Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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CONFEDERATION. If this word be taken in its broadest sense, every association of peoples or of states formed in virtue of a treaty (cum fœdere) is a confederation. As among private persons, the nature, the object, the form and the duration of associations agreed upon are susceptible of being varied to infinity, so among nations; there is no form which international engagements resulting from treaties may not take. Alliances, leagues, coalitions, and political, religious, commercial or customs unions, are simply various kinds of confederations. Some of these are permanent, others temporary; some include many peoples at the same time, others comprise but a small number of states; there are even some limited to a single people, as when the confederation concerns the internal relations of the different provinces which together form one state, as regards foreign powers.


—Before examining these distinctions we shall say a few words on the general principle which governs them. The mutual independence of nations is without doubt the fundamental basis of international law, but it would be a great mistake to suppose that this independence could have the effect of placing one nation or another in a sort of absolute isolation. Nations, as well as individuals, are made to live in society, and, so to speak, in the family. If they come in contact by their boundaries, they are still more closely drawn together by a thousand interests, by a thousand common wants, which put them, however independent they may be, in a kind of necessary and natural dependence upon each other. A theory of nationality which would suppress these mutual relations, would be not less contrary to nature than a theory of individual liberty which would suppress family or civic ties. Far from destroying, civilization increases and develops international bonds, but at the same time it regulates and harmonizes them; it evolves out of them that beautiful order which produces at home the harmony of liberty and authority, and abroad, union of force with pacific and moderate tendencies. From this point of view, the different modes of confederation concern at once public law and the law of nations. It is for the former to say how many states have gradually arisen from the successive aggregations of confederate provinces to show what were the advantages of these associations of many directing toward a single point elements of various kinds, without coming to a social revolution obliterating differences by a temporary or permanent fusion. If there is, in the unity of government in a vast empire, a force of more dominating influence in peace, and a vigor of enterprise more irresistible in war, the federal form is perhaps better adapted to preserve without display, liberty at home and peace abroad.


—Among the various forms of confederation the Germans draw a sharp distinction between a federal state (bundesstaat) and a confederation of states (staatenbund). The former constitutes, like the United States or Switzerland, an absolute unity in relation to foreign states; the second preserves to its members, as did the Germanic confederation, a certain amount of independence and the essential attributes of sovereignty. But these are not the only forms which history has recorded—History. If we limit ourselves to the examples of antiquity, it would appear that this form was especially adapted to the government of small peoples, among whom the individual power of confederate cities was not capable of the sustained effort of violent struggles, and sought rather an equilibrium through a balance of social powers. The history of ancient Greece offers, in brief, examples of most of the combinations possible in federal government. A delegation of all or a part of political power to assemblies whose members represent each fraction of the confederate state, is of the essence of this form of government; and by this very fact it was destined to lead to that other form of government called, in our modern times, representative, constitutional or parliamentary; but, in the representative governments of modern times, the different assemblies often represent, either distinct categories of national interests, or different strata of the same people. This is a more advanced and scientific form than that of those assemblies, those diets, those federal congresses, in which each member represented only a territorial fraction of the country.


—We have said that it was in the nature of federal governments to be organized for resistance rather than for attack, for peace rather than for war, or at least more for defensive war than for war of conquest. The history of ancient as well as modern times teaches this. It was by heroic resistance to the aggressions of the Persian kings, that confederated Greece began to win a name in the world; but when these cities, whose union had been their strength, were arrayed against each other, they wasted in a hundred battles, without decisive result and almost without glory, their genius, their blood and their treasure. Macedonia became conqueror, in turn, only after having subjected Greece itself to the sceptre of Philip, and then of Alexander. It was by confederating to shake off this domestic yoke that what was left of ancient Greece, under the name of the Achæan league, found some little energy afterward to resist the Romans, and not to succumb without glory. This leads us to define more closely the difference between confederations which belong to public law and those which belong to the laws of nations. There is no policy in the world which invoked treaty rights oftener, and made more frequent mention of confederations and alliances, than the Roman policy, even in the very midst of its wars of invasion and conquest. Can we, nevertheless, say that this policy, even in a nominal sense, ever admitted the principle of reciprocal independence and equality, on which the confederations recognized by international law are founded? Doubtless not; for, instead of this equality, they laid down as a principle the supreme authority of the Roman senite, to finally decide on the fate of kings and peoples. The different kinds of confederations or of alliances which it distinguished with scientific minuteness and subtlety, were merely the successive stages through which foreign nations had to pass in order to reach gradual absorption into the great Roman nationality. The alliance proposed to them under pompons names was merely an invitation to slavery.


—We must go back to ancient times, to the establishment of the Amphictyonic council, to discover the earliest origin of those diets to which the sovereign states sent their representative deputies to come to an understanding as to certain common interests, such, for example, as respect to be shown sacred things, and the settlement of quarrels between different tribes. From the point of view of international law, as well as that of moral philosophy, we certainly find in Greece more facts which seem to approach the civilization of modern times than in any other country. But to the Christian era belongs the honor of having developed, and, so to speak, fixed, this great principle of the union of nations, under the influence of mutual sympathy, acquired above all from a community of morals and religious beliefs, and capable of producing a political equilibrium between states. The advent of this new law is connected with the great religions movement of the crusades; and it is a remarkable fact that this first confederation of Christian peoples took place without preliminary agreement and without a treaty. The same feeling of faith, the common danger with which the encroachments of Islamism threatened Christianity, sufficed to unite so many different peoples under the banner of the cross, which was the banner of civilization and liberty. The crusades might resemble aggression, but they were in reality only resistance; for it was to prevent the invasion of Europe that they carried the war to the shores of Asia of Africa; and the recapture of the holy places was, in the eyes of Catholics, no more than a getting back of their legitimate territory. The councils, in which bishops representing the states of the whole Catholic world sat with an equal title, inaugurated the régime of collective deliberation which followed the reign of military force. This equilibrium and concert could, in the period we mention, be found only in religious society; for, in the political order, feudalism developed everywhere the opposite principle, that of antagenism and war.


—The feudal régime constituted, it is true, a species of confederation, but one founded on a hierarchy of vassalage, that is to say, of subordination and dependence, and not on the principle of parity or equality of rank and power. And still, as at each degree of this hierarchy there existed a legitimate share of rights which, by its expansive force, tended to increase its authority and assure its independence; as there was, also, at the summit of every feudal system a suzerainty which tended to reduce, under its absolute authority, all its vassals, by decreasing or suppressing their respective rights—there resulted from these conflicts of rights certain transactions which, in time, created in Germany a political confederation, in which parts unequal in territory and in power co-operated in a federal diet for the direction of certain affairs of common interest.


—The Helvctic confederation is one which, on a territory as narrow as that of the ancient republics of Greece, seems to reproduce best a certain image of them, by the glorious conquest of its independence; by the hereditary bravery of its troops; by its political attitude, ordinarily calm and dignified, though sometimes agitated by the ardor of democratic passions; finally, by that delegation of a part of the central authority to a diet, long since removed from Lucerne to Berne and Zurich, as the Amphictyonic council was transferred from the temple of Delphi to the little village of Anthela. (See SWITZERLAND)


—Like Switzerland, the United Provinces of the Netherlands have shown the power of a system of confederated states, either in establishing its own independence, or in defending it against concerted and violent attacks. Each province in the Netherlands was seen to constitute a state, with its own administration and government, although, in their relations with foreign nations, the states general of the United Provinces were considered as a single power, enjoying sovereign honors; and this separation of individual states, united only by the bonds of political confederation, continued even when the union had given itself a hereditary chief under the name of stadtholder.


—The Hanseatic league resembled a commercial association rather than a political confederation, and still it has played a part in history to be compared with that of a power of the first order. In this regard this power had some resemblance to that great English East India Company, which we have seen even in our days, organized as a state, accomplishing great deeds in peace and war, and conquering for England one of the vastest empires of the world. But the East India company was only a national institution holding its privileges from the crown of England, under the form of a government, which, having created this powerful organization, finally absorbed it in the state itself. The Hanseatic league, on the contrary, at a time when the governments of Europe were not sufficiently well organized for the defense of private interests, presented a strange assemblage of cities, only a few of which belonged to themselves, and the greater number of which formed portions of various states. These cities, united by an agreement based on a similarity of interests, had derived their rights, real or alleged, not from their own governments, but from their own initiative. These rights, which in the beginning had been only those of mutual assurance, or petition to obtain from foreign governments guarantees of protection or privileges of commerce, were extended so far as to make war on states which refused to submit to their commercial exactions; but the ties which united the heterogeneous parts of so complex a whole, were loosened under the pressure of interests contrary to those which had created them; and this great artificial body dissolved of itself, according as the governments with which the various groups of Hanseatic towns were connected acquired more force, and obliged them to return, as subjects, to the duties of dependents. Three self-governing cities (Hamburg, Bremen, Lubeck) alone preserved the name of this great federal league, without retaining any of its power.


—Although at the same period the maritime cities of Italy appeared to present the spectacle of diminutive states divided from each other by rivalries and hatreds, there was, nevertheless, a common tendency which caused the greater number of these cities to understand the necessity of uniting against the ambitious enterprises of the emperors. The sentiment of national independence gave birth then to the party of the Guelphs, "who," says Ancillon, "beheld with pleasure the spiritual power of the pope checking the progress of the temporal power of the emperor."


—We have seen that in antiquity the federal form seemed better adapted to small republics than to great states; but, in modern times, the history of America furnishes a proof of the vast proportions which a federal government may take, especially if it is formed of successive additions of new colonies, which, in proportion as they are born to political life, have only to attach themselves to a ready-made government, whose framework seems fitted to receive them, with their most marked inequalities. The same example is sufficient to make us appreciate the distance which separates a federal but unitary state from a confederation of distinct states. This distance may appear small in terminology, since the same word, that of state, designates the collective or central state and the particular states of which the body politic is composed; but, no matter how much that portion of the powers retained in common is weakened by the subtraction of that part reserved to each of the states united under a federal government, the very violence of the civil war of which America was the theatre during four years shows what power the federal bonds possess, since they supported, without breaking, the tension of a struggle the greatest and most envenomed ever seen in the new world, and because, in issuing from this terrible crisis, resources which, had served to maintain so many armies could be employed for the active reparation, during peace, of the ruins and disasters of the war.


—Former Spanish America, like English America, has had its examples of confederate states, either to shake off the yoke of the mother country, or to work at organizing themselves into regular governments under various republican forms, recognizing the common authority of a congress, a president, or a dictator. The most celebrated were the confederation of Central America and that of the United Provinces of Rio de la Plata. But these aggregations of provinces, already many times modified in their composition and their elements, have more resemblance to a transitory than a definite form of government. We can not find in them either the cohesion, the force, or the permanency, of the United States of North America.


General Considerations. Above these special confederations, destined to uphold in the bosom of a composite state, what George de Martens calls individual equilibrium (équilibre particulier), should there not be, among civilized nations of the modern world, other confederate ties contributing to maintain the general equilibrium of peoples? It is in Christian Europe that, for the first time since the establishment of human society, we find realized on a large scale a system of states connected together, not by bonds of dependence or of subordination, but by their independence itself, their sympathies, tendencies and common interests, and, above all, by a conformity of religious beliefs and moral doctrines borrowed from the same divine source, the gospel. This union has been called the European system, political balance, etc. Ancillon would have liked to call it a system of counter-forces. The name of Christian confederation, which George de Martens gives it, would seem more appropriate; for evidently this system tends already to pass beyond the boundaries of Europe, since great Christian and independent states have been formed in the other hemisphere. Will there not be later only one equilibrium, only a single system? or will there be formed beyond the Atlantic an American equilibrium, as there has existed a European equilibrium since the sixteenth century? Without entering on the discussion of these questions of the future, let us say, that, in this great European system, based on an equality of rights, there is still, by the force of things, an inequality of position, of power and of influence. The title of great power, which at first was but the enunciation of a fact, has become almost a hierarchic degree at the summit of the Christian confederation. The admission of a new power into this sacred number, which for half a century seemed to constitute a sort of European pentarchy, has been spoken of and treated as a privilege. The secondary powers have doubtless, in principle, the same right to have their independence respected, but, in practice, this right has succumbed more than once before the ambition of great states. The partition of Poland is one of the saddest examples of this. However it be, this system, resting on mutual independence, may be accidentally disturbed by war. Further, the greater part of European wars have as pretext or object there-establishment of the system whenever the ambition of a single people threatens to destroy it in the interest of that people. The formation of leagues of attack or defense enters, then, as an indispensable element, into such a system, and the composition of these leagues should be modified according to the nature of the danger to be warded off.


—If it is merely a question of resisting the ambitious projects of a power desiring disproportionate increase through conquest, the confederation of other powers menaced by these projects would assume, above all, the character of a political struggle. Thus, the first European league to which is referred the origin of a system of forces balanced by war in case of need, is that which was formed against France when Charles VIII. attempted the conquest of Italy (1495); as the object of the last coalition was to repress the encroachments of Russia on the Bosphorus (Anglo-French war, terminated by the treaty of 1856). In the interval, which comprises more than three centuries and a half, how often have the states of Europe entered into successive coalitions in groups variously composed, either to reduce the power of Venice (league of Cambrai, 1508), or to oppose the conquering enterprises of Louis XIV. (triple alliance of 1663; league of Augsburg, 1686), or to prevent Charles XII. from invading the European continent for the benefit of Sweden (great alliance of the north, 1697), or to combat the military preponderance of France under the first empire (European coalitions of 1806, 1807, 1809).


—Again, to the political interests in restoring the material equilibrium of states, has been added the moral interest of maintaining or giving preponderance to the principle of justice or liberty. It was thus, in the name of religious liberty, that the league of Smalkalde (1530) was formed against Charles V., and that up to the nineteenth century those bloody struggles were renewed or continued, the political result of which was to weaken the power of the house of Austria, and to create a counterpoise to it in the rivalry of Protestant Prussia.


—It was in the name of liberty of the seas that the neutral powers agreed at different times to resist the maritime preponderance of England (league of armed neutrality of 1780 and of 1800).


—On the contrary, it was in the name of monarchic interests that the sovereigns of Europe made a coalition, in 1791, against the French revolution (coalition of Pilnitz); and, later, they adorned with the name of holy alliance (1815) that remodeling of Europe in which the victorious monarchs did not take sufficient account of the power of these principles which had excited so many wars and which must grow still stronger in times of peace. (See CONGRESS; ALLIANCE, THE HOLY).


—By the side of the armed leagues which, for the purpose of restoring the compromised equilibrium, often subjected it to new perils, there are others altogether pacific in their organization and in their object. these are commercial unions, or customs unions. The Zollverein is a remarkable instance of these in our day. It has shown what may be expected from the development of internal industry and commerce, in drawing neighboring states together, giving victory to uniformity of interests over rivalries of every kind, and, through certain lines of custom houses, suppressing many causes of conflict and war. Instead of banding together to increase their territory by means of conquest, we could wish that states might associate to develop, through the power of national industry, their internal resources! Everything is benefit and profit in these conquests of peace, while those of war exhaust the finances of the state as well as the blood of the people. (See ALLIANCE, THE HOLY.)


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