Part Two. Federalist 18

[Part One can be found here.]

In Federalist 18, Madison turns his attention to two confederacies of ancient Greece, the Amphictyonic and Achaean Leagues, to examine “the instructive analogy to the present confederation of the American states.”

The purpose of the Amphictyonic League was primarily religious: to protect and preserve the shrines and the religious observances common to the member states. The Amphictyonic League had the authority to punish members who violated their religious oaths, either through fines, expulsion from the League, or “sacred war.” The First Sacred War (ca. 595 BCE), for example, arose when the Amphictyonic League declared war on the city of Kirrha, which was robbing pilgrims to the oracle at Delphi. All members of the League had equal representation on the Council, but in practice the larger and more powerful states, like Athens and Sparta, were able to a exert greater influence over the smaller and weaker members.

For Madison, the greatest weakness of the Amphictyonic League lay in this “internal dissention.” He writes:

It happened but too often, according to Plutarch, that the deputies of the strongest cities awed and corrupted those of the weaker; and that judgment went in favor of the most powerful party.

The eventual result of this internal dissension was that the League laid itself open to foreign influence:

As a weak government, when not at war, is ever agitated by internal dissentions, so these never fail to bring on fresh calamities from abroad. The Phocians having ploughed up some consecrated ground belonging to the temple of Apollo, the Amphictyonic council, according to the superstition of the age, imposed a fine on the sacrilegious offenders. The Phocians, being abetted by Athens and Sparta, refused to submit to the decree. The Thebans, with others of the cities, undertook to maintain the authority of the Amphictyons, and to avenge the violated god. The latter, being the weaker party, invited the assistance of Philip of Macedon, who had secretly fostered the contest. Philip gladly seized the opportunity of executing the designs he had long planned against the liberties of Greece. By his intrigues and bribes he won over to his interests the popular leaders of several cities; by their influence and votes, gained admission into the Amphictyonic council; and by his arts and his arms, made himself master of the confederacy.

The intervention of Philip of Macedon, occasioned by dissension between the members of the Amphictyonic League, brought Greece under the domination of a foreign power and marked the end of Greek freedom.

The same fate met the later Achaean League, in the Peloponnesus and Aetolia, as Macedon fostered dissention among its member states, leaving it vulnerable to the expanding power of Rome in the middle of the second century B.C.E.

The Amphictyonic League, according to Madison, was too loose a confederation between sovereign states, and fell to Philip of Macedon because of its failure to form “a closer union.” As far as Madison could learn from his sources (chiefly de Felice, Polybius, and another book from his Jeffersonian crate, D’Albon’s Sur l’interêt de plusieurs nations), the Achaean League was a stronger federal union, but also fell because the Romans stirred up dissention among its members. As he puts it succinctly in his Notes on Ancient and Modern Confederacies (citing de Felice as his source): “The defect of subjection in the members to the general authority ruined the whole Body. The Romans seduced the members from the League by representing that it violated their sovereignty.”

In both cases, attempts by constituent states to assert their individual sovereignty led to the dismemberment of the confederacy by a foreign power.

This threat—the threat of internal dissension leading to foreign intervention—was very much on Madison’s mind as he compiled his Notes on Ancient and Modern Confederacies in 1786. In the previous year, Congress had opened negotiations with Spain over opening its ports to American trade and setting the boundaries of American territory. In return, Spain wanted exclusive rights to navigation on the Mississippi River for a period of twenty years. The American negotiator was Madison’s eventual collaborator on The Federalist Papers, New York’s John Jay. The Spanish negotiator was Spain’s foreign minister, Don Diego de Gardoqui. The resulting Jay-Gardoqui Treaty favored the Northern states by opening the Spanish ports, but put the Southern states at a disadvantage by closing the Mississippi and cutting off western settlement. A sectional crisis threatened to dismember the union.

In August 1786, Madison wrote to Jefferson in Paris:

Passing by the other Southern States, figure to yourself the effect of such a stipulation on the Assembly of Virginia, already jealous of Northern politics, and which will be composed of about thirty members from the Western waters; of a majority of others attached to the Western Country from interests of their own, of their friend, or their constituent; and of many others who, though indifferent to Mississippi, will zealously play off the disgust of their friends against federal measures. Figure to yourself its effect on the people at large on the western waters, who are impatiently waiting for a favorable result to the negociation of Gardoqui, and who will consider themselves as sold by their Atlantic brethren.

What frightened Madison was the possibility that the Southern states, feeling themselves sold down the river by Jay-Gardoqui, would secede from the confederation and seek an alliance with Britain against the Northern states. Again, to Jefferson he wrote:

Will it be an unnatural consequence if they consider themselves absolved from every federal tie, and court some protection for their betrayed rights? This protection will appear more attainable from the maritime power of Britain than from any other quarter; and Britain will be more ready than any other nation to seize an opportunity of embroiling our affairs.

The analogy with the Achaean League must have been particularly alive to him: the Achaeans, softened up and thrown into disarray by Macedon, and finished off by Rome; America, softened up and thrown into disarray by Spain, and finished off by Britain.

Madison concludes his letter to Jefferson with a request for another book: “The catalogues sent by Mr. Skipwith I do not expect to receive till I get back to Virginia. If you meet with Graecorum Respublicae ab Ubbone Emmio descriptse, Sugd. Batavorum, 1632, pray get it for me.” The book, written by late sixteenth-century German scholar Ubbo Emmius, became one of Madison’s principle sources for information about the Achaean League.


Federalist 18, and the lessons to be drawn from the ancient Greek confederacies, is discussed at length in a recent book by David J. Bederman, The Classical Foundations of the American Constitution: Prevailing Wisdom (Cambridge University Press 2008). Bederman is a professor at Emory University School of Law, and approaches the subject both as a lawyer and a classicist, looking for the practical impact classical ideas had upon the structure of the Constitution, and for the relevance of those classical ideas for modern Constitutional issues such as executive privilege. A review of Bederman’s book will be forthcoming on EcBlogue: A Classics Blog.