American Altruism or State Self-Interest: Understanding the Federalist Fear of State Government


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Subject Area



Majors: History and Spanish
Minors: Business and Innovation and Latin American Studies
Faculty Mentor: Dr. Steven Smith

Essay Summary

I remember when Dr. Smith asked our HIS 100 class to start thinking about our topics for our final research papers. He told us to pick something that we would be passionate about, but at first, I could not decide what I wanted to focus on. The first word that popped into my head was self-interest. This was a word that had come up in class many times before; whether we were discussing the Federalist fear of political factionalism or localist mentalities, this was a recurring theme. Dr. Smith opened my eyes to a type of history that I had never studied before—a history in which you could examine a particular time period, which in our case was late-eighteenth century America, from any lens that you chose. I decided to take an anthropological route in which I would explore the Federalist fear of strong state governments, but more specifically, a fear that circulated around this question of the selfish nature of human beings. I focused largely on Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, particularly how they felt that Americans would not suppress their self-interest for the common good of the nation. Finally, because our class topic was “Interpreting the Origins of the U.S. Constitution,” I proved my argument by citing passages of the Constitution that express this fear of state self-interest.


Below is an excerpt of my essay’s “Flash Point.” On Monday, June 18, 1787, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were gathered at the Pennsylvania State House to discuss the recently proposed Virginia and New Jersey Plans, which attempted to address the issue of state representation. Young Alexander Hamilton had held his tongue on the matter for quite some time, for he did not want to offend his elder delegates who had more political experience, nor did he want to provoke conflict. Nevertheless, the New Yorker could not remain silent, as his patriotic duty to ensure the well-being of the American people took precedence over his personal reservations. Hamilton possessed a tremendous distrust of state governments. He feared states would prioritize their provincial concerns over the general welfare of the nation. Men love power and self-importance, he reasoned, and would always ensure their personal interests were protected. Taking Virginia as an example, Hamilton saw inherent dangers in state influence, for as a state grows it will correspondingly increase in authority and desire to assert its power. He found himself in a dilemma. How could America have a strong central government when states would consistently act in self-interest? On that warm June Monday, amidst his fellow American men, trying to establish a sound government to correct the deficiencies of the Articles of Confederation, Hamilton had to make sense of states defending local interests over the good of the nation.


Providence College

Academic Year




Start Date

4-29-2021 12:00 AM






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