Friday, February 15, 2008

Federalism, Anti-Federalism and States' Rights

People today tend to think that it was after the ratifying of the constitution that individual states gave way to a single ‘nation.’ It would be more accurate to say that the Constitution was designed to keep the States separate. This is because the Constitution was based on the political philosophy known as federalism.

The Federalists wanted a strong central government, for purposes of defence, but with most powers remaining with the states. The Federalists included prominent figures such as Alexander Hamilton and initially James Madison. Madison (picture below), though originally one of the more centralist-leaning of the founders, called the Constitution “a compact between the States in their sovereign capacity.” Elsewhere Madison said:

The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite… The operations of the federal government will be most extensive and important in times of war and danger; those of the State governments, in times of peace and security. As the former periods will probably bear a small proportion to the latter, the State governments will here enjoy another advantage over the federal government.” [James Madison, Federalist #45]

Secession and States Rights

Because Madison believed the states retained sovereignty, he believed that secession was in principle possible, such as in occasions when force was used against a state. It is clear that Madison didn't believe America possessed the kind of metaphysical indivisibility that would later be accepted as axiomatic. Madison said: “The use of force against the [individual] state would probably be considered by the party attacked as a dissolution of all previous compacts by which it might be bound.” (Quotation taken from HERE)

To say there can be a ‘dissolution of all previous compacts by which [the state] might be bound’ is simply to say that states can secede from the union. This seems to have been taken for granted by many, if not all, the founding fathers on the grounds that the union only existed in the first place because each state had voluntarily chosen to be part of it.

Related to this was the fact that the federalists favoured a very limited national government. In Federalist # 28, Alexander Hamilton (pictured left) wrote, “It may safely be received as an axiom in our political system, that the state governments will in all possible contingencies afford complete security against invasions of the public liberty by the national authority.

Alexis de Tocqueville, the Frenchman who wrote about his observations of American democracy in the 19th century, referred to the founding of America by saying: “The Union was formed by the voluntary agreement of the states; and these, in uniting together, have not forfeited their nationality, nor have they been reduced to the condition of one and the same people will stop if one of the states chose to withdraw its name from the contract, it would be difficult to disprove its rights to do so.” (Tocqueville, Democracy in America)

Despite the provisions that Federalism made to preserve the self-government of the various states, the Anti-Federalists (also called Republicans at the time), such as Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson believed that the Federalists were not going far enough. Anti-Federalists believed that all sovereign power should remain with the states, except for very few ‘enumerated’ powers specifically delegated to the federal government.

Thomas Jefferson argued that it would be preferable for states to break away from the union rather than continue as part of something that might threaten their self-government.

[We should be] determined…to sever ourselves from the union we so much value rather than give up the rights of self-government…in which alone we see liberty, safety and happiness.” (Thomas Jefferson, letter to Madison in August 1799)

And again Jefferson wrote: “If any state in the Union will declare that it prefers separation... to a continuance in union... I have no hesitation in saying, 'let us separate.'” (Thomas Jefferson, letter to W. Crawford, June 20, 1816)

The conviction – held in varying degrees by both the Federalists and the Anti-federalists – that States are better governing themselves instead of being subject to central control, was enshrined in the constitution. The constitution was intended to make it impossible for the federal government to limit the self-government of the states. That will be the topic of the next post.

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