University of Wisconsin–Madison

The Desire for Separate Confederacies

The prevailing wisdom of the day was that large extended republics were not successful. The size of many Greek city-states was such that one could walk across it in a day. Taking their cues from Roman history, Americans generally maintained that when a republic grew in size, it became an empire and had to be governed as such. The French theorist the Baron de Montesquieu also held a significant sway over the thinking of many in the Founding Period. The sheer size of the United States raised doubts among many as to the chances of an American republic succeeding. This in part accounts for the insistence of many Founders that states maintain their sovereignty thus ensuring the liberty for which they had recently fought for in the War for Independence. Often three separate republics were proposed striking a proper balance of liberty and security of citizens. During the war the idea had less traction because of the necessity of united action against the British. Once hostilities ended the idea again became a part of the discussions for those who believed that the legacy of the American Revolution depended on a viable form of republican government.

Soon after the Philadelphia Convention adjourned James Wilson on 6 October 1787 offered the earliest interpretations of the nature of the American republic. Seven weeks later his 24 November 1787 speech at the Pennsylvania ratifying Convention was among the best early interpretations of the federal system as provided by the Constitution. Wilson’s speeches were widely reprinted and circulated as the ratification process developed.

Among the most well known writings on the subject during the ratification debates were Cato III (pdf) and The Federalist X (pdf). Cato III expressed the classic suspicions regarding the notion of a large republic. Whereas, James Madison, in The Federalist X, redefined the nature of a republic laying the theoretical framework for a successful large extended republic based on factions. In an extended headnote taken from Commentaries on the Constitution, Volume XIII you can see a fuller discussion of the Idea of Separate Confederacies (pdf). Below we have assembled some of the relevant items that illustrate this ongoing debate.

Support for Separate Confederacies

Opposition to the Idea of Separate Confederacies

James Wilson’s Speeches Explaining the Nature of the Federal Republic