Forgetting Federalism

“That government is best which governs least.” Thomas Paine

Today the United States Government spends trillions of dollars annually, on everything from prescription drugs to teapot museums. It already exerts significant control over the relationships between doctors and patients, and Congress is grasping for still more power over the health care industry. The government owns banks and car companies. It confiscates money from unpopular businesses and groups of people, and transfers some of the money (after infrastructure costs) to more-favored business and groups.

The government uses taxpayers’ money to buy corn, then “lends” more tax dollars to third world governments that have no ability to repay the “loans,” so those governments can buy the corn from the US government with US money. It levies punitive taxes on cigarette sales, and subsidizes tobacco growers. For a while in the 1990’s the government forbid condom companies to advertise their products on television, while spending taxpayers’ money on TV adds to promote condom use. The national government dictates the marijuana laws your state has to implement, the curriculum at your local public schools, and the amount of water your toilet can use when it flushes.
It wasn’t always this way.

The men who wrote up the US Constitution in 1787 did not view centralized government power as the solution to every problem. Far from it. The representatives of the thirteen states of the original union viewed government in general as a source of all kinds of evil; and a big, centralized government as most dangerous of all. The Constitution they wrote reserved control of most issues for the states, and granted power to the federal government only in clearly defined and limited areas.

Even this much centralization of power was controversial among the American people of the eighteenth century; there were many people who opposed ratification of the Constitution because they thought that even the limited powers granted to the proposed federal government were too great. Those who supported ratification (the big-government leftists of their day) were called Federalists.  Those who opposed ratification of the Constitution, the right wingers of that era, were called Anti-Federalists.

What the Textbooks Say

History professors typically gloss over the differences between the role the Founding Fathers had in mind for the federal government, and the role it actually occupies in the twenty-first century. In the freshman history textbook Give Me Liberty, for example, author Eric Foner portrays the right and left wings of 1787 politics as being similar to the political factions we see today. He must know how false this is, but it is apparently what he wants the next generation of American voters to believe. In describing the Constitution’s division of powers between state and federal government, Dr. Foner tells his readers that “This principle of divided sovereignty was a recipe for debate, which continues to this day, over the balance of power between the national government and the states.” (Italics added.)

Eight pages later Dr. Foner reiterates this point. The Anti-Federalist movement died out when the Constitution was ratified, he tells us. “But as with other movements in American history that did not immediately achieve their goals…some of the Anti-Federalists’ ideas eventually entered the political mainstream. To this day, their belief that a too-powerful central government is a threat to liberty continues to influence American political culture.”

The truth is very different. During the last hundred years the federal government has arrogated so much power that it can no longer even be accurately called a “federal” government. It is no longer just a confederation of independent states; it is a centralized national government that controls the lives of the American people directly. It has become precisely the kind of government that leaders of both sides of the ratification debates of the 1780’s opposed.

George Mason and Anti-Federalism

In 1787 Anti-Federalists like George Mason warned that if the states ratified the Constitution the US government would be “a National Government, and no longer a confederation.” Prior to ratification of the Constitution the federal government had to depend on the legislatures of the respective states for money. The Constitution granted to the federal government the power to levy taxes directly, and Mason viewed this as a dangerous usurpation:  “The assumption of this power of laying direct taxes, does of itself, entirely change the confederation of the States into one consolidated Government.”… “The very idea of converting what was formerly a confederation, to a consolidated Government, is totally subversive of every principle which has hitherto governed us.”   

Despite what Professor Foner says, no modern politician has any interest in promoting the point of view of the Anti-Federalist faction of 1787. The Anti-Federalists opposed ratification of the US Constitution on the grounds that even the very limited powers it claims for the federal government were too great. They opposed the institution of the office of the President, they opposed the creation of the Senate and House of Representatives, they opposed the creation of the federal courts, and they opposed giving the federal government the power to levy taxes directly.

The Federalists, on the other hand,  pushed for ratification of the Constitution; but they argued very passionately and convincingly that there would be no danger of the Constitution, if ratified, allowing the federal government to intrude into the business of the state governments. Like their rivals the Anti-Federalists, they have very little in common most of today’s politicians.

Hamilton and the Federalists

In Federalist Paper #32, Alexander Hamilton addressed the concerns of Anti-Federalist skeptics like George Mason. “The State governments,” Hamilton said, “would clearly retain all the rights of sovereignty which they before had, and which were not, by that act, exclusively delegated to the United States.” (Italics in the original.)

In Federalist Paper #39, Hamilton states “Each State, in ratifying the Constitution, is considered as a sovereign body independent of all others, and only to be bound by its own voluntary act. In this relation, then, the new Constitution will, if established, be a federal and not a national constitution.” (Italics in the original.)

Alexander Hamilton was the biggest advocate of big government in eighteenth century America, and even he was eager to limit the scope of the federal government to narrowly defined powers and responsibilities.  He did not contradict George Mason’s position on the rights of the states; he merely promised that the proposed Constitutional government would respect those rights.

Nearly half a century later French bureaucrat Alexis de Tocqueville would tour the United States and observe that the division of powers Hamilton had promised was still in effect. There were twenty-four states by then, and they still retained their prerogatives. “In short,” Tocqueville said, “there are twenty-four small sovereign nations, whose agglomeration constitutes the body of the Union.”1  Tocqueville went on to describe in detail the clearly separated responsibilities of the state and federal governments, which were just what Hamilton had described in the Federalist Papers.

Redefining the Terms of Debate

How different things are today. Only a handful of the most conservative Republicans in modern-day politics would even suggest cutting the federal government back down to the limited role envisioned for it by the left wing Federalist party of the 1780’s. Those who do are disparaged as “right wing extremists.”

There is a group called the Federalist Society that advocates a return to the division of powers between state and federal government that the original Federalists spelled out in the Constitution. The society was “founded on the principles that the state exists to preserve freedom, that the separation of governmental powers is central to our Constitution, and that it is emphatically the province and duty of the judiciary to say what the law is, not what it should be.”  

Today this position is considered so controversial that the a nominee for federal office can be disparaged as a radical if he can be shown to have been involved with the Federalist Society. In 2005, for example, when John Roberts was a nominee for the US Supreme Court, the Democratic Party accused him of having been associated with the Federalist Society. This would make Roberts unsuitable for the Supreme Court, the Democrats said, because “Working with the Federalist Society would reveal an extremist right wing philosophy.”

Scholars and other leftist may like the idea of a very large, expensive, and paternalistic national government; but they should at least be honest enough to say that our Founding Fathers had something very different in mind when they wrote the Constitution.

1Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Bantam Classic paperback, p. 65

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3 thoughts on “Forgetting Federalism

  • Another great posting. Each one is so different than what we are all taught, not only in school, but by current media.
    Great examples in paragraph two – and a great history lesson.
    I look forward to the next posting!

  • Great post Al. But you left out how the government got so much power. “A power over a man’s subsistance amounts to a power over his will.” (Alexander Hamilton)

    They bribe you with your own money. Then they’ve got you.

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