn’t get from somewhere else. To imply that the national government can provide anything that it hasn’t previously taken from somewhere else is a fallacy.


John Jay begins Federalist No. 4 by noting that in Federalist No. 3 he explained why the citizens of the United States would be better secured by a Union rather than many State governments against “JUST causes of war” . His conclusion was that  there would be less reasons for war under a national government. Jay also concluded that a national government would be better equipped to resolve causes for war once they arose.

However, for the American people to be secure it was not only important to avoid giving “just” causes for war. It was also essential to be on good terms with other nations. The country would have to avoid arousing bad feeling towards themselves. This was important because many nations fabricate imaginary cause for war as well.

Indeed, even though it is a shame to admit, men have a tendency to go to war whenever there is something to gain from it. Absolute monarchies were even willing to go to war when there was obviously nothing to gain from it. The monarchs would to war for nothing more than “military glory, revenge for personal affronts, ambition, or private compacts to aggrandize or support their particular families or partisans.” These reasons and many more led kings into unjust wars that went against the best interests of the people. According to Jay, however, the aforementioned motivations for war were more common among absolute monarchies. There were specific causes for war that were much more prevalent among nations not ruled by absolute monarchs, some of which applied directly to the United States.

For example, American fisherman competed directly against French and British fisherman. Even though the French and British subsidized their own fishermen and charged prohibitive tariffs on American products, the American fishermen still provided fish at a more affordable price.

American shippers competed directly against European countries in the shipping business. It would be naive to think that European countries would be glad to see American shipping have success. After all, American shipping could only grow by taking business away from other countries. Therefore, it was obvious that the policy of other countries would be to restrain American shipping interests.

As a result of trading in China and India, the Americans were breaking up certain monopolies long held by other nations.

Being able to import and export our own goods in our own ships must have especially worried other nations with colonies on the American continent. American shipping was less expensive and of higher quality than that of other nations, and of course it was in closer proximity to their colonies on the continent.  Plus, our merchants were superior sailors and extremely ambitions business people. All of this ran directly against the interests of other nations.

In the west, the French tried to close off the Mississippi river to us. In the east, the British tried to keep us off of the St. Lawrence river. As well, they would do all they could to disrupt mutual exchange across the Atlantic ocean.

These examples, and many more that could be given, would be observed by the governments of other nations. Advancement of American interests would make other nations uneasy and it would be unlikely that they would just sit back and do nothing in response.

Americans realized that commercial conflicts could have lead to war. They were also smart enough to realize that conflicts could arise for reasons that they weren’t even aware of yet. A major benefit of the Union was that it was likely to keep other nations from acting on their excuses for for war. According to Jay, keeping other nations from considering war in the first place was preferable and “necessarily depends on the government, the arms, and the resources of the country.”

It is impossible for a country to defend itself in a war with out a government. Jay wished to examine whether “one good government is not, relative to the object in question, more competent than any other given number whatever.”

Under a single national government, the military would have access to the best and most talented men from every part of the country. A national government would be able to implement a uniform foreign policy. The national government could organize and protect the various states and share its superior knowledge with them. When enacting treaties with other countries, it would have the ability to act in the best interest of the country as a whole. Further, the federal government would have the ability to focus all of its resources on protecting a single part of the country. As a result it could do a much better job of protecting the states than the states themselves could do. The military would be organized under a single commander in chief. This would bring unity to the military and allow it to work towards a single goal. Confusion would reign if 13 different militaries, or 3 or 4 confederacies, were to exist.

As an example, Jay proposes we imagine Great Britain’s military divided into three separate militaries: British, Scottish and Welsh. In the event of an invasion, Great Britain would obviously not be able to defend itself as well under three separate armies as it would under a single, unified army.

Like the British, America  too was likely to one day have a powerful navy. However, they would only achieve that goal by acting prudently. Great Britain was able to develop its naval fleet and produce first class naval officers as a result of its powerful national government. The British government provided the necessary vision and resources, without which the famous British navy may never have come into being.  However, had England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales each had their own government, and been allowed to build and maintain their own navies, it is clear that Great Britain would never have become the great power it came to be.

The same goes for America. If America remained divided into a number of smaller governments, it could never hope to be a great nation with big old army and a powerful navy. If one state was attacked, it was possible that other states wouldn’t come to their aid. Certain states could be convinced by empty promises that neutrality was in their best interest. Other states may love peace too much to come to the defense of other states. Perhaps some states would have long running conflicts with their neighbors and be happy to see them lose a war.  In Jay’s opinion “such conduct would not be wise, it would, nevertheless, be natural.” The history of confederacies, especially those of Greece, teach us that states have had a tendency to act in the ways described above. Without a strong national government, the thirteen American states were likely to act the same way.

Even, for the sake of argument, admitting that the states would come to each other’s defense. There still remained the problem of where the states would get the money and men to fight wars. Jay asks “Who shall command the allied armies, and from which of them shall he receive his orders? Who shall settle the terms of peace, and in case of disputes what umpire shall decide between them and compel acquiescence?” No good answers to these questions existed without a strong national government. However, a national government would provide sound and coherent military action and better provide for the safety of citizens.

Whatever type of government the states decided upon, foreign governments would observing and would certainly act accordingly. If foreign governments saw that the United States had a strong and efficient government, a well run economy, a well trained military, prudent financial management, abundant national credit, and free and united people it was much more likely that they’d prefer to carry on a cordial relationship with America instead of a bellicose one. On the contrary, if foreign government perceived America as having weak and divided governments, some being influenced by Britain, others influenced by France, and yet others by Spain, “what a poor, pitiful figure will America make in their eyes!” Other countries would lose all respect for America and America’s people would suffer serious consequences as a result.


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